Non-Fiction Reviews

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

(2013) Chris Hadfield, Macmillan, £18.99, hrdbk, 296pp, ISBN 978-1-447-25710-3
£8.99, pbk. ISBN 978-01-447-25994-7.


Perhaps it's inevitable that some astronauts end up being remembered for just one incident or action, however brief or unimportant it was in the long career that brought them to that moment. Alan Shepard played golf on the Moon; Edgar Mitchell conducted ESP experiments on the way there; John Glenn saw fireflies in space; Virgil Grissom's capsule sank. Lots of astronauts and cosmonauts have taken musical instruments into space; but Chris Hadfield will be remembered as 'the one who sang Space Oddity'.

He changed the words and sang, "there's nothing left to do," not just because he was at the end of his mission, as the first Canadian commander on the International Space Station (ISS), but because he knew he would announce his retirement on his return to Earth. At that point he had logged nearly 4,000 hours in orbit on three flights into space, two by Shuttle and one by Soyuz, visiting both Mir and the ISS while under construction, installing the large and complex Canadarm 2, and accumulating more than 14 hours of EVA time, including an incident when he was temporarily blinded in a precursor to the more recent incident when Luca Parmitano's helmet flooded in space.

On his final mission he made some of the most extensive use ever of social media to communicate what he was doing to the world, much of it orchestrated by his son back on Earth, culminating in the music video which got over 10 million hits in its first three days online. But like most astronauts, he had to follow a long road to reach the mission for which he'll be most remembered, and it's that much more unusual because he's not a US citizen and doesn't even have dual nationality, unlike Michael Foale, whose story is told by his RAF father Colin in Waystation to the Stars: The Story of Michael, Mir and Me (Headline, 1999), and makes interesting comparison. Michael Foale is a scientist-astronaut but having been inspired by Apollo 11 Chris Hadfield followed the Air Force-Test Pilot route, like the early astronauts up to the end of the Apollo programme, which meant reaching the top of that profession as a Canadian within the US military. He was the top graduate of the US Air Force Test Pilot School in 1988 and US Navy test pilot of the year in 1991 before being selected as an astronaut. One achievement in that field of which he is justly proud is having demonstrated external fuel burning on a modified F/A-18 in 1991, the first successful test of a technology which will be important in future hypersonic flight.

Consequently his book makes a really instructive contrast with the biographies and autobiographies of the early rocket pilots, the ones who were so scornful of their colleagues who became ‘spam in the can' astronauts. (As former X-15 pilot Joe Engle said, after training for Apollo 17 and flying the Space Shuttle, "I've taken a lot of crap from Yeager over the years".) The first edition of his book was subtitled 'What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything' (not used in this edition) and after reading it, it is impossible to imagine him performing unauthorised aerobatics as Yeager did on the X-1, firing a compromised rocket engine in frustration as Bridgman did on the first flight of the Douglas Skyrocket, concealing broken ribs from flight surgeons as both of them did, or going into a Moon landing without radar as Shepard started to do on Apollo 14. The emphasis throughout his book is on taking no impulsive action, rehearsing every step, stopping to think everything through, especially when problems arise. One of his chapters is entitled ‘Aim to Be a Zero' and it's all about holding back, not striving to be conspicuously the best and making oneself useful with mundane tasks – a total contrast with, say, Buzz Aldrin's aspirations as described in Return to Earth (Random House, 1973). It becomes obvious that his rise to the top has a lot more to do with his role as CapCom of 25 Shuttle launches and his time as Director of NASA Operations at Star City than it does with his outgoing public personality, although that was already showing – particularly through his outreach work in schools – long before he became a star on the Internet.

It is a bit disconcerting that this ‘new man' astronaut is not only 14 years younger than I am, but has already retired. Still, that goes with the privilege of having most of the reach into space happen within my lifetime, and having become hooked on the subject early enough to appreciate it as it happened. There's a long way to go yet – and I've a feeling that we haven't seen the last of Chris Hadfield in the process.

Duncan Lunan

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