Buckle up and make sure you’re wearing your g-suit, because this is one of those rare books that live up to all the hype. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth comes with ridiculously high expectations: it has a bunch of awards, and everyone gives it such glowing reviews. So, naturally, I tempered my excitement. As anyone who has read my reviews knows, I love space and science fiction. I welcomed the opportunity to read a book written by someone who has actually been to space. But I was not prepared for how inspirational and genuine Chris Hadfield’s storytelling would be.
I could quote a lot of this book in an effort to try to convince you it’s worth reading. I have underlined, annotated, and emphasized so many passages. Here’s one from the introduction:
Throughout all this I never felt that I’d be a failure in life if I didn’t get to space. Since the odds of becoming an astronaut were nonexistent, I knew it would be pretty silly to hang my sense of self-worth on it. My attitude was more, “It’s probably not going to happen, but I should do things that keep me moving in the right direction, just in case—and I should be sure those things interest me, so that whatever happens, I’m happy.”
Plenty of people dream of becoming astronauts. When Hadfield’s dream began at 9 years old, he also recognized that it was a long-shot. Canada didn’t yet have a space agency, and when it did, the selection process for astronauts was ridiculously competitive and often required a lot of luck. Then again, so much of life is like that. Hadfield’s philosophy, as articulated above, is level-headed and applicable to pretty much any aspirations: if you predicate all your self-worth on a mere possibility of the future; if you define success only by a single, perhaps unattainable goal, then you will spend a lot of your life unfulfilled and unhappy.
I suppose, in retrospect, the book’s title should have forewarned me; nevertheless, I didn’t anticipate how much of Hadfield’s thinking is relevant to our everyday life. Much of what he espouses fits with philosophies of mindfulness and self-compassion, which are increasingly popular these days and are things I am striving for within my life.
As a teacher, I keep coming back to how much of what Hadfield says applies to education too. He notes that the life of an astronaut is a life of constant learning, both in the traditional form of classrooms and tests as well as on-the-job experiences. There is no such thing as “knowing all there is to know” when you’re an astronaut; you’re constantly learning new things, training on new systems, and re-training on the old ones. The same goes for teaching, and indeed, I suspect it’s true for most careers. And Hadfield emphasizes that the process of learning is a communal effort:
The debrief is a cultural staple at NASA, which makes this place a nightmare for people who aren’t fond of meetings. During a sim, the flight director or lead astronaut makes notes on major events, and afterward, kicks off the debrief by reviewing the highlights: what went well, what new things were learned, what was already known but needs to be re-emphasized. Then it’s a free-for-all. Everyone else dives right in, system by system, to dissect what went wrong or was handled poorly. All the people who are involved in the sim have a chance to comment on how things looked from their consoles…. It’s not a public flog: the goal is to build up collective wisdom.
I love this idea of debriefing and want to use it in the classroom. I’ve recently gone gradeless, attempting instead to re-focus students’ attention on what really matters: the actual learning, the use of feedback and self-assessment to monitor and improve learning, and community in the classroom. Debriefs, or guided discussions, are nothing new to a classroom, of course, but Hadfield articulates the process here clearly and empathetically. Throughout the book, he points out that it’s possible to be helpful and to provide constructive criticism without tearing people down.
Hadfield writes with humility despite being one of the few humans who have visited space. He chronicles the majesty and wonder of space flight with all the zeal one might expect of an astronaut. Reading his description of the nail-biting, g-force–inducing ascents and descents, with the miracle of life in microgravity in between, truly rekindles all the passion and enjoyment for stories of space travel that I have felt ever since I started watching Star Trek in my childhood. Hadfield also explains, in sometimes too-great detail, the mundane aspects of life in space, such as how he pees into a cup (for science) when weightless…. Suffice it to say, I don’t want to be an astronaut. And as much as we romanticize the career, it’s clear that the life of an astronaut is more waiting to be in space than actually being in space, and that life in space is not all it’s cracked up to be.
The last few chapters of the book are as heartbreaking as they are honest and amazing. Hadfield recounts his third and last mission to space, sharing the feelings of the final re-entry and his subsequent retirement from the CSA. It’s bittersweet, and Hadfield doesn’t mince words as he shares some of his melancholy moments—but overall, the tone is one of enduring appreciation and pride. He has so much enthusiasm for his ongoing goals to educate and inspire passion for human space flight. We get a little blasé about pictures from space these days, I feel, just because the Internet makes it easy to disseminate them so quickly. Seeing the Earth from space in person must be such a different, jaw-dropping experience, though. Even having read his description of it, I cannot imagine what it must be like to gaze at the Earth from the Cupola of the ISS, knowing it’s the very last time you will ever see the planet in this way in person.
Hadfield closes by reminding us to find satisfaction in the small things in life:
If I’d defined success very narrowly, limiting it to peak, high-visibility experiences, I would have felt very unsuccessful and unhappy during those years. Life is just a lot better if you feel you’re having 10 wins a day rather than a win every 10 years or so.
And just like that, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth is a welcome tonic to the voices that encourage us to measure success in the currency of celebrity or wealth or visibility. We define what success means to us. I have no reservations recommending this book: it’s a great, interesting, uplifting read.