The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth


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.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Dick Stevenson

Fun article. Thanks.
There is a podcast of an interview with Chris H (Teri Gross?) which was quite enjoyable and caused me to consider the similarities in the kind of attitudes we develop living on and relying upon out boats. I certainly found myself nodding in agreement when he reports that astronauts are continually looking around for what might kill them. I suspect it is only the awareness of danger that allows toleration for the relentless preparation activities, especially when compared to actual space time.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Pete Worrell

John & Phyllis: I attended the TED2014 Conference in Vancouver last week where Chris Hadfield was a live TED Talk speaker. He was terrific and received a standing ovation (unusual!). His talk is here:

Needless to say, I returned from TED with my mind spinning and my notebooks full.

Pete & Kareen Worrell


la seule analogie que je puis comparer entre les futurs navigateurs sur Mars serait si j ai bien compris ( traduit) l article de morgan cloud est L . INCONNU qui induit l esprit d aventure et d incertitude qu ont certainement eprouves les 1ers navigateurs qui ont decouverts l Amerique ……ULYSSE

Paul Mills

Hi Phyllis,
I read Chris’ book on holiday last half term. Whilst I agree with most of the refined wisdom – I have to say that overall I struggled with the book; and then realised that for me what it really brought up was concerns about how we live our lives, that space flight is possibly the least Green thing we could imagine; and to wonder what all those squillions of dollars and centuries of intelligent peoples combined brain power could have done for mankind if they focused on down to Earth fundamental and immediate needs…

I do agree about the safety mindset that is espoused and the value in thinking about what could go wrong, and how to mitigate risk and at the same time, as we all know and Chris reconises there will still be times when we are just at the mercy of things we cannot influence.