36. ‘An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth’ by Chris Hadfield

Recently I’ve been embracing a new-found obsession with space, and it has made me do something practically unheard of: I have read some non-fiction. When I was last visiting my parents I spotted Chris Hadfield’s book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, on their bookshelves, so I borrowed it and read it before any of the books I got for my birthday. Even the science-fiction!

chris hadfield an astronaut's guide to life on earth

Chris Hadfield is a Canadian astronaut who has worked as Director of NASA Operations in Russia, Chief of Robotics at the Johnson Space Center in the USA, and Commander of the International Space Station in … well, space. His book charts his life, from his early years when he first decided he wanted to be an astronaut (aged 9), to his last ever space flight and his retirement. Hadfield mixes humorous and moving anecdotes with hard-won wisdom about what it takes to be an astronaut, and what that wisdom can teach the rest of us about living happily on Earth.

First, let’s take a moment for the cool shit Chris Hadfield has done. In An Astronaut’s Guide we learn about the time he was rendered temporarily blind during an EVA (Extravehicular Activity – a spacewalk) on an orbiting spacecraft; his job as a test pilot, which involved putting planes into nosedives and working out how to fix them before hitting the ground; and his final departure from the ISS which involved an extremely bumpy landing on Earth, softened by padded seats that are designed so the astronauts’ backs don’t break upon impact. Plus, let us not forget that Hadfield was a pretty social media-friendly astronaut, Tweeting and making videos during his time on the space station, including his unforgettable cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity:

OK, with the cool stuff out of the way (I know you’re still thinking about Space Oddity, but we must move on), let’s get to the wisdom. Hadfield is full of advice about how the skills required to be an astronaut are also really useful for life on Earth – and much of it seems counter-intuitive. For example, astronauts are trained to ‘sweat the small stuff’. The tiniest fault on a spacecraft could lead to significant consequences, so it’s crucial to pay attention to detail and to ask yourself “What could kill me next?” This could seem morbid, but Hadfield stresses the importance of being prepared. If you consider every angle ahead of time – basically, really do your homework – and practice, practice, practice your reactions to each scenario, then you will be able to set fear and panic aside when problems arise and do exactly what you need to do. This applies on Earth too: try to think yourself into future scenarios and prepare for them; It’s a good way to minimise anxiety if they do happen. As he puts it, you’ll never regret being over-ready.

Another really fascinating idea in this book is to do with happiness and fulfilment. Astronauts departing for or returning from space are showered with praise and glory, but for the most part being an astronaut is a lot of hard work and not very much space flight at all. If you want to be an astronaut just for the glory, you’re going to be sorely disappointed, especially because astronauts who have recently returned from space are expected to ‘climb back down the ladder’ and work in supporting positions for the next set of astronauts bound to leave Earth. As Hadfield puts it:

“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.”

This is where ‘sweating the small stuff’ turns into ‘appreciating the small stuff’. On Earth or in space, to a certain extent, you can choose to be happy. You could dwell on the frustrations, or you could marvel at the small moments, the tiny fragments of happiness, the mundane but enjoyable days that add up to being the larger portion of your life. “Ultimately, the real question is whether you want to be happy,” says Hadfield, and it would seem that someone who takes the time to do something like Space Oddity, just for the sheer fun of it, has probably decided that, yes, they would like to be happy, thank you.

This is a really wonderful, often heartwarming book. Hadfield’s writing style is as frank and gentle as he seems to be, and as he extols the virtues of preparedness and methodical thinking and appreciating every opportunity, you begin to see past the shiny exterior of astronaut glory to the person inside. An Astronaut’s Guide will teach you lots of fascinating things about technology and space travel, and about being a human too.

“I never stopped getting ready. Just in case.”

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Want to read this? You can buy the book here.

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