Just five months ago, astronaut Chris Hadfield, then commander of the International Space Station, struck an emotional chord with millions of people with his in-space performance video of the David Bowie classic "Space Oddity."
As poignant and stirring as that now famous clip is, and as much as it introduced this legendary Canadian astronaut to the world, to truly experience Hadfield, I think, requires the reading of his remarkable new book, "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth."
Hadfield visited the Huntington Beach Barnes & Noble last weekend, and before he headed upstairs to speak, take questions and sign books for an adoring crowd that had been waiting for hours, I had the good fortune to spend some time downstairs speaking with the distinguished colonel.
It cannot be overstated what Hadfield's many videos from space have done for the world. He humanized and made accessible the experience of space travel for many of us, with his easygoing way of illustrating how simple tasks appear when performed in space (when he's not performing miraculous technical achievements during his space walks).
Whether brushing his teeth or fixing a meal, he turned millions of us back to the wide-eyed children we once were, dreaming of what it would be like to float around in space, observing the heavens from the heavens.
To today's children who have followed his adventures, Hadfield has become a modern-day hero in all the best ways. Whether above the atmosphere or on the ground, he has made it a point to speak to schoolchildren to give them a firsthand connection to what it is like to be an astronaut.
But the book is another experience altogether. Riveting, dramatic and intensely engrossing, Hadfield's engaging style as a writer puts you right alongside this almost absurdly compelling gentleman as he climbs the ladder from Canadian fighter pilot through two space shuttle missions and, ultimately, his serving as commander of the ISS.
The physical stamina it all requires, the politics, the PR, the team chemistry seem almost unfathomable. Almost.
Hadfield explains in vibrant detail not just what it feels like physically to become an astronaut, but also emotionally, waxing both scientific and philosophical. Part of his gift is his marvelous human touch, which allows the reader to vividly taste what these otherwise indescribable interstellar experiences are actually like.
In person, Hadfield proves that "The Right Stuff" is more than just a book or movie title. Precise, efficient and thoroughly engaged, he makes every second count.
He met my college-age son, asked him a series of questions in rapid fire, formed an instant analysis and then used that data to create a wonderful conversation. All in the span of about two minutes.
The subtitle of the new book is "What going to space taught me about ingenuity, determination, and being prepared for anything." In that sense, the book is not just an adventurous escape from the ordinary. It is also a blueprint for life, derived from thousands of hours of training underwater and across deserts, tundra and the cusp of infinity.
Hadfield goes beyond traditional "space traveling scientist" by imbuing the pages with morals, values and a poet's sense of beauty and wonder. After all, this was a little boy who wanted to be an astronaut and one day found himself tethered to a satellite floating in the sublime and beautiful void.
Thankfully, this sense of wonder is intact, and he frames that enthusiasm with his expert sense of professionalism and leadership. There are moments of pain and loss as well, so common in his line of work, and those moments are also powerfully and poignantly dealt with.
Hadfield's' lovely wife, Helene, was also at the book-signing. She and her husband, married since 1981, have raised three children, and her presence in the book is a formidable one. After all, as Hadfield writes, at times it can be tough being the family of an astronaut. You move all around the globe, as many military families do, yet there are myriad other time-consuming activities that can strain lives.
Hadfield talks about this frankly in the book and pays his wife a lion's share of credit in helping him achieve his career goals while holding the fort at home.
And, as he proved many times from space (while also appearing here on earth in a band that includes other astronauts), Hadfield is a musician who seems as inspired by music as he is by the stars. And that passion is well represented in the book.
When he appeared on the second floor at Barnes & Noble and the crowd caught sight of him from across the way, a wave of applause broke out. If it felt like the reception for a hero, that's because it was a reception for a hero.
Col. Chris Hadfield has endeared himself to the planet by being an exceptional teacher, leader and artist, and it's nice to see him here on earth reaping the rewards of his efforts — though one also gets the sense his misses being back up there.
This holiday, I cannot think of a better gift than Hadfield's new book. Yes, it will inspire, delight and leave the reader awestruck. But it will also teach and remind one of important life lessons and how to deal with adversity, thanks to a man who, in my view, simply defines exceptionalism.
Hadfield is a star among the stars.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new "Baseball in Orange County," from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.