Sunday, December 15, 2013

To Infinity and Beyond!

So I finally interrupt my blogging hiatus thanks to a book I read which happens to be one of a kind. The author of the book is (now retired) Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who as recently as May 2013, served as the Commander of the International Space Station (ISS). Cmdr Hadfield (Twitter: @Cmdr_Hadfield) is well known for his splendid efforts in using social media to give the world a closer look at space exploration and life in space. His book, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything, while written as a memoir where he talks about how he came to achieve his childhood dream of making it to space, can also be read as a self-help guide for motivated individuals from any profession. 

Cmdr Hadfield is a mechanical engineer by training who served as a fighter pilot before joining the Canadian Space Agency, through which he made his entrance into NASA. During his career, he made three space expeditions. His first expedition (1995), STS-74, was to the Mir space station via the Space Shuttle Atlantis. His second expedition (2001), STS-100, was to the ISS via the Space Shuttle Endeavour. His third and final expedition (2013), Expedition 35, happened after the US suspended its Space Shuttle program. He therefore flew to the the ISS on a Russian Soyuz. While his career trajectory may appear fairly linear, Hadfield explains how that is far from reality:
Square astronaut, round hole. It’s the story of my life, really: trying to figure out how to get where I want to go when just getting out the door seems impossible. On paper, my career trajectory looks preordained: engineer, fighter pilot, test pilot, astronaut. Typical path for someone in this line of work, straight as a ruler. But that’s not how it really was. There were hairpin curves and dead ends all the way along. I wasn’t destined to be an astronaut. I had to turn myself into one.
The "square astronaut round hole" phrase is both literal, describing the ordeal of making a clumsy egress through the tiny round hatch of the ISS for a spacewalk while being laden with all kinds of gear, and also figurative, describing the life of an astronaut as a quest where one is constantly trying to adapt and perform one's best while deep uncertainty looms. Very few of those who train to become astronauts actually get selected by space programs and many titular astronauts end up never going to space. Even for those who do, things could go wrong at any point in an expedition. After months of preparation, space missions very often face sudden, indefinite delays at the last minute for all kinds of reasons, the simplest of them being weather. While in space, astronauts are in constant wait for the unforeseen, for example failure of equipment or a meteor strike. And sometimes, it does not end well, as we know from the Challenger and Columbia disasters (1986 and 2003 respectively) in which a total of 14 astronauts perished. Thus, getting selected as an astronaut, while an intensive and hyper-competitive procedure, is not an end, merely the means to one. In Hadfield's picturization, an astronaut is a perpetual student tirelessly preparing and "cramming" in order to be ready to act at the spur of the moment. 

Cmdr Hadfield spends several chapters on some key qualities of astronauts drawing interesting parallels for how they may be handy both in space and on Earth. He emphasizes on attitude. Incidentally, for a spacecraft, the term “attitude” refers to orientation. Thus, from the perspective of the spacecraft, the attitude, which "could mean the difference between life and death," requires constant monitoring. From the perspective of an astronaut in space, one's attitude is one of the the very few variables that are not out of his or her control and best be consciously monitored and corrected. From the perspective of an earth-dwelling professional, monitoring one's attitude is also one of the best options at hand since key determinants of one's actual career trajectory can often be out of one's control. 

He also emphasizes the power of negative thinking, which involves thinking through every possible worst case situation so that one has a true picture of the risks involved. In a real crisis, he says the "only hope is knowing exactly what to do and being able to do it calmly and quickly." Astronauts therefore are trained to develop a whole new set of instincts which enable them to replace their intrinsic fight-or-flight adrenaline rush by the ability to "respond unemotionally by immediately prioritizing threats and methodically seeking to defuse them." While such a mindset would be immensely valuable in our mundane earthly lives, in space, however, the stakes tend to be significantly higher:
Preparation is not only about managing external risks, but about limiting the likelihood that you’ll unwittingly add to them. When you’re the author of your own fate, you don’t want to write a tragedy. Aside from anything else, the possibility of a sequel is nonexistent.
Another important attribute he says is the need to "just sweat the small stuff." Then of course there is the need to be able to lead the way when needed and also to be able to suppress one's own hyper competitive streak and help colleagues succeed. The book is rife with some very enjoyable anecdotes from his space missions (for example, one is about his brief blindness in the middle of his 2001 spacewalk to install the Canadarm2 on the ISS and another about the unplanned, emergency spacewalk under his supervision in 2013 to fix the malfunctioning coolant system for the ISS) and some from his survival training experiences in remote and unfriendly corners of the earth (for example, the cold mountainous terrains of Quebec in February and the deep waters of the Black Sea in the sweltering summer heat). 

Cmdr Hadfield is well-recognized for his pioneering efforts as an astronaut in using social media to generate public interest in space exploration. His YouTube video "Space Oddity" (which currently has over 19.5 million views) is well worth a watch. Soon after finishing the book, I found myself weaving through a wealth of Wiki pages, news articles, and YouTube videos to satisfy the renewed curiosity in space exploration this book sparked in me. In my current earthbound state, I can only imagine what it might feel like to view our little planet from space. From a purely aesthetic viewpoint, I found the opening paragraph describing the view of the Earth from the ISS both exciting and refreshing and would like to end this post with it: 
Every 92 minutes, another sunrise: a layer cake that starts with orange, then a thick wedge of blue, then the richest, darkest icing decorated with stars. The secret patterns of our planet are revealed: mountains bump up rudely from orderly plains, forests are green gashes edged with snow, rivers glint in the sunlight, twisting and turning like silvery worms. Continents splay themselves out whole, surrounded by islands sprinkled across the sea like delicate shards of shattered eggshells.

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