Chris Hadfield to head International Space Station

Astronaut Chris Hadfield has spent the past four years preparing to pilot a Russian rocket to the ISS, where he will be the first Canadian to command the multi-national orbiting station.

Veteran astronaut 1st Canadian to command the station

Chris Hadfield was a glider cadet in the mid-1970s. (Chris Hadfield)

Chris Hadfield's hand shoots out to meet mine, with a precision I'm certain involved a complex, split-second calculation of my speed walking toward him, my mass and our separate trajectories as we approached each other.  His grip feels as positive and confident as the Canadarm 2 grasping onto a satellite.

While I'm still reeling from the impressive handshake, Hadfield begins speaking Russian, testing the authenticity of my last name. I feel embarrassed, and offer an apology for not knowing the language, even though my grandparents were Czech.

Hadfield doesn't know it, but in my head this meeting is answering a question I've had since childhood: could I be an astronaut? I imagine the universe sizes us both up, stifles a laugh, and whispers, "Seriously?"

Chris Hadfield is set to become the first Canadian to command the International Space Station when he embarks on his mission later this year. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Chris Hadfield is, of course, oblivious to the impossible test I've set for myself. He explains his use of Russian comes from having lived there several years, preparing for what he considers "an inconceivable pinnacle" in his life. At the end of this year, Hadfield will pilot a Russian Soyuz rocket to rendezvous with the International Space Station, and become the first Canadian to command the ISS.

"It's still basically unbelievable for me," he says. "It is everything I've done my entire life all wrapped up and put together in one enormous personal and professional challenge."

And it's not like Hadfield hasn't already chalked up some firsts: first Canadian to walk in Space, the first and only Canadian to visit the Russian orbiter MIR. But this is different.

Hadfield will spend six months orbiting the earth. While commander, he'll be responsible for the health of the $60-billion station and the lives of everyone onboard.

"It is all of the things that I have dreamed of and studied for and worked at," he says.

A childhood dream

Hadfield migrated from a military career as a fighter and test pilot to the astronaut program, as one of four Canadians selected to head to space in 1992.

Hadfield, at 52, is just two years older than me. I want to know when he first wanted to be an astronaut. It turns out it was the same moment I did: after watching the TV broadcast of  Apollo 11 astronauts landing on the moon.

"For me that was the seminal event, the great inspiration for me was just watching," he says. "That July night watching the first two people walk on another planet. It opened my imagination and everything I've done ever since then has just been the result of what's poured through."

Chris Hadfield was the first Canadian to walk in space. (NASA)

But the world was a different place politically in 1969. For me, my dream of wanting to be an astronaut was quickly crushed by my ever-practical father, who bluntly told me I couldn't be an astronaut for two very good reasons. First, I wasn't American.  Second, I wore glasses.

"I'm sorry your father talked you out of it," Hadfield laughs as I share my bitterness at having missed the chance to be on the rocket with him. "The majority of the Canadian astronauts wear glasses, so neither of those things ended up being a disqualifier."

But even at nine years-old, Hadfield approached his dream of going into space practically.

"I didn't say it out loud much and I knew the odds were horrible," he admits. "But I figured, some day maybe things will come around. I don't really want to move to the Soviet Union and become a Russian, I don't really want to move the United States and become an American. I want to do this as a Canadian. So let's just start getting ready."

From enemy to friend

Hadfield couldn't have known how it would all work out. In the 1980s, Hadfield was a Canadian fighter pilot intercepting Soviet bombers practicing cruise missile launches on North America. His job was to demonstrate an ability to defend the continent from an aggressive enemy.

"Just 10 years later, I was helping to build the Russian space station MIR," Hadfield recalls. 

For the last four years, Hadfield has spent much of his life in Russia, training for this one mission. Hadfield believes the ISS has been something of a rallying point for the human race.

"The world is messy and complicated and hugely imperfect," he opines, adding that the ISS is a necessary and inevitable step in human evolution. "It's right at the cutting edge of what we're capable of doing and that trumps a lot of the squabbling that goes on, the border squabbles and the typical strife that is regular humanity "

Rationalizing the risk

"It's never ending," he says of the training, not sounding like he's complaining. More like a kid in an amusement park boasting about how much he loves roller coasters.

"Everything from doing a space walk to fixing any of the machinery that breaks, to running any of the 100 experiments on board," Hadfield says as he rhymes off what could go wrong. "I mean taking out someone's  appendix...we have to be able to do it."

Getting to the station is another matter.

"It's a really daunting thing to be going out towards a rocket ship when everyone else is moving away from it cause it's full of fuel," he admits.

"The Russians are a little more laissez-faire than NASA is. But undoubtedly you strap in to a partially controlled, exploding tower. And hopefully, all of the explosion is going to come out in the right direction, so it pushes you the way you want to go."

And if it doesn't?  His quick answer flows like rocket exhaust.

"About 42,000 people a year die in car crashes in the U.S.," he says.  "And yet, everybody gets in cars every day. And people know there's a risk.

"A lot more people are dying for a lot of other reasons than exploring the universe. I'm one of the people who drives a car but also explores the universe. Some things are worth taking a little extra risk for."

A pilot most of his life, Hadfield has confronted danger in countless situations — not with bravado but by preparation.

"I am not a thrill seeker. I have no desire to bungee jump. I don't parachute.  What I really enjoy is controlling things that seem inherently uncontrollable."

But so much of orbiting the earth is uncontrollable, I suggest.  A piece of space junk the size of a grain of rice could punch a catastrophic hole into the ISS.  

Hadfield may not be a thrill seeker. But a bit of the steely resolve needed to be one comes through.

"You can spend your whole life being chicken little and hiding underneath the table," he reasons. "Or you can just accept the fact that life has no guarantees and anything worthwhile is not risk free and get on it with it. That's what we do."

Humanity's destiny

I return to the Moon landing, the spark we both felt which lit a fire that burns brightly inside Hadfield's flight suit and I ask him: "Why?"

Why spend the billions of dollars on the ISS? Robotic spacecraft have visited the farthest reaches of our solar system and have arguably yielded far more useful results than have flowed from the hundreds of billions of dollars spent putting fewer than 500 people into space.

Hadfield has resolved this question for himself, too.

"It's the same reason you're not satisfied having a robot go on vacation for you," he says without hesitation.

"You wanna go see the place for yourself. It's the humanity of the experience. Robots do some things far better than we do, but they're terrible at having a good time. They're terrible at absorbing an experience for the wonder of it. They're terrible at understanding how it fits into the history of our species and the history of our culture."

And Hadfield appears determined to translate the experience for the rest of us. Despite a demanding training schedule, Hadfield maintains a popular twitter feed, giving insight into his daily activities.  

He has also begun a musical collaboration with Barenaked Ladies frontman Ed Robertson. The two will create and perform a song for next year's annual Music Monday, a celebration of music in schools. Hadfield will be orbiting the earth at the time.

"We've taken the best of our technology and then used that to take us to a new place for humanity," he says. "Whether it was going over the first hill, or going across a lake or going across an ocean or leaving our planet. This is just fundamental human behaviour."

It occurs to me that's why I wanted to be an astronaut, at precisely the same moment Chris Hadfield did. I now have two small children, not much younger than both he and I were when we first had the dream of going into space. It's sometimes said that the first humans who will set foot on Mars, have already been born. So I ask Hadfield for some advice about what to tell my children if they see themselves there one day.

"Find something in your heart that really means something to you," he begins. "Then whenever you have a little choice in your life, shepherd yourself in that direction. Get the education, learn the things you need to know, and really evolve yourself, turn yourself into that person you want to be on a day-by-day basis. And it's amazing what a sequence of days can lead to."

Hadfield looks at his watch. I sense the window for questions is closing. There's not a lot of free time built into his schedule. I let him know that I will tell both my children I met an astronaut today. His hand precisely finds mine in a parting shake. 

"My son will be particularly fascinated," I say. "He often wears an orange flight suit and helmet I bought him from the Air and Space museum in Washington a couple of years ago." 

With a wry smile, Hadfield says, "Yeah, I have one of those too."