Thursday, November 20, 2014

(Audio)book review: An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

Written and read by: Chris Hadfield

Published: 2013

Synopsis: Colonel Chris Hadfield has spent decades training as an astronaut and has logged nearly 4000 hours in space. During this time he has broken into a Space Station with a Swiss army knife, disposed of a live snake while piloting a plane, and been temporarily blinded while clinging to the exterior of an orbiting spacecraft. The secret to Col. Hadfield's success-and survival-is an unconventional philosophy he learned at NASA: prepare for the worst-and enjoy every moment of it.

In An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, Col. Hadfield takes readers deep into his years of training and space exploration to show how to make the impossible possible. Through eye-opening, entertaining stories filled with the adrenaline of launch, the mesmerizing wonder of spacewalks, and the measured, calm responses mandated by crises, he explains how conventional wisdom can get in the way of achievement-and happiness. His own extraordinary education in space has taught him some counterintuitive lessons: don't visualize success, do care what others think, and always sweat the small stuff.

You might never be able to build a robot, pilot a spacecraft, make a music video or perform basic surgery in zero gravity like Col. Hadfield. But his vivid and refreshing insights will teach you how to think like an astronaut, and will change, completely, the way you view life on Earth-especially your own.

“If you start thinking that only your biggest and shiniest moments count, you're setting yourself up to feel like a failure most of the time.”

Maybe it's corny, but I truly feel like there isn't anything truly outside my grasp. Obviously it's highly unlikely that I'm about to become prime minister or the next Angelina Jolie, but I can get in the ballpark (or at least in the carpark next door to the ballpark). I could get involved in local politics or try my hand at community theatre. I can take tours of studios and Government House and at least get a good idea of what it would be like to fill those shoes. But space is an entirely different kettle of fish. I could visit NASA and take astronomy classes and visit every space exhibit at every museum on the planet and it won't come close to life in space. It's utterly unachievable unless you dedicate your life to becoming an astronaut, and as much as I'd love to look down on Earth from space that was never a career for me.

Which I think is the main reason Chris Hadfield has become such an internet success. He brings space to the masses, whether by crying into a camera to show us how tears work in zero gravity or by writing a book that  gives an incredibly thorough look at the business of being an astronaut. He's such a genial guy that it's hard not to get swept up in his excitement when he talks about smiling so hard at his first launch that his face ached or empathise when he recounts how hard it is to be the family of an astronaut. A great deal of this book is about confronting people's stereotypes of this particular career. Like how much money it costs to launch people into space and what it actually achieves. While Hadfield is clearly passionate, he also doesn't completely let go of his objectivity, especially when it comes to money.
“Many people object to “wasting money in space” yet have no idea how much is actually spent on space exploration. The CSA’s budget, for instance, is less than the amount Canadians spend on Halloween candy every year, and most of it goes toward things like developing telecommunications satellites and radar systems to provide data for weather and air quality forecasts, environmental monitoring and climate change studies. Similarly, NASA’s budget is not spent in space but right here on Earth, where it’s invested in American businesses and universities, and where it also pays dividends, creating new jobs, new technologies and even whole new industries.”
Not only are there misconceptions about what astronauts do, but I think there is a large gap between who actually becomes an astronaut and who Hollywood leads us to believe is right for the job. Because of its exclusivity, astronauts have always seemed sort of larger than life. They're space cowboys, explorers in a new frontier. Even though I know they have to be incredibly intelligent, I always imagine them as kind of jock-y. Macho and tough and tall. Visual cues that I think probably have a lot to do with the people hired to play astronauts in the not-even-close-to-realistic sci-fi movies. So I found it fascinating that Chris Hadfield sounds like any guy I'd see walking down the street. You mean he doesn't faintly glow and hover off the ground? Or have muscles as insane as The Rock? Not only that but Hadfield manages to make being an astronaut sound...dull. And I don't mean that the book or Hadfield's narration is dull - I was captivated from start to finish, but life as an astronaut is nothing like the movies. Being an astronaut actually rarely involves going into space. And whether or not you do, it's ruled by rules and safety checks and infinitesimal tiny details. It sounds so repetitive and ordinary.

And while I'm sure some people would consider that a negative, I think it's a huge positive. Working for NASA, whether as an astronaut or in some other role, is a totally achievable job. Yes it's a competitive field, but you don't have to be Superman to be hired. And I think that's a fantastic lesson to impart on kids. Astronaut is so often the job kids say they want, but it's also considered this entirely mythical position for only a special few chosen people. Hadfield brings the profession back down to Earth. Yes you need to work hard. Yes you need to be passionate. Yes you need to be intelligent. But the things most worth doing are the things you have to work for.

Hadfield manages to combine personal anecdotes about college and marriage and parenthood with stories about life on the ISS and working in Cape Canaveral and a motivation self-help book. While I loved learning about life in space and the career path that led to it, it was Hadfield's mentality that I think I'll take away from this book. There's a reason this book is called "an astronaut's guide to life on earth," while some of the advice may be a little intense for life as a retail clerk or banker, the general attitude and lesson that the advice aims to impart can benefit anyone. 
“In any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn't tip the balance one way or the other. Or you'll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value. Everyone wants to be a plus one, of course. But proclaiming your plus-oneness at the outset almost guarantees you'll be perceived as a minus one, regardless of the skills you bring to the table or how you actually perform.”
Each chapter, or there about, centres around these kernels of advice. From "sweat the small stuff" to "aim to the a zero", Hadfield discusses how these have helped be a better astronaut, a better husband and a better father. Perhaps most importantly though, he describes his failures, both personal and professional, and how he moved past them. Combine all of this advice with an amazing career and a really, really nice guy and you've got a really great read on your hands.


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