“The Colonel Says”
AN ASTRONAUT'S GUIDE TO LIFE ON EARTH: What Going into Space Taught Me about Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything. Chris Hadfield. 304 pp. Little, Brown, 2013. $28.00.
Throughout his thoroughly engaging new book, Colonel Chris Hadfield—former commander of the International Space Station, veteran astronaut, and breakout YouTube star—keeps returning to the metaphor of the square peg in the round hole. Or, rather, his personal variation: square astronaut, round hole.
The phrase literally describes one of Hadfield’s most memorable moments, his first spacewalk during the STS-100 space shuttle mission to the International Space Station in 2001. “Poised on the edge of the sublime, I faced a somewhat ridiculous drama: How best to get out there,” he writes. “The hatch was small and circular, but with all my tools strapped to my chest and a huge pack of oxygen tanks and electronics strapped to my back, I was square.” To Hadfield, this one awkward incident becomes emblematic of an existential quest “to get where I want to go when just getting out the door seems impossible.”
That easy progression from the concrete details of space travel to sweeping personal reflections is the hallmark of Hadfield’s book. In another writer’s hands this material could easily have turned corny or preachy, but Hadfield is both incredibly experienced and disarmingly self-effacing. (At one point he relates that his children play a game called “The Colonel Says,” in which they mimic his earnest nuggets of life wisdom.) He believes in completing the mission effectively and efficiently, so when he claims that his book is “an astronaut’s guide to life on Earth,” by gum he aims to deliver on the promise of that title.
Hence, when Hadfield talks about “the power of negative thinking,” he frames it in terms of the intensive training that astronauts go through to prepare themselves for any conceivable disaster. That training, not an innate iron constitution, is what allowed him to go into space with confidence. In fact, he confesses to having fear of heights, enough that he cannot comfortably look over the edge of a high balcony.
The process of overcoming natural fear requires grueling physical effort, like long stretches spent underwater in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab—a 6.2 million gallon swimming pool in Houston where astronauts can practice spacewalks over and over, making the real thing feel familiar (or as familiar as possible) when it finally happens. I once watched the shuttle astronauts prepare there for the 2009 Hubble Space Telescope repair mission. Day-long stints underwater, strapped in a diaper and weighted space suit, practicing the same tasks over and over: It was fascinating, but not exactly romantic.
The intellectual process of going into space is also ferociously taxing, involving extensive consideration of different danger scenarios. Obvious risks like fire take on entirely new dimensions in an orbiting space station, where fires are harder to extinguish and have nowhere to go. By necessity no topic can be off limits. Hadfield describes a “death sim” in which his team has to consider what would happen if he died. Not just who would take over his duties, but who would tell the family, who would speak to the media—and what would they do with the corpse? As Hadfield dryly notes, “There are no body bags on the Station.” He doesn’t shy away from the real risks behind all those simulations, talking openly about the Columbia disaster that killed seven of his good friends.
Later chapters follow a similar approach, taking aphorisms like “sweat the small stuff” and “aim to be a zero” and backing them with powerful, pointed stories of Hadfield’s encounters as a student, explorer, colleague, and administrator. At the same time, he doesn’t skimp on the insider’s details that capture the magic of spaceflight as well as the sheer oddity of life offworld: “Spacewalking is like rock climbing, weightlifting, repairing a small engine, and performing an intricate pas de deux—simultaneously, while encased in a bulky suit that’s scraping your knuckles, fingertips, and collarbone raw.”
Although the book’s structure is not strictly chronological, it unfolds as a life journey, tracing Hadfield’s transition from a Canadian youth dreaming of the moon to a veteran astronaut focusing on science education. (“A lot of what happens to the human body in space is really similar to what happens during the aging process,” he confides.) In a low-key style, he makes a persuasive case that the oft-derided Space Station is both a marvel of engineering and a triumph for science, and he paints the cartoon heroism of the NASA astronaut corps in a much more realistic, and yet in many ways even more admirable, light.
Even as Hadfield was completing his last voyage into space he achieved his greatest moment of celebrity, a pinnacle of science outreach. His social media–savvy son Evan convinced Hadfield to record a cover version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” while aboard the station. He landed to find the video had been viewed on YouTube 7 million times (now 19 million and counting).
As Hadfield would say: square astronaut, round hole.
Corey S. Powell is the interim editor of American Scientist and former editor of Discover magazine. His blog, Out There, appears at http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/outthere.