Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield

[Contains no spoilers]

Reading this book has all over again made me want to become an astronaut when I grow up. Chris Hadfield tells an incredibly personal story of how he became an astronaut, the challenges he faced, the adventures he had, and what he learned along the way that helped him become the person he wanted to be.

I’ve seen online that some people call this a self-help book, which isn’t necessarily true. Hadfield manages to apply what he learned in his astronaut training to everyday life and in turn offers us various suggestions on how to properly carpe that diem, take criticism as a good thing, and generally not be a total arse.

What’s great is he doesn’t say “you need to do this to become a good person.” But instead offers us with “I did this and it helped me become a good astronaut, try applying it to your life if you want.” I’m personally a little sceptical about all those ‘self-help’ books that you find advertised online. A lot of them are great if you want to make big changes and are willing to get out of bed 3 hours earlier to have time for some yoga before whizzing yourself up a green smoothie and heading off to work in your running shoes. But if, like me, you’re still just working things out but wouldn’t mind a little push in the right direction, Hadfield has some great ideas that can be applied to almost every situation.

At times I found the 300 pages a little information heavy and it was hard to keep track of the timeline and different meanings of Hadfield’s various jobs as test pilot, astronaut, guitar player, and CAPCOM. And there were moments when I got a little bored of reading about all the skills and qualities needed to be good at making sure you pushed all the buttons in the Soyuz in the right order. However, Hadfield always managed to end the chapter on a high note, whether it was with a useful explanation on how to be a great group contributor (something we’d all like to be good at now and then) or by telling an exciting story of how he was stuck, blinded, on the outside of the ISS for over an hour.

I initially bought this book for the geeky space side of it, and while it does include lots of useful advice, it certainly doesn’t lack in geeky space stuff as a result. Hadfield has taught me that being an astronaut isn’t all about flying around in rockets like I thought, but there are so many different elements to it that I never imagined existed. For example: he writes about the fact they have to take Russian lessons for months on end to be able to communicate with the cosmonauts on board, about the various traditions and ceremonies that take place before and after a mission, and (hilariously) about the ways the astronauts on the ISS entertain themselves by having zero gravity races through the corridors. I suddenly realised that there was even more to being an astronaut than what meets the eye.

It was also really interesting reading Hadfield’s descriptions of their training and of life aboard the ISS. Somehow he manages to make the science easy to understand and describes their day to day life in space in a way that allows you to imagine yourself floating around, looking out at the shimmering oceans of earth through the Cupola.

Overall, this book is a brilliant read with lots of really interesting space-geek orientated stories and insights. But this also doesn’t overshadow the books central message of how to become the person you want to be by taking life into your own hands and influencing what you want to do.

You can buy An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth off Amazon here!

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

[Contains no spoilers]

I promised to review this book sometime in November last year. Clearly I got distracted by giant man eating space worms – or some other equally credible excuse.

Set in 2035, The Martian tells the story of the Ares 3 space crew and their mission to determine whether Mars can become habitable to the human race. Or at least that’s what it would have been about, if it hadn’t been for a freak storm that forced the crew to abort their mission only six days in, resulting in their crew mate, Mark Watney, being left behind. On Mars. By himself. Oops.

From there, the book is made up of log entries made by Watney where he documents his life as the only human being on the entire planet…

To start with, I was a little surprised that the book was written almost in the form of a diary. It wasn’t quite the first thing my mind went to when I thought ‘thrilling science fiction’. However, a short way in, I realised how well it worked. With Watney being the only person on the planet, his log entries enabled us to share his feelings of loneliness and isolation because he was describing it as was, there and then.  It also allowed us to connect with the character. Mark Watney is, for lack of a better word, a smartass, and this comes across very well through the way the book is written. The character is able to tell jokes to us, share worries and concerns, and generally tell us what went on in his day. We’d lose all of this if it were written in third person, since there’s no one else on the planet for Watney to tell his jokes to…

One of the biggest things I loved about this book was how realistic it seemed. Realism adds to excitement because we believe it could happen to us. Sure, Godzilla is exciting. I mean whose ears don’t prick up when they hear about a giant prehistoric monster rampaging through a city? Do we believe it could happen tomorrow? Even in ten years? Not so much. But a space mission to Mars going wrong? Now that could happen, and possibly makes us just a little bit more interested in finding out how.

The two biggest reasons The Martian seems so realistic is how genuine the main character comes across, and how well researched the book is. I mean I don’t know about you, but if people start throwing around big scientific words that I haven’t heard before, I tend to think they know what they’re talking about. Because I certainly don’t! This book is full to the brim with scientific references, equations, calculations, and jokes. And I think it’s this excellent research by Weir that backs up the whole plotline and makes us believe it’s possible.

But have no fear, nerds of the arts world! If you’re like me and dropped maths and science as soon as you could at school so you could take extra art and English, this book is still for you! The thing that surprised me most was how much I actually understood what was going on. Or I did at least most of the time. Watney does indeed talk a lot about how E=MC2 and how speed=distance over time and all that jazz but nine times out of ten, he then goes on to explain what this means or why he did this or what the result of this experiment was. And then it’s as easy as pi(e) for us laymen to put two and two together and make 3.14.

(My only reservation here is that I couldn’t quite work out how to read some of the words and how they should be pronounced in my head when I read them. Not a problem though – I generally just made up my own way. Which turns out to be quite funny when you watch the film and find out you were totally wrong!)

Finally, I really liked how the book didn’t let you relax for a single moment. Whether it was in Watney’s logs or between the scientists in a panic back on earth, there was always something happening. And usually, that something was going wrong. But it made it exciting, and you could almost feel the tension that everyone in mission control feels when they’re staring at that giant countdown clock and hoping nothing will explode. As cheesy as it sounds, I couldn’t put this book down until I thought everyone was safe and nothing was going to go wrong immediately at the beginning of the next chapter.

To conclude: Just like a great science fiction book, The Martian is packed with humour, suspense, bad puns, and relatable characters. Every single page is a new adventure as we root for this character tackling all the challenges he has to face. And in the good old edge-of-your-seat style, there seems to be a new, terrifying problem on every page, right up to the very end.

I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone whether they’re a syfy fan, aspiring astronaut, poet, hater of maths, or giant man eating space worm.

You can buy The Martian by Andy Weir here! That rhymes…

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