Book Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield.


Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Macmillan; Main Market Ed. edition (29 Oct. 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1447257103

Perhaps one day in the future someone will ask an astronaut what inspired them to want to go to Space, and it isn’t hard to imagine them replying, “I read a book by Chris Hadfield”. In the past allot of people would say I saw the moon landing on TV, it was the iconic moment that had almost every kid saying “When I grow up I wanna be an Astronaut”, and it is where the author started, only this guy meant it.

Hadfield’ guide to life on Earth is three books in one. On one level its a memoir of his career as an Astronaut in the Shuttle age and at the start of the Soyez era. On a second level its a book of answers for every Space fan who ever wanted to ask “How do you do this in Space” but never had time at the book signing or symposium. And third, you realise it’s sort of a motivational self help book.

What do you do if you go blind during a Spacewalk? How do you get a bee out of your helmet when you’re flying a jet? How do you keep fit in Space? How do you make a music video in zero Gravity? What do you pack for a Spaceflight (Spoiler; a Swiss Army knife comes in handy)? What do you do if you find a snake under your chair while on a cross country flight? What does it take mentally and physically to become an Astronaut? What are the costs? All these questions and many more you’ve never even thought to ask are included in this open hearted, humorously anecdotal and touchingly humble walk through the ups and downs of the turbulent, yet sometimes mundane life of a rocket man.

While we travel along, following Hadfield’s course to dream fulfilment, he dispenses the benefit of what he’s learned along the way. How to shoot for your goals, how to excel, how to be a productive member of a team, how to focus on what’s important, how do deal with the ups and downs, the high points and the low. Hadfield uses what he calls “Pre launch” to explain how he became an Astronaut, the subtext of which, while not perhaps going to make you able to fix a robotic arm while clinging to a space station, might just help you to stop at you next hurdle, pause and think about “How I can work this problem?” “What can kill me next?”, and instantly you will have begun thinking like an Astronaut.

The advice is largely counterintuitive, and it won’t be for everyone and will leave some readers puzzled about how a non astronaut, or non highly motivated, goal oriented achiever can apply it, but that’s life, and the book assumes you know what you want and were you’re going. That being said, I’m not a self help expert but I think the little gems that come out of nearly every story will have something in them for allot of people. Even if it’s just how to bring an expeditionary mindset to what you do.

Chris Hadfield writes in an easy, sitting down with an old friend kind of way. His enthusiasm and communication skills translate sometimes complex situations easily into plain terms, while still retaining the technical detail we want to read about. Perhaps predictably he takes his time to answer some of the well worn questions about space. How one keeps clean and especially how one goes to the bathroom is covered in detail. Exciting and fascinating as the launch phase is, I think most people will find the “Coming Down to Earth” 3rd part, the most poignant. Not because Chris is remorseful in any way, far from it, but because he describes the descent of the Soyez, and the effects of recovering from long term life in Space with such impressive detail.

I was never one of those Space kids, sure I had plastic astronauts, an action man with a Space suit, some stickers on the window in front of my homework desk but I never actually had a desire to go to Space (I hated and still fear some types of heights, though comfortingly so does Chris). That impossible dream came about after seeing the Space Live TV show, coupled with a ride on Mission Space, and re watching Apollo 13. However being an Astronaut is probably out of the question for most of us who didn’t decide at the age of 9 they were going to try for it, at this stage my height would preclude me for a start (another thing you’ll learn in this book) though if NASA called me up and said “hey we want a tall writer to go into Space to do etc etc” I’m hardly going to say no.

But if we can’t go to Space, it doesn’t mean we can’t learn to think like those who can. Even in the most basic way. At its core the Space Agencies of all nations exist to further human knowledge and push the bounds of reason. This book mirrors that ideal and encompasses the example of how the exploration of the Galaxy can help us. An experienced Astronaut sharing the knowledge that he has collected over a remarkable career doing the most extreme job in the world, to not just help and inspire future astronauts, but to help people live to their full potential.

In many ways this book isn’t about Chris Hadfield, it’s about everyone else. The book begins with a boy looking at a grainy boot stepping onto a place no one had ever stepped before and ends with hugs for everyone who ever helped him. Undoubtedly this is a book out of this world, a frank, modest and compelling story that is part epic, part, motivation, part Space Oddity that will keep you trapped in its orbit to the last page.


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