A humble space travel

(Published in Agenda the Sunday magazine of The Pioneer Sunday, 02 February 2014

Within the narrative of space travel, the book is an effective self-help guide, says Arvind Paranjpye
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
Author: Chris Hadfield
Publisher: Pan Macmillan, Rs 595
The book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, by Chris Hadfield is exactly what it promises to be. I wish this book was there 10 years ago. Soon after the dreadful disaster of Columbia I had to face a large number of questions from youngsters, especially girls, wanting to know how to be an astronaut. This book would have served handy to me as an answer to their questions. Not only does the book tell you about how to be an astronaut and how to live life, but also educates you about the total working life of an astronaut: Pre-flight, in-flight and post-flight through a vivid description.
To make my process of reviewing easier, I decided to make notes while reading the book. But, before I realised I was too engrossed in the flow of the content that note-making was long forgotten. In simple words, I believe this is a well-written manual in which the instructions are flanked nicely on either side by words soothing one’s eyes. Since it is written by an astronaut, it had the element of space travel but I think the ‘guide’ is for whatever you want it to be — to help you achieve the best — a mountain climber, a diver, a player, a scientist, a finance wizard or even a politician.
The base line of Col Chris Hadfield’s guide is — be prepared and be humble. Every page of the book has at least one line that one would like to underline to be remembered. Indeed, one might consider over 284 guidelines is a big number but when you read that an astronaut’s go-through-checklist is longer than this, with a shorter time span and dependent on their memory, I think this appears to be relatively insignificant a number.
The crux of the book is, in the author’s words, “Be ready. Work hard. Enjoy it”. He writes further, “If you’ve got the time, use it to get ready. What else could you possibly have to do that’s more important? Yes, maybe you’ll learn how to do a few things you’ll never wind up actually needing to do, but that’s a much better problem to have than needing to do something and having no clue where to start. It fits every situation.” Doesn’t it?
The book begins with the mention of what many of us in their 50s have vivid memory of — the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. Chris, then aged nine, saw the event on the television and dreamt that someday he would be in space too. He embarks on this journey knowing very well that he may not reach the destination he has in mind.
He was a Canadian and knew very well that his chances of leaving Earth were only two per cent strong as that is the percentage of money Canada puts into the NASA’s space programme. He grew up in a time when Canadian astronauts simply didn’t exist. But he does bring glory to his nation. He remains a Canadian.
Reading this book was like listening to Chris unfolding his life story, probably at a bonfire in the background under a relaxed atmosphere. Each time I picked up the book, my mind was refreshed with the pleasure of listening to his narration of an event punctuated by other supporting stories.
In the last chapter, before he talks about his life on Earth after spending weeks in space, he narrates a story of how his friend Russ Wilson throws a black snake, which had found its way under Chris’s seat at the cockpit, out of the window of the twin-engine Beechcraft Baron which they were flying at 200 miles per hours 11,000 ft above ground. And then he narrates, “Coming back to Earth from space, I felt as though I was being rudely flung down from the heavens... In most lines of work there’s a steady, linear ascent up a well-defined career, but astronauts continuously move up and down, rotating through different roles and rank”. This is something to be kept in mind if one is aspiring to be an astronaut.
The author talks about many of his friends and the good time he had with them, what he learned from them. He had more than 700 friends on his guest list to watch his first flight.
He is not remotely negative about any of them, though he does acknowledge that he “worked with some difficult people, too”. He talks about “one particular abrasive astronaut” who “regularly swore” at him. He soon figured out that “the trick to working well with him was to understand that the problem was his, not mine”. He devotes just one page for this. He says rightly: “It’s a plus if you view criticism as potentially helpful advice rather than a personal attack.”
I am not sure if the three-part book with 13 chapters was intentional or it just happened and never changed to 12 or 14. On that passing thought, I would conclude by telling my readers to grab hold of this book — not just for those who are intrigued with space but for all those who would like to live their dreams.

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