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Space odyssey

Add bestselling author to Hadfield's list of stellar accomplishments

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Canadians will enjoy Hadfield's book not just because he's a national hero, but because they will see so much of him in  themselves.

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Canadians will enjoy Hadfield's book not just because he's a national hero, but because they will see so much of him in themselves.

Is there nothing this guy can't do?

Astronaut Chris Hadfield is Canada's superhero -- first Canadian to command the International Space Station, first Canadian to operate the Canadarm.

In a way no other astronaut has done, Hadfield captured the attention of most Earthlings, tweeting photographs of our planet in all its glory, shooting videos of life in space, chatting from space with that other Canadian space hero, William Shatner, playing the guitar and singing a killer rendition of David Bowie's Space Oddity in the first music video shot in space.

According to Rick Mercer, Hadfield even did Canadians' tax returns during his off time up there. (That might have been a joke, but no one's taking that bet.)

And now, at 54, the Sarnia boy who grew up on a farm near Milton, Ont., has written a memoir-cum-personal-philosophy book that is sure to become a bestseller.

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth is a strangely titled work. Yes, you could apply his personal rules for success in space to success on Earth, although the Canadian character is already pretty much lined up with them: be humble; practice makes perfect; assume things will go wrong and be prepared; quietly do your best work and don't shoot your mouth off about it.

But much more interesting are Hadfield's descriptions of life in space and in the space program, how his family coped with all the moving and a reluctantly absentee dad, how wrong is the maverick image that clings to an astronaut's job description and -- perhaps the No. 1 question Hadfield is asked -- how to pee in space.

The secret is a vacuum. The space station's pee apparatus is a yellow funnel at the end of a long white hose attached to the wall with Velcro. The machinery takes about 15 seconds to rev up to a good suction, and Hadfield warns you want that suction to be good and strong or there's quite a mess to clean up - and that mess will float up to greet you. When the astronauts are collecting urine for study, peeing for science as Hadfield puts it, the multi-stepped procedure is significantly more complicated.

Some scenes he describes stay with the reader a long time. On a spacewalk, his eyes become irritated, well up and then clamp shut, leaving him blind and clinging to the side of a spaceship. As he describes shaking his head about to try to clear his eyes, the reader's eyes well up in empathy.

One of the ways astronauts and cosmonauts kill time during their off hours on the station is to hold highly competitive races, floating as fast as they can the length of the space station -- as long as a football field and with many nooks and crannies to dodge -- and back. Although Hadfield is no braggart in other areas of his life, he proudly proclaims he once did the course in 42 seconds.

One element that could be adopted to Earth's business world is the miracle the space program performs when it takes the crème de la crème of its applicants, top fighter pilots, doctors who graduated head of their class, outdoorsmen who can survive any terrain, athletes at Olympic level performance and puts them in a program that trains the competitive edge out of them.

It's not true that a cowboy mentality is what makes an astronaut. According to Hadfield, that mentality could make a whole bunch of dead astronauts.

Teamwork, the ability to co-operate, to get along with everyone, to be a commander one week and take orders the next is what spells success and staying alive in space.

There's no room for ego on a space station, he says. Many a business executive would like to know how to achieve this trick.

Perhaps the most touching passages in the book are those about Hadfield's wife, Helene, and their three children.

She signed on to a challenging job -- there's no other way to describe being married to an astronaut -- barely out of her teens and lived up to it with flying colours. (In their wedding photo, Chris handsome in his red cadet tunic, Helene pretty with flowers in her hair, they look young enough to be on their way to the junior prom.)

Early days of his dream, when they had a toddler, a baby and another on the way, he was tempted to quit flying fighters and become a commercial pilot like his dad. Helene nipped that in the bud. "You wouldn't be happy, and then I wouldn't be happy."

No doubt she will be pleased he has accepted a three-year teaching appointment at the University of Waterloo starting next fall.

Hadfield calls her "intimidatingly capable," able to be parachuted into any city in the world and within 24 hours have found an apartment, furnished it with IKEA furniture she assembled herself and "scored tickets to the sold-out concert."

By the time he has outlined the criss-crossing of the globe they did to get his necessary training, it's clear Helene did all of that over and over.

Canadians will enjoy this book not just because Hadfield is a national hero, but because they will see so much of him in themselves.

For all his success in the U.S. and internationally, nay, across the entire universe, he is not just a quintessential Canadian hero, he is a quintessential Canadian.

Julie Carl is the Winnipeg Free Press associate editor, engagement. She once interviewed a man in Corunna, Ont., who pumped gas into Hadfield's car and said he was "a real nice guy."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2013 A1

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