Rockstars in Space; Astronauts on Earth

I’ve never been one to dream about going into space. Packing for Mars and the movie Gravity, while both entertaining, did nothing to make me think climbing into a Soyuz and being shot into orbit was something I’d personally enjoy, even if it didn’t take years of rigorous selection and training to get there. But Colonel Chris Hadfield’s memoir, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, gave me a taste of what it’s like to want that more than anything and an appreciation of what it really means to be an astronaut.

I’ve never been one to dream about going into space. Packing for Mars and the movie Gravity, while both entertaining, did nothing to make me think climbing into a Soyuz and being shot into orbit was something I’d personally enjoy, even if it didn’t take years of rigorous selection and training to get there. But Colonel Chris Hadfield’s memoir, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, gave me a taste of what it’s like to want that more than anything and an appreciation of what it really means to be an astronaut.

There are plenty of stories in An Astronaut’s Guide, including the oft-recounted episode when a mishap with anti-fog solution rendered him effectively blind during his first spacewalk. But one of the anecdotes that sticks in my mind even more is the one about being in an air show that coincided with an Elton John concert. Hadfield describes his thought process as he weighed the probability of Elton John taking an interest in the air show, somehow finding out that one of the pilots was a guitar-playing astronaut, and inviting him on stage. Though the chances are slim to none, what would it hurt to be prepared? So he spent some time to practice something from Elton John’s catalogue (“Rocket Man,” natch) just in case. The on-stage appearance never materialized, but it’s a good illustration of applying the philosophy of “being prepared for anything” of the book’s subtitle, even when the stakes are something less than life-and-death.

These days no one is surprised at Hadfield’s skills with a guitar. Even before his recently released album, he got millions of YouTube hits for his rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” from orbit. Released on the eve of his return from the International Space Station as commander of Expedition 35, it was the perfect distillation of Hadfield’s tenure as commander and the face of the space program on social media, mixing the daily practicality of being in orbit and the wonder of floating above the world with a healthy dose of fun.

The video also prompted The Economist to examine the copyright implications of recording a cover song in space. While tangential to Hadfield’s scientific mission or even the public relations aspects of his job as an astronaut, it highlighted something that earthlings could stand to be more aware of — that the premise of Year Zero isn’t that far fetched, and copyright laws often stand in the way of awesomeness (my words, not the Colonel’s).

The other unintuitive takeaway from An Astronaut’s Guide is that while it’s tempting to call Hadfield a rockstar (and many have), it isn’t the most fitting metaphor. One of the lessons of being an astronaut is that it takes an enormous support team to make any of those adventures in space possible. Many have the desire to go to space; only a very few have the privilege of doing so at any given time. For the rest of one’s career, you are working hard to to make the program successful in whatever capacity you can contribute. While astronaut recruits are naturally high-performing and highly driven individuals who would perhaps be rockstars in any other context, come in with that diva attitude and you won’t be very welcome (or even very happy).

And that brings me to the other way that mankind’s exploration of space has inspired a quiet sense of wonder in me. When the Curiosity Rover landed on Mars in 2012, I stayed up to watch the landing. Although it wasn’t as dramatic as the movies — there’s no live video feed of the landing itself, and the first pictures arrived only after a delay and at a grainy resolution — there was a tension in seeing the teams of people who had dedicated years to this project watching eagerly to see if it had all worked as it was supposed to. And it did.

As someone who works in the software industry, I took a moment to marvel at the fact that what was essentially a 1.0 product did its job exactly as designed. Of course since then we’ve seen even more amazing feats with the Rosetta mission’s comet landing. The week following that achievement, I was in a meeting about a last-minute issue with a release and one of our developers said, “We landed a probe on a comet! We can solve this.” (His neighbor commented wryly, “We didn’t,” indicating the people in the room.)

And I think this is what we could all learn from the space program. Companies (particularly in my industry) post job openings looking for “rockstars” and “ninjas” and other improbable roles (although it’s unclear what stealth combat skills contribute to your typical technology company). If we want to reach for hyperbole, shouldn’t we be asking for the kind of people who do amazing things, work together toward a common goal, and — yes — anticipate possible failure scenarios and plan around how to compensate for them, rather than those who are so confident in their inherent talent that they are shaken when something goes wrong, and look for excuses rather than working the problem?

So, while I’m not buying a ticket on Virgin Galactic any time soon, I do think I would like to work with more astronauts, here on Earth.

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