Space for Ambition: Chris Hadfield's Guide to Life

01/06/2014 05:18 EST | Updated 03/08/2014 05:59 EST


By Michael McKenna

Colonel Chris Hadfield's book opens with a brief description of the wonders of seeing Earth from space. For a few short paragraphs, the reader is treated to depictions of the sunrises ("a layer cake that starts with orange, then a thick wedge of blue, then the richest darkest icing..."), the forests ("green gashes edged with snow") and the rivers, which twist and turn "like silvery worms." In the space of a few pages, however, this all ends, leaving a paean to meticulousness in its place. This book, as it turns out, is less about space than it is about being a certain sort of person.

Chris Hadfield became a viral celebrity (what a term) because he seemed like a cool guy who happened to be an astronaut. As his memoir illustrates, though, the truth is the opposite: Chris Hadfield's main goal was never to be a cool guy. Guys who make this their main objective do not tend, by age 54, to leave "cool" as their primary impression. By that point, lives lived in service to coolness tend to produce other visible effects: disappointment, sometimes, or a sense of desperation. The reason Chris Hadfield came off the way that he did was because he had done all of the groundwork. Since the age of 9, he has lived a life of crossing every "t" and dotting every "i". The good humor for which he became famous is not the light melody of insouciance, but the profound calm of achievement.

In 1969, at a cottage on Canada's Stag Island, a 9-year-old Chris Hadfield watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. At that moment, like millions of small boys across the world, he decided that he wanted to be an astronaut. Unlike the vast majority of these boys, however, Hadfield understood that "getting ready wasn't simply a matter of playing 'space mission' with [his brothers]." As Hadfield puts it, he "had to imagine what an astronaut might do if he were nine years old." So he did. In secret and without telling anyone, because he knew that telling, at times, provides enough of a thrill to preclude doing. "Would an astronaut," he wondered, "eat his vegetables or have potato chips instead? Sleep in late or get up early to read a book?" By this early point in his story, one already knows that Col. Chris Hadfield always chose Brussels sprouts and alarm clocks. Chris Hadfield's personal motto is "Be Ready. Work. Hard. Enjoy It." According to Hadfield, it's a formula that "fits every situation."

There are points in Hadfield's book where the steely-eyed, down-to-business, hyper-rational spaceman shtick (that isn't a shtick at all, but rather the only way to be someone like Chris Hadfield) can become inadvertently humorous. At one point, he describes a type of conference known as a "death sim[ulation]," which takes as its starting point one's off-planet demise and continues with tasks such as corpse disposal, media relations, and the informing of relatives.

According to Hadfield, such sessions are in no way "weepy" or "grief-stricken." Instead, the astronaut describes these conferences, at which he contemplates things like the jettisoning of his lifeless body into the universe, so that it may forever orbit his former home in a grotesque, inverted parody of burial, as "brass tacks." Brass tacks. Pinning one like a preserved butterfly to the starry curtain of night, thousands of miles above the only place that could ever call you its own... Couldn't these sort of thoughts strike you with just a little bit of grief? They could, but that would be unproductive. And reading An Astronaut's Guide, one becomes very aware of the difference between productive and unproductive thoughts.

Chris Hadfield is the sort of hard worker who cannot understand why everybody is not a hard worker. Why do people who want certain things spend their hours in ways that will not lead them to their goals? Why do people waste their time? There is a great section in which he describes watching Survivor and wondering why the show's contestants continue, year after year, to "show up without knowing the basics."

With every new season, he is surprised that these people cannot build fires, that they do not know how to fashion shelters from branches. It's a wonderful section, because it illustrates how far the "Hadfield model" is from the pop culture model, the fame model, the sex-and-money dream-model of contemporary life.

The reason that Survivor contestants are not particularly good at surviving is because they are not people who focus on preparedness. They are neither meticulous nor competent. They are, however, pretty and confident and outgoing, and in the non-astronaut realms of life, these things matter a great deal. Possibly (almost certainly) too much. But they matter.

Compared to a guy like Col. Chris Hadfield, your average reality-show participant is barely even awake; they are dream-dancing to fantastical tarantellas of imagined money and fame, and they are chosen by the show's producers because, in this way as in many others, they are "relatable." Most of us are not like Chris Hadfield. Most of us could never have been astronauts. So how applicable is his story to the rest of us, the underprepared and the dreaming, the bluff artists and last-ditch diggers who populate the earth at its mere surface levels?

Whenever a strong view is presented, one feels compelled to imagine its opposite. In the case of Chris Hadfield's book, whose existence is inextricably linked to the acoustic performance of "Space Oddity" that catapulted him to YouTube fame in mid-2013, one finds oneself contrasting the life and times of Col. Hadfield with those of the song's author.

On the surface, the Chris Hadfield and David Bowie models could not be more different. Where one appears characterized by meticulous planning and preparation, the other seems a haphazard mixture of cocaine and decadence. In one section of An Astronaut's Guide, Hadfield contrasts the (sometimes accurate) stereotype of the cocky, "Right Stuff"-having astronaut with the required reality, concluding that such individuals "go from being considered rock stars to having a reputation as people you can't count on." But who would consider a rock star as someone they could count on?

Surfaces, as Hadfield finds out when he mistakes the Southern Cross constellation for the boat-strewn coast of Chile, are deceiving. While one may imagine, with some accuracy, David Bowie nodding off in a 1970s Berlin drug den, there remains the question of what separated the renowned musician from the fans, fixers and dealers who surrounded him.

When one looks into it, one finds that the David Bowie of 1969 -- the year "Space Oddity" was released -- was, substances aside, more like Chris Hadfield than one might have imagined. In December 2012, the Telegraph published a 1969 letter from Bowie to a concert organizer in which the rock star obsesses over things like door policy, volume levels and promotional materials.

Above all, the rock star emphasized, drugs should not be allowed into the venue. In this document, one finds that the Hadfield model and the Bowie model are not, in the end, so far apart: Achievement requires planning and forethought. Contingencies must be addressed and possibilities accounted for. This is not merely the stuff of hyper-rational spacemen or military test pilots; it's the stuff of success itself.

Not everybody is inclined to these sorts of procedures, or this sort of success. In An Astronaut's Guide, there is a constant tension between the inspiring and the inaccessible, between "get up off your ass and get it done" and "you would never approach things this way, not in a million years." No matter how folksy or plain-spoken he can seem, Col. Chris Hadfield is not an average guy. He's an astronaut. He represents the absolute pinnacle of a certain type of single-minded drive, and he has lived his entire life in service of an incredibly specific goal. In the end, he's (literally) up there, and we're down here. But we're listening. And though we may not always be able to follow our own objectives with the clarity and sense of purpose that he does his, there is a lot to be learned from looking up.

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