Friday, 7 November 2014

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield

It was a no-brainer that I would get to this book eventually. It only took so long because I was very far down the hold list at the library, and waited patiently while reading other books for it to arrive. A book written by Chris Hadfield? Canada's best known astronaut (at least these days), who made life on the ISS exciting for so many more people than those who had been interested in space for years? Count me in.

I've long been a space nut. I'm not sure I could have escaped that, given that my favourite author is Spider Robinson, who evokes such a sense of wonder around space, weightlessness, and looking beyond ourselves to the stars. I cry at shuttle launches. Going on the space ride at Disneyworld broke me down into happy tears for the entire thing. Visiting Cape Canaveral was similarly weepy. Chris Hadfield's song recorded with one of the Barenaked Ladies and children's choirs does me in.

You understand, then, that I am coming to this book with certain baggage. And was intrigued by what I found. This isn't a great book. But it is a good one. But I'm not exactly sure what it is. It's a strange beast, an amalgam of memoir and self-help. I'm trying to think of a better word than self-help, because this is not the pablum that such things usually are. In fact, the pieces of advice Hadfield has are often in direct contradiction to many of the messages such books would hold. It is, however, undeniable that much of the book is a how-to for thinking like an astronaut, and while it doesn't push ways to use those techniques in everyday life, it certainly leans that way.

This is curious. I'm not sure it entirely works, but it works well enough, and for a book that came out not long after he made it back to Earth after commanding the ISS, I'm happy with what I got to read. It's an easy read, and by far and large, and an entertaining one. How closely does it adhere to actual circumstances is a good question - either Hadfield really is this generous and able to let things roll off him, or he's taken his PR duties to heart. I'd understand either one - he obviously wants to promote the space program, and it's hard to fault that. Even though healthy self-criticism of a program is necessary, it's hard to say that this book written and marketed for a huge audience is the right venue for it. And if Hadfield is to be believed, self-criticism is a lot of what NASA does. Interesting.

(I would, of course, have questions about where that self-criticism is centered, and if aspects of organizational culture other than the nitty gritty mechanical details are held up to the same kind of scrutiny. Such as gender. And race. And class. But that's me. I love space, but I refuse to let even my sacred cows go without scrutiny. Things I support don't get a pass. In fact, they need more investigation.)

Anyway. That is not this book. This is Chris Hadfield's journey to becoming an astronaut, and to becoming the first Canadian commander of the ISS. It is, as presented, a remarkably conflict-free path, and there feel like omissions. But the lessons he learned along the way are interesting, and some of the advice about the ways in which he views the world actually very helpful. I've been sweating the small stuff since I read it, and feel more relaxed.

The descriptions of the first time he got to go into space nearly wrecked me, in that way I referred to earlier. There were a few tears. I can't help it. And the description of the time on the ISS was fascinating and made me so happy.

In summation, this is a fairly surface book, without a ton of depth. As that, however, it's very entertaining, and about one of my favourite topics, and has interesting little tidbits about how Hadfield approaches the world. Well worth a read, if not a book that knocked me on my ass.

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