Ground control to Captain Hadfield

I was lucky to see Chris Hadfield speak a while ago. It was an excellent presentation, with some incredible stories. It’s been a while since I got goosebumps listening to a live speech, but I did when I heard Hadfield.

On the strength of that I ordered a copy of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, although with a little hesitation. I was afraid it’d be cheesy, filled with truisms about the universe and attempts to stretch space metaphors too far. It wasn’t. It’s actually quite a good book, and I’d recommend it as a read; maybe not life changing, but definitely worth starting to see if you like it.

There were a couple of things that I really liked about it. Let me start with what could have gone terribly wrong, but didn’t.

The writing was good. I didn’t see any tributes to a ghost-writer, and I’m not sure how much Hadfield wrote himself. But regardless, it’s well written. The prose style isn’t why you’d read the book, but it manages to be good enough to not get in the way of the story. And it does a delightful job of carrying the small things; the morning of waking up to ride a rocket, the realisation that something’s gone wrong in space – Hadfield tells those things well. Which isn’t a small achievement; we’ve all read terrible books where the awful writing destroys a good story; this isn’t one of them, so props to Hadfield and appropriate co-authors/editors.

The other thing that could have gone terribly wrong was the author’s voice. There’s a lovely humility in the writing. Hadfield comes across as a very approachable person, which is impressive for someone with his extensive resume.

Part of why that works is what Hadfield talks about. Because the book is about space, but it’s much more about Hadfield’s journey to space, and some of his experiences along the way. And in telling that story, Hadfield’s willing to both talk about what has been difficult, and to try to distil some of the strategies that have worked well for him. It’s here that he runs a real risk of either stretching his material too far, or simply serving up truisms. But because he keeps it simple, and uses good situations and stories, it works really well.

Hadfield talks about all the factors involved in being an astronaut; all the challenges, the years spent in training, and the countless risks that can derail your journey (health, random chance, geopolitics).

Success is feeling good about the work you do throughout the long, unheralded journey that may or may not wind up at the launch pad. You can’t view training solely as a stepping stone to something loftier. It’s got to be an end in itself …

Ultimately, I don’t determine whether I arrive at the desired professional destination. Too many variables are out of my control. There’s really just one thing I can control: my attitude during the journey, which is what keeps me feeling steady and stable, and what keeps me headed in the right direction. So I consciously monitor and correct, if necessary, because losing attitude would be far worse than not achieving my goal. 

This reflection on strategies, and approaches to life that he’s found useful as an astronaut, are scattered throughout the book. Someone has already conveniently put together a list of life lessons from Hadfield’s book (but wait, there’s another list! and a collection of quotes). Some of the ideas I liked the most were his focus on always preparing as much as possible for different situations; his -1/0/+1 (try to be innocuous in new situations; it’s often a better accomplishment than trying to come across well in the first encounters, and looking foolish), and his recognition of the importance of teamwork, and giving others space.

Another strength of the book is the topic material. It’s about space!, and it’s Really. Really. Interesting. He talks about the experience of being an astronaut; the mundane matters of how to take a piss (cleaning up after yourself in zero gravity sounds complicated), to the awe-inspiring (space walks, and looking out over earth), and the challenging (preparing for space walks without any notice). And these fascinating stories are scattered throughout, and they’re excellent.

An area that I felt was perhaps a little underdone is his discussion of family. He talks about the amount of work that goes into putting an astronaut in space, including the impact on family. While there are acknowledgements, there are also stories that suggest that his work put a real strain on his family life. I don’t know the underlying story there, and perhaps his family wanted as little attention as possible; but it might have been nice if there’d been a clearer acknowledgement of what his work had done to his family, and how it had impacted them.

I’ll share a final quote that I particularly enjoyed, simply because it made me laugh out loud. When talking about his launch in a Soyuz, and the process leading up to it, he mentions visitors coming to see him off. Which is a major step, because ‘Kazakhstan is not easy to get to unless you live in Kyrgyzstan’.

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