Friday, July 31, 2015

Book Club Review: 'An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth' by Col. Chris Hadfield

Full disclosure: I'm not sure you can refer to it as a book club if the only member is you. And you read approximately 2 books per year. Although I sped through this one in about 5 months so I'm actually ahead of the curve for 2015. Also, my wine to pages read ratio is a bit skewed. But that may be par for the course for most book clubs.

Space. It is our, seemingly, final frontier. We found the gold in California and tamed the waters of the Colorado River. Naturally, our gaze would shift upward...toward Heaven. Or as close as we can possibly get and still be able to return. I remember when shuttle launches were still a topic of conversation around the dinner table. An entire day was planned around being able to be in front of the TV by T-5 minutes. The rockets blasted, the fires blazed, that blinding white projectile shaking visibly as it inched upward toward a cloudless Florida sky. I remember holding my breath...especially after the unimaginable tragedy of the Challenger Shuttle. We, as a nation, began to doubt the space program. Was it worth the risk? Can we send robots instead? Over time, the shuttle launches that followed barely registered on my radar. NASA wasn't relevant to me. What's the point anyway? And how hard could it possibly be to be an astronaut? I've flown on airplanes dozens of times. So that one just goes a bit faster. You get the invaluable reward of being weightless when you reach the other side. Isn't that worth a few g's? I can drink Tang. I can totally be an astronaut.

My parents used to tell me that I can be anything I set my mind to. It's a great sentiment and I'm sure Dr. Sears would be proud, but it's total horsecrap. I can't be anything I set my mind to because genetics has blessed me with strengths in some areas and severe, debilitating weaknesses in others. Like geography. And physics. And calculus. One of my bucket list items is to someday understand the purpose for sin and cos. (And to my high school boyfriend from Spain, I'm terribly sorry that I thought you were from South America.) So, obviously I'm never going to be a mapmaker or a neurosurgeon or an astronaut. And Blue probably won't be either. But that's OK because we can become equally important and contributing members of society in other fields. We can also read books by people like Col. Chris Hadfield and appreciate what it takes to accomplish so much at such a young age. Spoiler alert: it takes more than a jug of Tang and a couple of round trip tickets to Chicago.

I first heard Col. Hadfield interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air last fall. He was clever, insightful and delightfully engaging. As a Canadian, he was an astronaut-wannabe without a space shuttle. Canada had a space program but nothing to launch. So, after watching the Apollo 11 moon landing, he began making decisions that would hopefully set him on a course that intersected with NASA. In high school he earned his glider pilot's license with the Royal Canadian Air Cadets then went on to earn an engineering degree and an advanced aviation degree. In the meantime, he became a fighter pilot and a test pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force...all the while just hoping it would lead to a spot in Houston. No guarantees. Ultimately, he completed 3 space missions; the third trip lasting 5 months. He performed 2 space walks, which are infinitely more tedious than I had ever imagined. And he has worked on the the ground crew for countless other space missions...providing insight, solutions and invaluable support.

Throughout his book, Col. Hadfield draws many parallels between life in space and life on earth - most of which are counter-intuitive. Sweat the small stuff...because that could head off disasters that loom down the road. Think negatively...what's the next thing that can kill you? And then develop plans A-D for dealing with that scenario (OK, in this regard, I could have totally been an astronaut). But what resonated most with my view on the human race was aim to be a zero. Simply put, approaching any situation with the attitude that you will neither cause great harm (-1) or bring about great good (+1), you will become a zero and that is ideal. We encounter this +1 attitude a lot in the Army...more so on the Soldier side than the spouse (although I have come across some annoyingly competitive spouses). When the brass enters the room, everyone is quick with a question that is sure to make that 2-star look twice at the person asking it. I've witnessed Neal return home from many drill weekends weary from Soldiers trying to prove their knowledge, skill or military prowess. Ironically, when you work so hard to be a +1, it usually results in others perceiving you as a -1. Aim for zero and sometimes you will end up as a +1 in everyone's eyes.

Col. Hadfield offers many other nuggets of not-quite-common-sense advice. Sprinkled throughout are chunks of wisdom that he has garnered from working with colleagues in a strict and structured environment. From maneuvering around certain personality types to dealing with your own reaction to criticism, it's just as much a self-help book for the workplace as it is entertaining storytelling. He has also included a few more intimate passages that offer a glimpse into his family life with a wife and 3 kids. Much like life in the military, Col. Hadfield missed countless birthdays, anniversaries and graduations because he was training, supporting a mission or flying a mission. He is honest about how his absence affected his family, which is a refreshing change from pretending that homecomings are easy and transitions are painless.

When the book goes out of print and the space program shifts in a whole new direction, Col Hadfield will still be famous for his rendition of David Bowie's Space Oddity as performed from an orbiting International Space Station. If you haven't had the pleasure, here you go:
He credits much of the post-production work and cult-like success of the video to his son, who has mastered the art of social media. But I'm not on Twitter or Instagram so I totally missed it. I'm sharing with you because it will be the best 6 minutes of your day.

Col. Hadfield has become an ardent spokesperson for NASA. His unmatched enthusiasm for the space program and what we are capable of (even as NASA's budget is constantly whittled) is contagious and by the end of the book, I became aware of a growing, insatiable craving to know more about space, the solar system and what we are doing up there. This book does that to people. Space could not possibly be further from your mind and suddenly it is all you can think about. You begin watching videos about how to brush your teeth in space, how to sleep in space, even how a wet washcloth behaves in space. Three minute snippets of your day that affect how you think about everything else that day. I read to be amused. I read to learn. I read to reach some deeper understanding. This book did all of that and more. 5 stars and a fist bump to Col. Hadfield, an astronaut rockstar who also has a way with words.

If you haven't yet fallen down the rabbit hole that is the Chris Hadfield-in-space videos, I encourage you to step in. It doesn't hurt and you may really like it once you get here. 

If you are interested in a more cohesive and academic review of this book, Adam Savage (of MythBusters fame) wrote a most brilliant piece for The Wall Street Journal here

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a good book. One of our biggest thrills was a night time lift off from the Cape. It was awesome.


That's it, let it all out....