Book Review: An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

As I mentioned on Saturday evening, I recently finished reading Col. Chris Hadfield's book An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything. The full title is a mouthful but one of my favorite albums is called Give Us Rest; or: (a requiem mass in C [the happiest of all keys]) so maybe I'm just a sucker for creative works with overly complex titles.

I came into the book without any particular expectations; my decision to grab the book from its display on the library shelf was based primarily on name recognition. I remembered seeing videos of Col. Hadfield doing experiments on the International Space Station on YouTube, particularly some really cool demonstrations of how water behaves in microgravity. He also starred in the first music video recorded in space, a cover of David Bowie's Space Oddity which was recorded on the ISS during downtime. Given that picking the book up was a snap decision on my way to the checkout counter, I found the volume a thoroughly satisfying one.

If you open the book expecting some very specific type of account - a memoir, say, or a technical account of Hadfield's trips to space - you'll likely come away at least a little disappointed. It's not a linear autobiography, though it certainly tells the story of Col. Hadfield's life from childhood to retirement. Neither is it "how to become an astronaut," though Hadfield shares the journey he took to become one and many lessons he learned along the way. There aren't detailed accounts of every training and mission activity he took part in (and it quickly becomes apparent that such a work would be massive), and though Hadfield does include plenty of technical information in the course of his storytelling, the book remains quite accessible to non-astronaut readers.

What I mean to say, then, is that the book is not any one thing; it's part life story, part career memoir, part adventure, part mission recap, and part advice column. Hadfield manages to weave these many approaches together in a way that is both seamless and entertaining. Tales of tense moments leading up to a mission had me breathing shallowly; moments of triumph bestowed a soaring sense of joy and accomplishment, as if I had been the one who traveled to space three times. Portions of the book sharing life lessons did so in the context of Hadfield's life and career, but weren't so specific as to feel irrelevant. Indeed, as Col. Hadfield shared experiences and realizations that kept him on track and helped him to make the right decisions, I found myself considering thoughtfully how to apply these lessons to my own life.

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth is, generally speaking, celebratory in nature. It wraps up with Hadfield's retirement after completing his third trip to space, a highly successful 5-month stint aboard the International Space Station. The book bubbles with joy and doesn't dwell on negative experiences except to show how they taught an important lesson. Some may view this as a downside to the book, viewing it as self-congratulatory or unrealistically cheerful, but I think that the tone of the book is simply a reflection of the tone of Hadfield's life. Toward the end of the book, Col. Hadfield shares, "If you start thinking that only your biggest and shiniest moments count, you're setting yourself up to feel like a failure most of the time." He explains that by counting each positive part of one's life as being equally important, it's easier to find meaning and motivation as you move toward a goal. In some ways, this outlook reminded me of a previous post I shared, called Finding Wins. Perhaps that's why I enjoyed the book so much - Col. Chris Hadfield seems like the kind of guy I could get along with pretty easily... though to be fair he also seems like the kind of guy anyone could get along with pretty easily. Throughout the book, I found myself identifying with him (except that he's vastly more experienced and has way cooler stories to share at parties). Overall, I found the book to be accessible, entertaining, and interesting. I give it 9 out of 9 planets (here's looking at you, Pluto).