First a confession for anyone who doesn’t know me – I’m a complete space nut. I love the science, the history, the human stories. On a clear night I’m the guy stood out there in the garden watching the International Space Station (ISS) fly overhead. So astronaut biographies are a dead cert for me – from the classic of Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire, through Gene Cernan’s Last Man On the Moon, and now Commander Chris Hadfield’s new book about his own experiences in space.
Chris Hadfield is a Canadian astronaut, veteran of two Space Shuttle missions and became a twitter celebrity last year, with his awe-inspiring photography from his six-month shift on the ISS and then with his version of Space Oddity, sung from space, a version which went viral and has been seen over 15 million times on his Youtube channel. His new book starts off at quite a pace too, with the opening chapter running the reader through his life and career before joining NASA at a rate that makes you wonder what the rest of the book will have left to talk about. At times I found myself unfairly resenting his sheer rate of achievement – one more anecdote of “… and then our paper won the top award…” would have had me flinging the book against the wall in a fit of inadequate pique.
Fortunately that didn’t happen. The book settles down from Chapter 2 onwards as he describes his years at NASA, and the real Chris Hadfield comes out, a very competent and professional astronaut, sure, but also a human being with a strong knowledge of his own limits, a good line in self-deprecation, who has a job to do but does it not for glory and heroism or individual ego, but because he believes what he does is helping lay a path to the future and those who will come after him. Because also, he is ultimately part of a very big team. Astronautics is more than anything a discipline – of “sweating the small stuff”, of preparing for every conceivable failure before it happens, of supporting your colleagues without being asked, all lessons which can be applied right down here in life on the ground.
More than any other astronaut biography I’ve read, Chris Hadfield makes it clear that an astronaut’s job is not ten years of waiting around on Earth for a few days working in space – the work really is down here. As he puts it, an astronaut is a “perpetual Student”, one who is always required to learn, to train, to anticipate, to support the people flying right now, whoever they may be. In half a century in space we have learned a lot, but we are still finding our way and in orbit there is no such thing as a “minor” mistake.
The crowning glory of Chris’s career is of course his stint on the ISS, and he describes his preparation, journey and time there with great relish and lucidity in what to me are the most engaging chapters of the book. Here he draws the threads together – the years of training to get to this point, the standing on the shouders of the giants who helped build this amazing orbiting station whose giant observation windows casually frame miracles. And in addition his genuine desire to find new ways to communicate the awe to the public, the social media success which did more for NASA’s profile than the last 10 years of press conferences, an achievement which he modestly credits to his son Evan’s vision and work behind the scenes.
I ended up really liking this book and Chris Hadfield himself. I’d recommend it for anyone with a sense of wonder, anyone who has ever looked up at the sky and felt dizzied by the promise and challenge of exploring space.
Chris Hadfield – An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Pan McMillan, 285pp)