I don’t know if this counts as full disclosure or just a cheap way into a review of Chris Hadfield’s memoir, but I applied to be a Canadian astronaut in 1983. The help wanted ad from the Canadian Space Agency was in the Careers section of the Montreal Gazette. I was unemployed and had just completed a Master’s degree in French literature, so I thought, Who could possibly be better qualified? My letter of application stressed that I had a good head for math and, if accepted, I would be the first poet in space. To this day, I can’t hear Roberta Bondar’s name without getting huffy.
Chris Hadfield applied for the same gig in 1992 and somehow got the job. All he had going for him was the ability to fly fighter jets in hostile territory, something about being the best test pilot in the world, a Master’s degree in engineering, a single-minded dedication to becoming an astronaut that had been inspired by watching the 1969 Moon landing at age 9, a high-school sweetheart who became his wife and supported his dream/obsession with unfailing love, a competitive streak as wide as the galaxy and a great deal of charm, brains and wit.
He went on to become the only Canadian to visit Russia’s Mir space station (1995), the first Canadian to spacewalk (2001), and the first Canadian to command the ISS. That final mission, which ended in May and lasted six months (he was ISS commander for its final three months), made Hadfield world-famous.
Or, perhaps more accurately, Hadfield made the space station world-famous by exploiting the power of social media from space. With help of his son back on Earth, he tweeted gorgeous pictures of lonely old Earth and carried on conversations with celebrities like William Shatner that helped him earn nearly a million followers. He also recorded short YouTube videos about life on the station and, most attention-grabbing of all, recorded a video of himself singing David Bowie’s song Space Oddity in the zero-gravity environment the ISS. The video garnered 10-million hits on YouTube in three days.
Hadfield is modest in his memoir when he briefly recounts these accomplishments – and they are accomplishments. The ISS is a pinnacle of human achievement. The experiments conducted there have already improved life on Earth and will some day make long-term space travel possible. His celebration of the space program, which was both hammy and sincere, helped build public interest in it during a time of earthly budget cuts.
The biggest part of this mostly charming book, though, is hinted at in its title: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. The spacewalking and spacetweeting are the stuff of glory, but the vast, vast majority of an astronaut’s working life unfolds on this planet. In professional hockey terms, Hadfield trained at the highest levels of competition for 30 years so he could pull three shifts.
His book openly addresses the demands (and rewards) of constant training, retraining and travelling, as well as the bureaucratic headaches of working in a government agency and the downsides of being an absent father.
A few too many of the stories he tells veer into “valuable life lesson” territory; maybe someone told him the book would do better if it had the repetitive tendencies of the self-help genre. Apparently the three most important things for a successful life are competence, being competent and understanding the importance of competence.
But most of Hadfield’s memoir is a page-turner, especially when he describes the smaller and stranger parts of space travel. Such as, when returning to Earth’s pull after six months in zero gravity, he can “feel the heaviness of the skin on my face.” That’s poetry, dammit.
Peter Scowen is an editor in The Globe and Mail’s Focus section.