An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth

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When non-sailors ask John and me what it’s like to live on a sailboat, we often equate it to being in a spaceship, as in the sailboat being a self-contained entity immersed in an environment that’s hostile to human life. But is our analogy correct? What do we actually know about life in a spaceship?

Well, now I know a bit more about it, having read fellow Canadian Chris Hadfield’s book, An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth.

Over a 21 year career as an astronaut, Chris has been to space three times, the last time as commander of the International Space Station. He has also been very successful in utilizing social media, bringing space into the consciousness of millions. (His Space Oddity video has had over 21,000,000 views and to find out what it’s like to live on the space station, you can watch a number of his YouTube videos—e.g. brushing your teeth in space, sleeping in space, etc.)

Back to the connection between spaceships and sailboats. What I learned is that John and I can continue to use our spaceship analogy with impunity since the connection between offshore sailors and astronauts runs even deeper than I thought.

Chris is often asked how he deals with fear and he devotes a lot of the book to explaining how he and his fellow astronauts overcome the rational fear engendered by sitting on top of a bomb as it is propelled into space (much more dangerous than sailing offshore!). His main points:

  • He served his apprenticeship by taking on progressively more difficult tasks over the years. He started as a pilot, then a fighter pilot, then a test pilot, then a trainee astronaut…you get the idea. He talks of developing a progressive sense of confidence rooted in actual experience and the simple fact that practice made him more skilled. John and I have also written about how important it is to serve an apprenticeship as an offshore sailor.
  • He learned how to use and fix every system on the spaceship, not just the ones he was assigned to. John has written that knowing how the systems on Morgan’s Cloud work gives him confidence when offshore.
  • He believes that preparation is vital. He visualizes a potential problem, he comes up with a plan to deal with it, and then he practices the skills he needs until he feels he is competent to deal with that problem. As he says, maybe you’ll learn how to do things you’ll never wind up actually needing to do, but that’s a much better problem to have than needing to do something and having no clue where to start. John wrote about having plans to deal with potential problems in his post Taming the Wimp Within.

A few other things I could relate to:

  • He believes that expedition manners are vital, just as we do. He likens it to everyone being either a –1, a 0, or a +1. Always attempt to be at least a 0 and hopefully a +1.
  • He reports that actually going into space is the smallest fraction of the work involved in being an astronaut: there is preparation, simulation, learning to fix everything, etc. We have found that the amount of time we spend underway is a fraction of the amount of time we spend working on the boat, planning our trips, etc.
  • He writes that astronauts are perpetual students. I wrote about that in one of my earliest articles.
  • He believes that if you take a risk, you must have a decent possibility of a reward that outweighs the hazard. That’s why he won’t bungee jump but he will go to space, albeit with an abundance of caution. Anyone who has read this site at all will know that we agree with Chris’ focus on caution and minimizing risks (see here and here for just a few examples).

A few weeks ago I was getting my hair cut (far from the sea) and I was surprised when the woman cutting my hair said she thought being offshore in a sailboat was exceedingly dangerous as it was just a crapshoot whether you lived or died.

I explained that having a properly prepared boat, serving your apprenticeship, preparing yourself by coming up with plans to deal with potential situations, and not taking unnecessary risks, were all part of staying safe. It’s very interesting to find out that this applies to space travel too.

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Phyllis has sailed over 40,000 offshore miles with John on their McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, most of it in the high latitudes, and has crossed the Atlantic three times. As a woman who came to sailing as an adult, she brings a fresh perspective to cruising, which has helped her communicate what they do in an approachable way, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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