Friday, May 9, 2014

Chris Hadfield's memoir recounts a proud Canadian's journey to the stars

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, by Chris Hadfield
Published By Random House Canada, 2013

Chris Hadfield's long journey into space began on a warm July evening in 1969. That's when he (along with millions of others) watched the first Apollo moon landing on TV, which inspired his lifelong dream of becoming an astronaut. At first, Hadfield didn't know what route to take because there were no Canadian astronauts or space programs in existence. Without a game plan, Hadfield decided to train, study and work to prepare himself anyway, for the possibility of one day being chosen as an astronaut.

Hadfield realized that to become an astronaut it would require relentless training and conditioning, mental preparation and nerves of steel. He applied himself to that task with unstoppable zeal and he rarely ever faltered. In his informative memoir, An Astronaut's Guide To Life On Earth, he takes readers on an intimate journey inside the fighter jets, the command centres and the space stations with an almost childlike glee, but his enthusiasms are tempered by a sense of realism about the stark realities and potential dangers of the job. In one harrowing incident, Hadfield describes how he experienced partial blindness during a spacewalk to install the Canadarm2. His ability to cope with that frightening  - and fortunately short-lived - visual impairment is a lesson in rational thinking and grace under pressure.

Throughout his career, Hadfield earned high praise for the many roles that he performed with distinction, including as a test pilot in the U.S Air Force, involvement in the Canadian Space Agency, Chief of Robotics at the Johnson Space Centre, Director of NASA operations in Russia, and Commander of the International Space Station. This memoir recounts these and other career highlights with humility, frankness, and humour.

As informative as this book is, however, it's not a How To Succeed in Life book, nor does it pretend to be. But astute readers will glean the acquired wisdom and life lessons that Hadfield learned along the way. One of the clear messages for me was his willingness to prepare and practice - continuously - without prompting or complaint. Being prepared for any potential problems and outcomes was the price Hadfield paid for membership into that elite club of astronauts.

In An Astronaut's Guide To Life On Earth, Hadfield punctuates his narrative with personal anecdotes about the people closest to him - family members, relatives, friends and colleagues. He talks openly about the challenges that he faced working for the various space agencies, and his strategies for overcoming them. It's hard not to be impressed with the life lessons and sage advice that he offers up, such as this:
"Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying; it's productive. Likewise, coming up with a plan of action isn't a waste of time if it gives you peace of mind. While it's true that you may wind up being ready for something that never happens, if the stakes are at all high, it's worth it."
As Hadfield's memoir clearly reminds us, mastering any pursuit requires fierce dedication and discipline, intense focus, constant learning, a supportive network of friends and family, and there are no shortcuts. Here's hoping that Hadfield's professional accomplishments on earth and in space - not to mention his desire to serve as ambassador for space exploration - will inspire a new generation of Canadians to reach for the stars.