Monday, February 10, 2014

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything, by Col. Chris Hadfield

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth:
What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything
Author: Col. Chris Hadfield
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: October 29, 2013
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Source: NetGalley

Chris Hadfield knew he wanted to be an astronaut when he was nine years old. In fact, he remembers the exact moment he knew. It was late in the evening on July 20, 1969. That's when his entire family, spending the summer in Stag Island, Ontario, "traipsed across the clearing" to their neighbour's cottage so they could crowd themselves in front of the television and watch the moon landing. "Somehow," he writes, "we felt as if we were up there with Neil Armstrong, changing the world."

Hadfield writes about this early experience--and many, many of the other experiences that have led him to become the world's most recognized astronaut since Armstrong himself--in his new book, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth.

To say I was excited about this book would be an understatement. When I received an advance digital copy, my first thought was, "Eeeee!!" Have you ever had a book that you were so excited about that it immediately cleared out your entire "to be read" shelf the very moment it became available? As in, those dozens (or hundreds) of other books you've been meaning to read are suddenly unimportant because THIS book is finally in your hands? That's how I felt about An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth. Even though I've had it on pre-order since the first day I heard of its existence, I was lucky enough to get an advanced digital copy from Little, Brown and Company through NetGalley, which meant I was able to read it two weeks early! Now considering I've had books on my reading list that have been on there for MONTHS, it may seem unfair that I immediately forgot about all of them and bumped this one to the top of the list. But fairness schmairness, I wanted to read this right away!

I would have read this book a lot faster if I hadn't kept stopping every few pages to run out to tell Mike and Magda (my partner and our daughter) what I'd just read. Magda didn't mind. She asked me to read aloud to her from the book every chance I got. At four, I'd venture to say she knows more about space than most Canadians ten times her age, and we have Colonel Chris Hadfield to thank for that.

His videos from space captured her imagination and mine. Thanks to him, Magda has spent the better part of the year learning everything she can about space exploration and astronauts, and has even composed several songs dedicated to female astronauts she admires ("Julie Payette Rocket" and "You are the Moon, I am the Sun [for Suni Williams]"). I feel like he's introduced us to space exploration in a way no one had before, and that he's introduced us to astronauts as real people. Of course, the internet has helped immensely with that, as has Hadfield's social media genius of a son, Evan. But thanks to them, our whole family knows names like Tom Marshburn, Roman Romanenko, Karen Nyberg, Kevin Ford and Luca Parmitano. Thanks to him, both my daughter and I have new heroes from all over the world.

Magda posing as Karen Nyberg, the astronaut who famously made a toy dinosaur for her son while aboard the International Space Station in 2013

And that's a gift that Chris Hadfield has given to so many of us; he's renewed our sense of wonder. He's inspired us to look at space again in a way most of us hadn't in a long time. He's inspired us to be passionately curious and unabashedly compassionate. He's shown us--through his eyes--what exactly it looks like to all be connected in this world (and off it). He's reminded us what it looks like to be passionate, competent and sincere, without irony or cynicism.

An Astronaut's Guide to Life really is a guide to life. Actually, it makes a pretty good guide to parenting too. Colonel Hadfield offers an insider's look into the life of an astronaut and the steps it takes to become one. It's deeply satisfying for those curious about the past, present and future of the space program, but it's also full of truly excellent advice for those with ambition in any field.

(The video below is Chris Hadfield talking about his top three tips for success in any field.)

For instance, even though Hadfield knew at the age of nine that he wanted to go to space someday, there was not any way for him to do that, at least not in Canada in 1969. We didn't have a space program. But he figured that just one day earlier, seeing a person walk on the moon would have seemed impossible yet that had happened, so you never know what the future might bring. He knew that whatever happened he wanted to be ready for it, so he started preparing himself that day to become the sort of person who would be ready to go to space one day. He worked hard in school, kept his body healthy, and made choices that would best prepare him achieve his goals. He started transforming himself into the person he wanted to be with every choice he made.

And perhaps more important than all of those steps toward space--the healthy diet, the good grades, the time spent as an Air Cadet and then a pilot, the advanced degree in engineering--was the fact that Chris Hadfield made those choices knowing he may never be an astronaut. He made sure to do things with his life that would be satisfying on their own, regardless of whether or not they lead to being an astronaut.

He writes: "I never thought, 'If I don't make it as an astronaut, I'm a failure.' The script would have changed a lot if, instead, I'd moved up in the military or become a university professor or a commercial test pilot, but the result wouldn't have been a horror movie."

I love that. I love the attitude that you don't have to "wait for your life to begin," as so many of us do (I know I have). You can start becoming the person you want to be right away, with the choices you make and the steps you take. And, most importantly, do the things that will make you happy along the way, whether or not you reach your end goal. And in fact the "end goal" may change many times but at least you'll be doing things you love.

Of course when I say it, it sounds like a second-rate inspirational poster, the kind with saccharine poems written over photos of mountain vistas. Yet when Colonel Hadfield says it, it doesn't. It's probably because his "advice" is only a small part of the book, and is really only given in terms of his own life story ("this is what worked for me").

Chris Hadfield, Roman Romanenko and Tom Marshburn just after they returned to earth. Chris writes that he and Tom looked (and felt) weak and woozy, while Roman looked like he could go out and play a round of golf. So true. Of course, Chris was trying to keep it together because he had just learned that the Toronto Maple Leafs had lost.

Most of the book is filled with fascinating stories about the life of an astronaut, including many that I had never heard before. He relates stories of things that have gone wrong in space, most of which are corrected and managed by the quick thinking of astronauts, cosmonauts and mission control. He talks about the sadness he and his wife felt upon hearing that his good friend Rick Husband had been killed aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. He explains the detailed "death plans" that all astronauts make before they go into space, deciding in detail exactly what would happen if they were killed in space (right down to who exactly would tell their family and who would accompany their spouse to the funeral). It's an inside look into an experience only around 500 people in history have ever had: preparing for and achieving space travel.

I could say so much more about this book but I'm afraid it would just turn into me giving another page-by-page account of everything in it, much like I did with Magda and Mike all week. What I can say is that I was even more inspired by the book than I already was by Colonel Hadfield himself, which is pretty darn inspired.

Here are some things my four-year-old had to say about it:

Magda's Take:
"At first I thought that I wanted to be an astronaut. But then as I learned a little more about it, I realized that sometimes people feel a little bit sick in space. I don't like feeling sick so now I'm not so sure I want to be an astronaut, now that I'm older. So I guess I would say that between the ages of two and three, I really wanted to be an astronaut. But between the ages of four and five, I learned more about it and realized I'll probably be something else. Now I think I'll be a lot of things, so many things that I might now have time to be an astronaut.

"But I loved the book and I loved hearing my mom read it to me. I hope she reads it to me again and this time I hope she reads all of it to me. I should find out if it's a library book because I'm going to want to read it again and again. Maybe I can ask for it for Christmas and then it'll be mine, and when I grow up I can read it to my children."

Commander Hadfield on Magda's space poster

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