An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Ice?

I recently read the fantastic ‘An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth’ by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. His dedication to realising his childhood dream of going into space is truly inspiring and his account of the many important lessons learned through the entire process, from school to space-station are thought provoking and widely applicable. What I found particularly interesting about Hadfield’s experiences was how many are directly relevant to us polar scientists. While we may not leave the planet, the personal and professional challenges he describes provide common ground that will be familiar to scientists working in remote, icy parts of Earth. Below are some that particularly resonated. I wonder what “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Ice?” might look like?


  1. There’s a lot of time on land

Just as astronauts spend most of their time on Earth, most glaciologists spend the majority of their time off the ice. Certainly for most academics there is a precious window of field time in a year (funds permitting) during which every second counts. There is no guarantee of ever going back so every moment must be savoured and every opportunity taken. Field time is what got many inspired to follow cryo-careers in the first place – it’s the pay-off for weeks and months spent refining grant applications, hatching field plans in meticulous detail, ploughing through admin. However, most time is spent office, lab or lecture theatre-bound. Analysing field data, writing papers, engaging in outreach and education, lecturing to students, marking and dealing with endless admin are the daily bread and butter of cryospheric scientists. Satisfaction therefore relies upon enjoying many activities, not just those on ice. Chris Hadfield emphasised the importance of finding things to enjoy every day, not only those in space. We need to be happy and productive on dry land as well as on ice.

A great day exploring an extremely picturesque lake on the Greenland Ice Sheet (2015)
This is what a more typical day looks like through the majority of the year!
  1. Responsibility to deliver

Chris communicated his awareness of the public money that had been invested in his education, training and preparation, as well as in each space mission. Similarly, polar expeditions are usually funded by a trust or public money. Researchers therefore have a responsibility to do everything in their power to deliver useful, relevant science. There is a moral imperative not to spend extravagantly, to live frugally and stretch the budget as far as is safe and sensible, and to prioritise delivering quality results over and above personal experience and cryo-tourism.

  1. Responsibility to stay safe

 Working in the polar regions impacts friends, family and colleagues. Expeditions often take people away from home, sometimes without reliable communications, for months at a time. The environment is challenging and hazardous, and there is an emotional cost for those back home. In families, ‘life admin’, caring for children and/or pets, dealing with family emergencies etc. often go from being two people’s responsibility to one person’s. Even outside of expedition time, polar scientists often work erratic hours, sometimes in jobs that are secure for just a few years at a time and may require frequent relocation around the country/world. As well as appreciating this toll, and making efforts to reciprocate, polar scientists have a responsibility to make every effort to stay safe in the field, communicate when possible and avoid unnecessary risks. Furthermore, emergency search and rescue, evacuation and medical care can be dangerous and extremely costly, not to the same extent as experienced by Hadfield during his space missions, but nevertheless polar scientists have a responsibility to be relatively risk averse. See this astute review of some pertinent SAR issues. 

Costs for rescue helicopters can quickly reach tens of thousands of pounds and medical care is not always easily accessible.
  1. Sweat the small stuff

Cryosphere work often requires long periods of time in remote locations with a small team of researchers. There, details matter. A helicopter resupply to a field camp can cost tens of thousands of pounds and very few expeditions can afford or justify ad hoc deliveries of forgotten, broken or inappropriate kit. That means meticulous planning and preparation, spare everything and detailed inventories. However, sweating the small stuff also means appreciating the importance of small luxuries, making time for some frivolity and overlooking small annoyances to maintain camp morale and comradery. Ultimately, interpersonal relationships and the mood of a camp can have a huge impact on both safety and science. In the words of Tyler Durden, “let that which does not matter, truly slide”, but those things that do matter, really matter.

Small portions of a favourite coffee, chocolate, sweet etc, or an Ipod loaded with upbeat music are small things that can make a big difference in camp. (ph. Wikimedia Common, CCASA3.0)
  1. Aim to be a zero

On his space missions, Hadfield aimed to have zero impact. That meant not aiming prove his worth (+1), but being careful never to have a negative impact on a situation (-1). His aim was to deliver his science and not f**k up. Additional achievements were bonuses, not targets. He suggests real +1’s don’t need to try to prove their worth – circumstances often do that for them. Hadfield suggests that those who aim for +1 do not make great astronauts as they are preoccupied with personal achievement and competition with colleagues, so they do not jive well with colleagues over long stretches in close confines in a challenging environment. Same for polar scientists – if Hadfield’s book teaches us anything it is to value humility and altruism.

  1. Added value

 Many people know Hadfield’s music video – Bowie’s Space Oddity – recorded on the space station. This was a shrewd piece of outreach and public engagement, but it is just one of many things Hadfield does to add value to his work: Skype lessons with students, public lectures, popular science articles, TV slots, interviews, educational materials etc. For funders this adds exposure and impact; for scientists it offers a way to communicate the value of a piece of work to a wider audience. Cryosphere scientists are very privileged, since the majority of people will not interact with these remote environments. Therefore, we have some responsibility to communicate our findings and experiences. Education and engagement is an important part of being a polar scientist.


In summary, Chris Hadfield’s “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth’ is a great read for anyone; but for polar scientists it represents an easy-to-read handbook for how to act both in the field and on dry land. There are important parallels between Hadfield’s experience of space travel and work in the cryosphere; we can learn a lot from his experiences.

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