hris Hadfield is easily the world’s most famous living moustache-tronaut, having done more to promote the concept of off-Earth travel and exploration than anyone since William Shatner first stepped onto the bridge of the Enterprise. Even before his six-month, social media-friendly commandership of the International Space Station, Hadfield already had an airport, two Ontario public schools, and an asteroid named after him. Since then, he has landed on the Canadian five dollar bill, among other honours.
That doesn’t mean it has always been easy for him. In fact, as he relates in An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield ran into trouble on his very first trip into orbit, aboard the space shuttle Atlantis in 1995, at the age of 36. As the shuttle shot up through the atmosphere, his face began to hurt: “I’d been smiling so much, without even being aware of it, that my cheeks were cramping up.” That’s right: Hadfield is the kind of guy who has to worry about smiling too much.
Hadfield is pretty much a cynic’s worst nightmare. Anyone who rolled their eyes at the earnest guitar-strumming performances and the massively popular Bill Nye-meets-Survivorman explications of life in zero gravity he posted on Twitter and YouTube while orbiting the planet will find plenty to sneer at in his book. (Full disclosure: my daughter and I watched the hell out of those videos, especially the ones about space toilets.)
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth is, for the most part, a fairly straight memoir of a life spent working diligently toward the ultimate goal of breaking free of the Earth’s gravity, a feat he accomplished three times before his recent retirement. We get the inevitable early and inspirational viewing of the first moon landing on TV, the boisterous childhood within a large, loving, southern Ontario farm family, the years as a test pilot, the marriage to his high-school sweetheart, the fathering of three kids, the slow but determined climb through the ranks, and finally, the missions themselves.
Wholesomeness overload is never far off. Hadfield repeatedly makes clear that he is no space cowboy, writing that he “lacks the gene for martyrdom” and is “not even a thrill-seeker,” nor an adrenaline junkie. “To me, the only good reason to take a risk is that there’s a decent possibility of a reward that outweighs the hazard.” Worst. Catchphrase. Ever. There’s an almost programmatic Average Canadian Voter feel to Hadfield: while waiting for his final launch, he listened to songs by Gordon Lightfoot and Great Big Sea. On the ISS, he drank Tim Horton’s coffee. Under his space suit on re-entry, he wore a Leafs jersey. And back on Earth, he admits to having acquired a habit of always picking up gum wrappers as he walks along the sidewalk. He’s like an extraterrestrial who learned to assimilate by listening to a thousand hours of The Vinyl Café.
Much of the book is structured as a kind of self-help lecture, with life lessons about the importance of setting goals, of training extra-hard, of sweating the smallest details, of staying humble and ready to learn more, and of the importance of never being a drag on your team, crew, or organization — all drawn from Hadfield’s own experiences. He recently signed up with a speaker’s bureau, and parts of the book feel a little like an infomercial for his services. At a certain point, I began to yearn for signs of weakness, pettiness, malice, or spite. He is human, after all. Right? (Right?)
Luckily, the straight narratives about the bliss and blisters of actually being in space simply can’t be made uninteresting, no matter how covered in life coach sauce. The accounts of Hadfield’s three missions are riveting and fun, and easily communicate the shock and awe that comes with seeing the planet from above. And yes, he does discuss — at length — the issue of going to the bathroom in space. I plan to read those parts to my daughter.
Source: Digital Access