Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

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My, oh, my, two autobiographical non-fiction volumes in a month! What is happening to me? Well, combine how nice Mr. Hadfield seems to be to a life-long interest in the space race, and I was bound to pick up his book at some point.

Some ten years ago, I had read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff with great interest. Hadfield’s book is sort of an update of what the space race is about and on the life and work of an astronaut nowadays. Of course, the public education aspect of the space agencies has greatly increased over time and I think that we get more and more information in real time about that world. But still, this book gives a very interesting overview of what that life is about, through the life story of one individual. There are very candid comments about some detailed aspects of the life of the astronaut (space toilets!).

Some might find that there are some very interesting omissions as well. There is virtually no information regarding other Canadian astronauts. This may have as much to do with legal limitations as with a concern for letting others tell their own stories. It does give an impression though that they were hardly interacting which could hardly be possible, I think.

While the book certainly tells an interesting story, I found there was some amount of repetition and that the book could have benefitted from some additional editing to tighten it up. Maybe there was a rush to get the book ready for publication to capitalize on the current popularity and visibility of its author.

Now to say more about why this book is worth reading, there is an interesting section on Mr. Hadfield view of leadership which was quite reminiscent of the notion of servant leadership. He especially tells of situation where proving his leadership was very much about stepping back and letting others shine while playing a supporting role. In chapter 11, he talks about an incident where an emergency repair was needed and required a spacewalk (or Extra Vehicular Activity, EVA). He had experience with EVAs and would have like to do it himself. However, he was also the commander of the International Space Station at that time and the team on Earth had decided he would contributed by doing what needed to be done from inside the space station. He says:

All this went through my head and heart for a minute or two, then I made a resolution: I was not going to hint that I’d had this pang of envy, or say, even once, that I wished I was doing the EVA. The right call had been made, and I needed to accept it and move on so that we could all focus on the main thing – the only thing, really: working the problem. It wasn’t the test I would have chosen, maybe, but it was a test of my fitness to command the ISS. Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It’s about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter. It is about laying the ground work for others’ success, and then standing back and letting them shine.

It’s interesting given how we often perceive astronauts as heroes who take extraordinary risks and as sort of stars of the scientific world who do the glamorous stuff. However, based on what this book says, it is also very important to do all sorts of background work, so that the astronaut programs in particular, and the space agencies in general, can achieve their goals. That means that astronauts, like other professionals at work, get to do things they may not have chosen to do.

The other thing I was interested to hear about is the multicultural aspects of working in such a context of international collaborations. Chris Hadfield headed NASA operations in Russia for two years, and while there, chose to live in a Russian apartment building rather than expat quarters, so he would get a better chance to get to know people there and to learn more about Russia, its people and their lives. Of course this came after years of living in Houston, Texas, which was already a big cultural change from Canada (I know that from experienced, having greatly underestimated the cultural differences between Canada and the Southern US when I moved to North Carolina for three years).

So, all in all, an interesting read if you are interested in space exploration and the work of space agencies, as well as the personal journeys of some of its most visible actors.

Other things to look into:

http://blogs.houstonpress.com/hairballs/2011/08/5_astronaut_autobiographies.php

http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/14651.Best_Astronauts_Books

http://www.thespacereview.com/article/573/1

 

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