As he prepares to become the first Canadian astronaut to command the world's space station, Chris Hadfield vividly recalls the "watershed moment" that inspired him to pursue this pioneering path as a nine-year-old boy.
He was glued to a neighbour's television set watching Neil Armstrong take the first human steps on the moon in 1969.
"It was huge. It was everything that would absorb the dreams of any nine-year old kid around the world – including this one growing up in Canada," Hadfield said in an interview with CBC News Network's Power and Politics.
"To see that successfully carried out against what seemed like impossible odds for the first time in human history, for us to leave this Earth and go to another planet not because we had to, but because we just barely could, was hugely inspiring."
In the interview with host Evan Solomon from Tsukuba, Japan, where he is training for his upcoming six-month mission to the International Space Station, Hadfield recalled Armstrong as a quiet, thinking man and a private person.
Flags are flying at half-mast across the U.S. Friday as family and friends hold a private funeral service for Armstrong, a historic hero who died last Saturday at age 82. A public national memorial service is being planned for Washington in the next two weeks.
Hadfield also recalled the geopolitical climate at the time of Armstrong lunar landing on July 20, 1969 – in the midst of the Cold War and the space race becoming an extension of that. Political pressure was heightened after the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy to ensure his legacy was fulfilled.
But since that first American flag was planted on the moon, exploration has developed into an international collaboration in terms of both crews and financial support, Hadfield said.
"It's a direct line from the footsteps that Neil and Buzz [Aldrin] put on the moon, and I think it's a line has really gone in the right direction. And I think Canada's part in it is a smart and enviable one," he said.
Space program a worthy investment
Hadfield, a 53-year-old former Canadian Forces fighter pilot, said even in an era of budget cuts and financial restraint, space programs are well worth the investment. Government spending should strive to achieve a balance and the Canadian Space Agency works to maximize every tax dollar it receives, he said.
'If we Canadians choose not to be in the space program, all the Canadian kids that are interested in it will leave and stop being Canadians.'—Astronaut Chris Hadfield
"What percentage of everyone's shared wealth in Canada should we spend on health and welfare, and infrastructure, education and exploration?" he said. "If we give up completely on one of those it is at our own peril — you have to balance the amount of money. It's always some kind of austerity — no one has an unlimited budget."
Even during the glory days of space exploration with the moon landing, subsequent landings were cancelled in the name of austerity, he recalled. The Canadian Space Agency has had an annual budget of about $300 million a year, but faces a 10 per cent reduction in the next three years.
Hadfield hopes the investment in CSA will continue.
"Even amongst all the current pressures, the financial pressures the political pressures, it is still important to do things that challenge our young Canadians, that give a young Canadian kid growing up the thought that 'I can do something that is right at the edge of our capability technologically or philosophically,'" he said.
"If we Canadians choose not to be in the space program, all the Canadian kids that are interested in it will leave and stop being Canadians ... I think the important part is balance."
On Dec. 5, Hadfield is set to inspire another generation of kids when he launches on the Russian Soyuz for a six-month mission to the International Space Station. He will serve as commander on the second portion of the mission — becoming the first Canadian astronaut to act in that role, and only the second Canadian to take part in a long-duration mission.
Training, simulations and practice all prepare him for the risks and complex tasks at hand. And while some might reel at the thought of a half-year away from family and the Earth, Hadfield said six months goes by "in a hurry" and that the important part of any period of time is to "make the absolute most of it."
He learned that lesson early — from Armstrong.
"Despite the historic words that Neil said on the moon — of 'one small step for man' and one giant leap for the rest of us, for all mankind — he was not a man of a lot of words. He was a man of quiet accomplishment, a person who spent decades giving himself the skills and the capability to be able to do some new and extremely hard things and do them well," he said.
"I have taken that to heart my whole life, to really honour the necessity for personal excellence and to make the most of myself. That's what I learned from Neil Armstrong. That's what I think about when I think of having met him and think about what his legacy is. And it's what continues to inspire me today."
Armstrong's family is asking people to pay tribute to the Apollo 11 moonwalker by winking at a rare "blue moon" Friday night – that's when there's a second full moon in a single calendar month. It won't happen again until 2015.
Watch the full interview with Chris Hadfield on Power & Politics with Evan Solomon at 5 p.m. ET Friday.