An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth


What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything by Chris Hadfield

Macmillan 2013 ISBN 978-1447257103 Also on Kindle

Recently I heard this book being read on Radio 4. It is by an American Astronaut who, at the time of writing, had “logged” over 4,000 hours in space and it rang so many bells I had to buy it.  The author saw the moon landing on television with his parents, one evening, at the age of 9.   He came out of the house, looked up at the moon and decided that he wanted to be an astronaut.   It remained his lifelong ambition.

He became a fighter pilot, then a test pilot (a whole new training) and then an astronaut.  The level of physical and mental fitness, the memory power and the absolute rule to learn from mistakes are difficult for us earth-bound creatures to take in, maybe impossible.

One of the striking and unavoidable points which comes across is how he learned to do what is needed, no more and no less: taking off, flying through space, landing – you must do only what is necessary.  This includes such ‘mundane’ tasks as packing  since where things are packed is very important in space for balance.

An important training method is referred to as a ‘sim’.   This is an operation or walk through of something to be done in space, but in simulated conditions.  These sims take place all the time, more or less, and when one is over, everyone involved gets to address the astronauts about what they did right and what they did wrong.  Six hour sessions are standard! Hadfield had to learn to take criticism, regard it constructively and to criticise himself constructively too.   Nothing personal could be allowed to influence his judgement or his decision making.

A minor leak in a space suit or rocket/ship cannot be ignored, so a situation can arise in which there is a leak while a major operation is in progress and suddenly very important messages come in from earth, from NASA.   How do you deal with them?   All at once, one after the other: prioritise, how prioritise?, follow orders, make your own decision, etc., etc.  The lives of yourself and crew and millions of dollars worth of equipment hang in the balance.

Among many incidents described in the book is one where he and a colleague are outside the ship in space attaching a special arm which is used for moving objects about. Suddenly, he experiences some irritation in one of his eyes.   The irritation grows until he cannot see at all using the eye.   He begins to think what can it be?   He remembers that within the make-up of his space suit is a substance which is fatal, if it gaseously leaks into his lungs,  they would collapse.   Could it be that?  He speaks to NASA about it; they tell him to continue.   He cannot touch his eye of course.   His companion carries on attaching the arm.  Then his other eye becomes irritated.  He realises that liquid of some kind has flowed across the bridge of his nose into his other eye.   Now he cannot see at all.  Both eyes are affected.

Minutes go by.  It is a serious situation.   Then his first eye begins to clear up, and gradually he regains his sight.   ‘Panic’ over.   When they return through the airlock to the ship, a thorough examination is carried out.   The culprit was a tiny drop of concentrated cleaning fluid, like washing up liquid, which had been left on the inside of the helmet when it was being cleaned! This had mingled with the naturally occurring vapour within the suit…

The secret of Chris Hadfield’s success and survival in space is an unconventional philosophy he learned at NASA: prepare for the worst and enjoy every moment of it.  And there is a question every astronaut carries with him, “What can kill me next?”

Paul Crompton.