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The Right Stuff: astronaut biographies from Glenn to Hadfield

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield gestures after the Russian Soyuz space capsule landed some 150 kilometers (94 miles) southeast of the town of Dzhezkazgan in central Kazakhstan, Tuesday, May 14, 2013. The Soyuz space capsule carrying a three-man crew returning from a five-month mission to the International Space Station landed safely Tuesday on the steppes of Kazakhstan. (AP Photo/ Sergei Remezov, Pool)

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield gestures after the Russian Soyuz space capsule landed some 150 kilometers (94 miles) southeast of the town of Dzhezkazgan in central Kazakhstan, Tuesday, May 14, 2013. The Soyuz space capsule carrying a three-man crew returning from a five-month mission to the International Space Station landed safely Tuesday on the steppes of Kazakhstan. (AP Photo/ Sergei Remezov, Pool)

An enduring image of an ‘astronaut’ was created for the public by NASA, Time magazine, and Tom Woolf’s The Right Stuff. These caricatures of  the original seven American astronauts, the so-called Mercury-7, chosen to assert American supremacy over the communist threat of Sputnik have seemingly endured way past their use by date. A resurgence in interest in ‘astronauts’ was made almost single-handedly in the English speaking world by the Canadian Colonel Chris Hadfield. His much publicised exploits, through the media of YouTube, as commander of expedition 35 aboard the International Space Station made obvious a change from May 5, 1961 when Alan Shepherd rode Freedom 7 into the history books.

In his autobiographical An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, the now retired Hadfield provides one of the most readable and honest stories of his journey from being a glider in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets in 1975 to commanding the international space Station in 2013 – after ‘only’ 21 years of astronaut training. He candidly describes the effort and training to get to being a modern astronauts – studying, practicing, learning, waiting, preparing for the worst – then being flexible enough to deal with the unexpected. What I liked is his can do approach as explained in his response to the 1969 Apollo 11moon landing and wanting to become an astronaut:

I also knew, as did every other kid in Canada, that it was impossible. Astronauts were American. NASA only accepted applications from U.S citizens, and Canada didn’t even have a space agency.

I was old enough to understand that getting ready wasn’t simply a matter of playing “space mission” with my brothers in our bunk beds, underneath a big National geographic poster of the Moon. But there was no program I could enroll in, no manual i could read, no one to ask. There was only one option, I decided. I had to imagine what an astronaut might do if he were 9 years old, then do exactly the same thing.

His laconic, sometimes counter-intuitive advise is always presented with a wealth of evidence to support his lesson. His Frank assessment of the impact of his dream on the rest of his family make a good reminder for all the corporate males who neglect family events for yet another sales meeting.

Hadfield’s book is a great read and compares favorably with two of my other notable astronaut autobiographies.

At the age of five I was devastated when my mum said to me that I could not become an astronaut. She dashed my probably overly enthusiastic boyish exuberance regarding space exploration explaining that I would need to be both American and a military pilot. Despite this early reality check, and taking a different path to Hadfield, I followed the Apollo program with enthusiasm – racing home from primary school to watch the historic moon-walk of Armstrong and Aldrin.

tumblr_inline_n2mmyn88bZ1rlx4dtOf those Apollo 11 voyagers only Michael Collins put pen to paper to capture his journeys as an astronaut in the vivid and captivating Carrying the Fire. Collins displays a fine writing style and wry sense of humor. He wrote from an earlier time than Hadfield. Collins was part of the “Apollo fourteen“, the third group of astronauts, after being unsuccessful for selection in the second group, the “New Nine”.

Collins adroitly describes his emergence as an astronaut, training for and flying on Gemini 10 with John Young and participating in the US’s third “space walk”. Collins was originally picked as part of the Apollo 8 crew. He was replaced by Jim Lovell when a bone spur was discovered on his spine, requiring surgery. He relates his feelings at losing this opportunity, Apollo 8 became the bold second manned Apollo flight all the way to circle the Moon, and then gaining his place in history as the Command Module Pilot of Apollo 11.

Other books from this era that deserve a mention are Deke Slayton’s Deke and John Glenn’s A Memoir. Both of these were of the Mercury 7. Glenn’s memoir is so straight that it strains the reader’s credulity. Extraordinarily enough it is all John Glenn – astronaut, married family man, US Senator – it is definitely one of an uncomplicated patriotic kind. Slayton was different, grounded with a heart irregularity and instead of flying became the first Chief of the Astronaut Corps and selected the crews who flew Gemini, Apollo and Skylab missions. His book, written as he was dying from cancer, covers the full space race period up to his retirement post the start of the Space Shuttle era.

Other books of note are books by Eugene Cernan The Last Man on the Moon, and John Young’s Forever Young.

My third must read astronaut autobiography though is Mike Mullane’s Riding Rockets.

This in my mind is a minor classic, again so different to both Collins and Hadfield. Mullane was part of the Space Shuttle generation of astronauts, the 1978 class of TFNGs (the Thirty Five New Guys), a group that included the first female NASA astronauts. This book contains an emotional level and cadence not pictured in other first hand astronaut memoirs.

tumblr_inline_n2mn02m7iu1rlx4dtMullane, a self-confessed inhabitant from planet ‘arrested development’ shares his growing pains in recognising that women could be colleagues and brilliant astronauts at that. His brutally honest depiction of losing his friend Judy Resnik in the Challenger disaster due to NASA hubris. Mullane describes in vivid detail the subsequent appalling bureaucratic treatment of the family members who were present at the disastrous launch. His own experience prior to this when STS-27 suffered near catastrophic heat shield damage from launch damage makes this description all the more poignant.

The whole fateful uncertainty of the Space Shuttle era, the “glory and the folly” of this remarkable era in human exploration of near space is wittily and cuttingly told. If you aren’t both amazed and angered in reading this memoir than I suggest you go back and read it again.

Chris Hadfield | An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth | Little Brown & Company | 2013 | ISBN 978-0-316-25301-7 | 295 pp | hardback

Michael Collins | Carrying the Fire | 1974 | 40th Anniversary edition 2009 | Farrar Straus and Giroux | ISBN 978-0-374-53194-2 | 478 pp | paperback

Mike Mullane | Riding Rockets | Scribner | 2006 | ISBN 978-0-7432-7683-2 | 382 pp | paperback

This review was first published on DragonLaughing here.

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