An Astronaut’s Guide to Life, by Chris Hadfield

An-Astronauts-Guide-to-Life-on-Earth-664x1024(Random House, Canada, 2013)

Colonel Chris Hadfield made the subject of outer space popular in social media, while keeping it real. This is not sci-fi. This is real science, real space flights and real man’s stuff. I saw the video of him singing and playing guitar inside the International Space Station, and thought – like millions of people – Cool! I thought the man behind the autobiography should be cool too, and it turned out he is, and how!

As most people know, he is a retired Canadian astronaut who was the first Canadian to walk in space. An Engineer and former Royal Canadian Air Force fighter pilot, Hadfield flew two space shuttle missions and served as commander of the International Space Station. He lived on the station for five months, transferring control to Pavel Vinogradov and going back down to earth on 13 May 2013 – and then he retired and wrote this book.

This is like being the first man on the moon. Everyone remembers the name Neil Armstrong. But people generally don’t remember the other 11 people who also walked on the moon. (There’s even a Little Britain skit about that – the entirely unknown “Bing Gordyn, the eighth man on the moon”.) There are lists of astronauts and cosmonauts who got on with the business of outer space travel, but none, I reckon, have recently got the attention of ordinary people the way Chris Hadfield did. I agree that Hadfield is “perhaps the most social media savvy astronaut ever to leave Earth” – he has 1.1 million followers on Twitter; his Facebook page has 21,700 followers, and 673,400 likes (at 13 June 2014).

What’s he like?

All this may have nothing to do with what this man is: a very, very, very intelligent, balanced, multi-talented, hardworking and driven person. He worked, literally, from when he was a boy, to become an astronaut, studying, choosing careers, relocating, even, I suppose having a family, to reach his goal of space travel. The man was hell-bent, and the same time, he knew that he might never go, that the chances of success were really miniscule. If ever there were a case for eating healthy, going to bed early, doing your homework and staying away from drugs, this is it. When the opportunity came, he was the right man, in the right place.

This is the theme of the book – patience, endurance, focus. Endless training, endless memorization and practice of procedures, endless waiting, up to the point when the rocket blasts off. “My kids used to make fun of me for having more homework than they did and for taking it more seriously, too. But when the risks are real, you can’t wing it.” (p. 65) Humility and self-awareness and being real are crucial to being an astronaut: “…we’d just assumed that she was prepared. That was a big assumption given the North American subculture of pretense, where watching Top Chef is the same thing as knowing how to cook.” (p. 66) Hadfield is not a big fan of pretension, nor of excessive praise for mundane achievements. He believes if you reach the top of your field, then you deserve praise. For the rest, it’s keep on trying, but don’t say “good job” when it isn’t.

How’s his writing?

There are actually quite a few places in this book where I laughed out loud – really. Hadfield turns from a business-like, unpretentious depiction of what got him to outer space, to a lyrical style when describing his first glimpse. Who wouldn’t? So few have had that point of view and the writing skill to adequately convey their impression.

“Waiting for him I check behind me, to be sure I haven’t accidentally activated my backup tank of oxygen, and that’s when I notice the universe. The scale is graphically shocking, the colors, too. The incongruity is stupefying: there I was, inside a small box, but now – how is this possible. What’s coming out of my mouth is a single word: Wow. Only, elongated: Wwwooooowww.” (p. 89). You can almost feel his amazement.

Reading this book is a delightful trip, informative (down to the most embarrassing details of life off earth) and convincing, but especially fluently, naturally and expressively written. I couldn’t put it down – it was lovely.  

The man can sing too!

Here’s Chris Hadfield singing David Bowie’s “A Space Oddity” on board the ISS.

PS Food for thought

Here’s another very famous video of Chris Hadfield, performing I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing) while in the ISS, with Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies and a backing choir of The Wexford Gleeks singing along on earth.

Read the lyrics to I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing) – below

The title is a pun on International Space Station. The song premiered simultaneously on earth and in space. The words have meaning, and they’re scientifically accurate of course. The song was commissioned by and the Coalition for Music Education with the Canadian Space Agency to celebrate music education in schools across Canada. The video of school children across Canada singing this live, with Hadfield, is quite something. Give you a hefty lump in the throat, more so than listening to Oh, Canada. I caught myself happily singing along to the video – the lyrics are below. Go ahead, join in!

The lines “What once was fuelled by fear, Now has fifteen Nations orbiting together here” is a central idea in Hadfield’s autobiography. He makes it clear that, despite differences of all sorts, the representatives of all the different nations involved in the ISS have to cooperate. The ISS programme is a joint project among five participating space agencies: NASA, Roskosmos, JAXA, ESA, and CSA. He writes with particular respect of his Russian colleagues from whose base, Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan, he and his team blasted off.

The line “You can’t make out borders from up here” refers to Hadfield’s observation in his autobiography about the interesting visual patterns he saw from the ISS, which led to him creating pretty spectacular photos of earth. He put these on his Twitter feed, but they will also feature in his upcoming book, You Are Here, Around the World in 92 Minutes. The release date for the book is October 2014.

I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing)

Music by Ed Robertson, Lyrics by Chris Hadfield and Ed Robertson

On solid fuel and wires
Turn the key and light the fires
We’re leaving Earth today
This rocket’s burning bright
We’ll soon be out of sight
And orbiting in space

Pushed back in my seat
Look out my window
There goes home
That ball of shiny blue
Houses everybody anybody ever knew

So sing your song I’m listening
out where stars are glistening
I can hear your voices bouncing off the moon
If you could see our Nation
From the International Space Station
You’d know why I want to get back soon

All black and white just fades to grey
Where the sun rises sixteen times a day
You can’t make out borders from up here
Just a spinning ball within a tiny atmosphere

Eighteen thousand miles an hour
Fuelled by science and solar power
The oceans racing past
At half a thousand tons
Ninety minutes Moon to Sun
A bullet can’t go half this fast

Floating from my seat
Look out my window
There goes Home
That brilliant ball of blue
Is where I’m from, and also where I’m going to

Pushed back in my seat
Look out my window
Here comes home
What once was fuelled by fear
Now has fifteen Nations orbiting together here.