The Man Who Made Space Cool Again: A Review of Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
Random House Canada
75 Sherbourne Street, 5th Floor
Toronto, ON M5A 2P9

2013, 336 pp., $32.00, ISBN 978.034581.270.4


1.

When I was a kid, space was a big deal. As many children do, I went through an ‘astronaut phase,’ during which I dreamt of rockets, zero gravity, and space suits. Parents often encourage their progeny in these kinds of obsessions—mine certainly did when they chose an astronaut theme for a custom-made picture book they gave me when I was three or four years old. In the book, my sister and I, accompanied by our neighbourhood friends, were launched into space in a shuttle and had a series of adventures there before descending safely back to earth. 1

My astronaut phase was short lived, but I like to think that it lasted longer than it normally would have because it was fed by the zeitgeist of the 1990s and its enthusiasm for space exploration. I was nine years old when the Québecoise astronaut Julie Payette flew to space for the first time aboard Discovery, in the spring of 1999. 2 Her first launch was such a major event in Québec that my 3rd grade teacher organized a sleepover at school for the whole class so that we could watch the launch live on television early in the morning.

By then I wanted to become a marine biologist, but interest in space exploration still held sway in popular scientific culture. Even if I wasn’t as keen about it, I still found space cool. The Canadian Space Agency’s headquarters are just a few miles away from where I grew up, on the South Shore of Montréal. During an elementary school field trip there, our group happened to run into Marc Garneau in the agency’s hallways. I remember the tingling awareness of being face to face with a man who’d been into space. These were the years when the International Space Station was being built, and it was gripping stuff; Julie Payette famously said that “trying to build a station in outer space is comparable to trying to build a ship in the ocean, during a storm, with nine countries helping out.” We also felt especially involved because Canada was contributing to the ISS not only with its astronauts, but also with the Canadarm (whose second iteration now adorns the Canadian five-dollar bill), which was assembling the ISS’s different modules. These facts contributed to maintaining my interest in space and keeping me aware of what was happening there.


On February 1, 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia, which had sustained important damage to the leading edge of its left wing during launch, broke apart upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, scattering pieces of the spacecraft and its crewmembers across Texas and Louisiana. Suddenly space, and especially the American way to get there—the Shuttle program, was not so cool anymore. In the public consciousness, the dangers of space travel clearly outweighed its advantages.

In the wake of the Columbia disaster (which, it would later become clear, could have been avoided), public enthusiasm for space exploration dwindled. Less than a year after the catastrophe, the Bush administration unveiled the Vision for Space Exploration program. Its three main goals were to relaunch the Shuttle program for a few years to finish the ISS, replace the Shuttle with a new spacecraft within ten years, and send humans on missions to the moon as of 2020 as a “logical step toward further progress and achievement,” with the ultimate goal of sending manned spacecrafts to Mars.

By early 2004, of course, George W. Bush was starting to seriously lose approval in the public eye, mostly due to concerns over the invasion of Iraq (although there was a brief positive spike early in the year, following the capture of Saddam Hussein). In some circles—and certainly a great majority of circles outside the US—whatever came out of the American president’s mouth was prone to immediate criticism. The Vision for Space Exploration was no different. I remember thinking, the moon, again? Mars, already? The objectives, especially in the context of the Columbia disaster and in the midst of building the ISS—which was far from finished and was now being treated like homework that one should rush to get through before going out to play—seemed hubristic and misplaced. But it didn’t really matter what the plan was, because space had lost its magical appeal.

In the New York Review of Books, science writer Timothy Ferris expressed disappointment at the Bush administration’s redirection of NASA’s mission, and especially its focus on manned missions into space. For Ferris, the failures of the Shuttle program were proof that manned space exploration for merely scientific purposes was basically useless; he argued that the ISS “has never done much except give the shuttle somewhere to go.” Ferris lauded NASA’s untarnished successes with its unmanned space program “at a fraction of the cost of sending astronauts up there.” 3 Ferris was not entirely against manned space exploration; his issue was mostly with its cost. While he agreed that going to the moon was a good idea as a gateway to further space exploration, he was uncomfortable with having NASA foot the bill. His proposed ideal was to attract investments from the private sector and to exploit the moon in order to fund space programs that go there through activities like space tourism, data storage, and the collection of solar energy.

“ ‘… a logical step toward further progress and achievement.’ ”

By the time the Obama administration proposed its own space exploration policy in 2010—the development of a new heavy-lift launch vehicle to replace the Shuttle, a shift to launch vehicles designed and built by private companies, the extension of service for the ISS, and the goal of landing astronauts on asteroids—I wasn’t even listening anymore. When they announced the end of the Shuttle program in the news in 2011, I did feel a lingering prick of nostalgia. In my mind’s eye, the distinctive black and white shuttle with its massive orange and white launch thrusters still looked like it had in the picture book from my childhood. Yet my nostalgia was misplaced. On the news, an astronaut they interviewed explained matter-of-factly that the Shuttle had simply been one way to get to space—there had been, were, and would be others.


2.

Because I’d long ago lost most of my interest in space, I wasn’t tuned in when the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, on a 144-day mission aboard the ISS, tweeted his first picture from space on December 22, 2012. 4 Two days later, Hadfield, who is also a more than competent guitar player, uploaded the first song ever recorded in space to YouTube—“Jewel in the Night,” which was written by his brother. With the help of his son Evan, Hadfield posted more and more content on the web—pictures, videos, and audio files—and reached over 100,000 Twitter followers by early January 2013. In parallel to his busy schedule on the ISS—which included conducting a record number of experiments, supervising an emergency space walk to investigate and solve an ammonia leak on the station’s port side, and repairing a faulty toilet—Hadfield, who was sworn in as the first Canadian commander of the ISS in March, was also accumulating thousands of new followers online thanks to his presence on social media outlets like Twitter, Reddit, SoundCloud, and Tumblr. In An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield describes the strangeness of being a famous internet phenomenon and artist on Earth while going about his daily duties as a commander and engineer in orbit.

I only caught on to the Hadfield craze quite late in the mission, when he’d become so popular that one of his pictures of Earth was reprinted in a Montreal newspaper. That’s when I finally took a look at his Twitter feed and scrolled down to gaze at the beautiful images he’d taken from the ISS’s Cupola: sand dunes cut out like teeth, shining ribbons of rivers squiggled across flatlands, cities glowing like golden galaxies. The long-buried space enthusiast within me was stirred. How could it not be? It wasn’t so much about space anymore but rather about Earth itself, and what we can learn about it from way up there. There’s something immediately and deeply awe-inspiring about seeing the planet we live on mirrored back from so high above. Yet the fame Hadfield achieved during the mission was nothing compared to the worldwide attention he received in May 2013 when his rendition of Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” accompanied by a music video entirely shot in the ISS, went live on YouTube. The video was taken down this year (after garnering over 22 million views) since Hadfield’s team had only secured the rights to Bowie’s song for one year.

Hadfield’s videos, images, and good-natured interactions with the public revolutionized how space exploration is perceived. Agencies like NASA and the CSA have developed some of the most advanced science and technology in order to propel objects and people into orbit—which has in turn resulted in dozens of new technologies with applications here on Earth (Hadfield tells us that “experiments with different dietary and exercise protocols have revealed how to ward off, permanently, one debilitating type of osteoporosis”)—yet the conversation about space had never really made it into the twenty-first century. Thanks to Hadfield’s willingness to open up this conversation on social media platforms and to participate in a multitude of Q&A events with school kids around the world, it finally has. “All I had to do,” Hadfield writes, “was let go of the microphone so it floated for a few seconds, then answer the inevitable question about how we used the toilet in space, and they were hooked.”

Beyond his presence on social media platforms, Hadfield was successful because of the type of content he shared. He capitalized on the “wow” factor: the basic, almost primordial sense of wonder that space instills, which is the reason why seeing Hadfield wring a cloth in zero gravity is just so cool. 5 The other factor is Hadfield’s inherent charisma—he’s just the right mix of serious, smart, funny, and friendly.

I was curious to read Hadfield’s book largely because I wanted to know if his online popularity and subsequent offline fame had happened by chance, or if it had been planned all along (either by the CSA or NASA, or perhaps by Hadfield himself). As it turns out, Hadfield’s son Evan was the social media mastermind behind the operation. He’s the one who urged his father to broadcast the wonder aboard the ISS and helped him upload content on a wide range of social media sites, especially those with little crossover in their users. For example, while tweeting pictures of Earth, Hadfield was also creating recordings of “everyday” sounds aboard the ISS for Evan to upload on SoundCloud. Although Hadfield had the CSA and NASA’s approval for the content he shared online, the agencies were, for the most part, pleasantly surprised by the sudden gains in terms of public education (which is also part of an astronaut’s mandate). But all that time it was Evan running the show, “a one-man, unpaid band, drumming up excitement and interest in the space program.”


Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth is an entertaining and informative account of Hadfield’s journey to becoming an astronaut, and about Expedition 34-35 more specifically (Hadfield had flown to space twice before: to the Russian space station Mir in 1995, which he was the first Canadian to board and where he was also the first Canadian to control the Canadarm in Orbit; and in 2001 on an ISS assembly mission, during which he became the first Canadian to perform a spacewalk). His book is divided into three broad sections, titled after the chronology of a space expedition: “Pre-Launch,” “Liftoff,” and “Coming Down to Earth.” One of Hadfield’s goals is to make clear how much planning and willpower is needed to become an astronaut. Apparently, every life decision he made from the age of nine, when he saw Apollo 11’s lunar landing on television, was an attempt to steer himself closer to his dream job. According to him, “There’s no such thing as an accidental astronaut.”

In 1969, being an astronaut was a particularly unrealistic dream for Canadians because Canada didn’t yet have its own space agency, while NASA only hired American citizens. What Hadfield had in his favour was that he loved planes (his father was an airline pilot). After graduating from high school, he joined the Canadian Forces to learn how to fly fighter planes and graduated from military college with a degree in mechanical engineering. Hadfield was then posted in Bagotville, Québec, where he developed a passion for test flights. Hadfield explains: “Fighter pilots live to fly, but while I love flying, I lived to understand planes: why they do certain things, how to make them perform even better.” Hadfield applied to test pilot school abroad and was eventually selected to attend the US Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California, which happened to be a “direct pipeline” to NASA.

Meanwhile, Hadfield’s dream of spaceflight became slightly more achievable: in 1983, the Canadian government recruited its first batch of astronauts (including Marc Garneau). So, again, Hadfield was at the right place and doing the right thing. Although it wasn’t clear yet if test pilot school was going to help him join the CSA, he was certainly receiving the kind of training that astronauts traditionally had. By the time Hadfield was stationed in Pax River, Maryland in 1991 (while completing a master’s degree in aviation systems at the University of Tennessee), the CSA announced that it was recruiting a new batch of astronauts. Hadfield completed his application in ten days and sent it off, along with 5,329 others. After weeks of waiting, selection rounds, medical examinations, and interviews, he was finally one of the four who made the cut, along with Julie Payette.

Hadfield joined the Canadian Space Agency in 1992, which means he witnessed both the rise and fall of space exploration in popular culture. Although he obviously values space exploration as a worthwhile human endeavour, and would argue against Ferris’s plea to focus on unmanned spaceflights, his book is apolitical. Hadfield also makes a clear distinction between the space tourists, who today pay 20 to 40 million dollars to visit the ISS for 10 days after several months of basic training, and an astronaut, who “is someone who’s able to make good decisions quickly, with incomplete information, when the consequences really matter.” The Columbia disaster affected him personally; in addition to knowing all seven of the astronauts who died that day, Hadfield writes that he “felt a huge sense of disappointment and responsibility: I was part of the program that had let this happen.” Yet Hadfield never considered leaving NASA; instead, he focused on ensuring that the Shuttle was safe to fly. As Chief of Robotics at the NASA Astronaut Office, he was in a position to do this by “developing space robotic techniques and hardware and making sure astronauts and cosmonauts knew how to use them” in a time when “morale was low and public support for the space program was even lower.”

Although Hadfield is never openly critical of the Shuttle program in his book, his accounts of flying inside the Shuttle clearly demonstrate how imperfect it was as a means of travelling to space. The Shuttle was awkward to fly and required careful monitoring from the crew to ensure that its four linked computers didn’t split into two groups “with no one to break the tie.” By contrast, the Soyuz—the Russian vehicle that all astronauts currently use to reach the ISS—“is a much simpler vehicle to operate and it is automated: if something goes terribly wrong, the chances of survival are much better than they were on the Shuttle because the re-entry capsule where the crew sits during launch automatically separates and is thrown clear.”

“ ‘trying to build a station in outer space is comparable to trying to build a ship in the ocean, during a storm, with nine countries helping out.’ ”

The main advantage of the Shuttle over the Soyuz was that it was much bigger and could hold a larger crew—seven instead of three. 6 Back in 2004, in the wake of the Columbia disaster, Ferris had illustrated how much of a failure the Shuttle program was in his New York Review of Books article: NASA had initially predicted that the Shuttle would fly almost weekly and realize a 98 percent safety record. The first number turned out to be far off, but the second was accurate. However, if NASA believed in both statistics, it meant that they were planning on having a Space Shuttle crash every year. Ferris called Reagan’s declaration that the Shuttle was “ready to provide economical and routine access to space” a “fantasy.” There’s a reason why my nostalgia at the Shuttle’s retirement was misplaced: the truth was that the Shuttle was dangerous, and it was high time for its program to end.


The gimmicky title of Hadfield’s book suggests that it is a kind of self-help book that will provide easy tips to enhance the reader’s life, which is ideal positioning from a marketing perspective as these kinds of books are very popular. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth presents itself not as a biography but as a how-to guide to being more like Chris Hadfield, to help apply what he learned as an astronaut to everyday life here on earth. While I’m usually suspicious of self-help books, to tell the truth I’d rather receive life advice from someone like Hadfield, who can back up everything he says with concrete—and, more often than not, life threatening—examples. His two principal dicta are also worth repeating here because they go against most of what actual self-help books will tell you. The first of Hadfield’s recommendations is to think negatively—to “visualiz[e] defeat and figur[e] out how to prevent it”—so that you know you’ll be ready for anything. The other dictum is “aiming to be a zero,” by which Hadfield advocates doing one’s job well and being there for others without getting in their way, without fanfare, and without taking the risk of making a mistake. This way, a person often ends up being a “plus one,” someone who adds value to a team or organization. Anyone actively trying to be a “plus one” and to get recognition for it will most likely become a “minus one” and impede the team’s success.

It’s a good thing Hadfield keeps his head down and prepares for the worst, because a lot of things do indeed to wrong over the course of his book. There’s a recurrent medical problem that threatens to keep him grounded just a few months before Expedition 34-35 is set to launch. And that time when he found a snake in the jet he was flying at 200 miles an hour, at an altitude of 10,000 feet (deftly listed in the book’s index as “snake incident”)—the solution to that, it turns out, was to pin the snake down with a clipboard, grab it behind the ears, and throw it out the window (I didn’t even know jets had windows!). Finally, before Hadfield recounts his own landing aboard the Soyuz at the end of his final mission, he provides an extended account of cosmonaut Yuri Malechenko’s dramatic return to Earth back in 2008.

“… sand dunes cut out like teeth, shining ribbons of rivers squiggled across flatlands, cities glowing like golden galaxies.”

During Malechenko’s landing, one of the Soyuz modules didn’t detach properly upon re-entry, which caused the module to start burning up while it was still attached to the reentry vehicle. The reentry vehicle spun out of control, and the three astronauts shaken around inside had no way of knowing what was going on. The Soyuz is so sturdy that the vehicle and its crew survived the ordeal, although they landed 420 km away from their target and badly bruised. Malechenko managed to emerge from the module (a feat in itself because astronauts are in extremely bad shape after landing back to earth), only to find that his burning Soyuz had set fire to the field it had crashed in. A group of local Kazakh men eventually came by to see where the smoke was coming from; when Malechenko asked one of them to enter the vehicle and retrieve the radio inside because he was too weak to move, the man who went in began to steal the equipment.

Although Hadfield’s own landing was nowhere near as exciting, Malechenko’s anecdote is a necessary reminder to the reader that, for astronauts on a mission, there are an infinite number of things that can go wrong at any moment, which is exactly why they require extensive and grueling training and must specialize in a broad range of skills in order to prepare for any contingency, imaginable or not.


In his review of the film Gravity, Buzz Aldrin, the second man to have walked on the moon and the first man to perform an EVA in space, wrote that “we’re in a very precarious position of losing all the advancements we’ve made in space that we did 40 years ago, 50 years ago. From my perspective, this movie couldn’t have come at a better time to really stimulate the public.” Although Gravity’s plot largely relies on things going wrong again and again for Sandra Bullock’s character Dr. Stone, the film also banks on the massive presence of Earth to construct both its visual and thematic unity. The film opens with a beautiful shot of our planet as seen from orbit, with a hurricane spinning a vast swirl of clouds above the sea. Only then do we hear human voices, and, later, see the white belly of a tiny Shuttle approaching. For the rest of Gravity, Earth always hovers there, somewhere in the frame, massive and beautiful. At the beginning, astronaut Ryan Stone is always turned away from it—too focused on the work at hand, or else her impending death, to appreciate it. It’s George Clooney’s optimistic character, Kowalski, who first reminds Dr. Stone of their privileged panorama. “You can’t beat the view,” he says, before the camera pans up to follow the delicately illuminated curve of a continent. Later in the film, when Kowalski is untethered from Dr. Stone and drifts away from her, one of the last things he says to her is: “You should see the sun on the Ganges. It’s amazing.” Still, Dr. Stone can’t appreciate the sense of wonder which that point of view inspires—the only time she finally turns her eyes to Earth is at the very end of the film, when she’s re-entering its atmosphere.

I would argue that that metaphor can be turned on its head and applied to us, here on Earth. For about a decade, we’ve been turned away from space and mostly looking inwards, at ourselves. But now films like Gravity, and the hard work and enthusiasm of people like Chris Hadfield, are helping rejuvenate how we value human space exploration. They encourage us to gaze up at the heavens, towards Earth’s orbit and the planets, moons and stars that hang beyond. For the first time in a long time, we can imagine ourselves there. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth teaches us how much of an accomplishment it is to go to space, but Hadfield also proves that to be a good astronaut, and indeed a good human, you need the strength and humility to come back down to earth.

 

  1. I don’t have the book with me now, but if I remember correctly it ended, disappointingly, with the revelation that the entire space flight had been a mere fantasy. All this time the crew and I had been safely playing inside a big cardboard box.
  2. The mission was STS-96: Payette joined a team of seven astronauts on the first Shuttle flight to dock with the ISS.
  3. Ferris is intimately acquainted with NASA’s unmanned program: he was one of the producers of the “Golden Record,” the time capsule lodged inside the twin Voyager probes and launched toward outer space in 1977. The probes are now both over 15 billion kilometers away from Earth, on an endless journey outward.
  4. Perhaps I’m not quite as social media-savvy as my generation is said to be.
  5. The water leaves the rag, but because of surface tension the liquid wraps around the rag and sticks to the person’s hands, forming a kind of flexible, floating tube of water.
  6. This also means that some astronauts who were hired during the Shuttle era are now too tall to fly to space. As Hadfield puts it, “the possibility that they’ll leave Earth is currently zero.”

☝ BACK TO TOP