When Chris Hadfield was a southern Ontario farmboy dreaming of being an astronaut, it just couldn't happen.
Canada had no astronaut program and no Canadian could realistically expect to follow in the American footsteps Neil Armstrong had planted as the first man on the moon in that steamy summer of 1969.
Forty-three years later, the trail-blazing Hadfield is in quarantine in Kazakhstan, waiting to blast off in a Soyuz capsule for the International Space Station, making history — again — when he takes over as its first Canadian commander in March.
"For me, it is just surreal," the 53-year-old astronaut said in an interview this week from Star City, Russia, where he spent several weeks training ahead of the Dec. 19 liftoff.
Hadfield talks thoughtfully of the professional and national significances of his upcoming command.
"As an astronaut, it's a pinnacle," he says. "It is the highest level of responsibility of an astronaut to command a spaceship because of course, the lives of the … people on board are my responsibility."
As a Canadian, he sees it as the latest notable step in the country's 50-year-old space program, which began when a 145-kilogram Alouette-1 satellite piggybacked on a U.S. rocket.
"It did very well, but still was, in perspective, a fairly small thing to the point now where you go through all of the satellites, the technologies, Radarsat, Canadarm, Marc Garneau, the other astronauts that have flown, now to the point that a Canadian is commanding a spaceship," he says.
But when Hadfield considers the personal significance of his upcoming command, that giddy schoolboy enthusiasm he had in Milton, Ont., in the late 1960s seeps out again.
"To be able to command the space station, yes, it's professional, and yes I'll take it seriously and yes it's important for Canada, but for me as just a Canadian kid, it makes me want to shout and laugh and do cartwheels."
In ways, it seems, he cannot believe what he's about to do.
"You expect someone to come in and go, 'Wait a minute, you aren't a guy that could command a spaceship, come on.' You expect to get busted by somebody because it's just such an unlikely thing to ever happen in your life, and so it absolutely thrills me just as a person."
It's a thrill 20 years in the making.
Hadfield, a Canadian Forces fighter pilot who has a degree in mechanical engineering from the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., was chosen to become one of four new Canadian astronauts in 1992.
Since then, he's flown on two NASA space shuttle flights and became the first Canadian to operate the Canadarm in orbit. He has done two spacewalks, and was the first Canadian to float freely in space. Training for the space station mission has consumed the past four years.
Key to all of his preparation over the past two decades, Hadfield says, is knowing how to learn.
"There's so many things that we need to know just to keep us alive, but also to be successful and I was lucky enough to come through a Canadian education system that not only taught me facts but taught me how to learn, how to put things into my brain so that I can get them later or if I can't, how to put together a decent set of cheat notes so that I can refer to it six months from now," he says.
"If we don't do our first grapple of a visiting vehicle with the Canadarm until May, you know, how am I going to be fresh and keen and sharp on everything with as complex a thing as Canadarm2 if I haven’t actually had my hands in one since here in the simulator … in late November?"
But for all the information he has stored in his mind, these weeks now are a time to strip down to what really matters to him for the next few months on the space station.
"We really need to pay attention to the core of what's happening and that is on the afternoon of the 19th of December, to be able to walk out to the spaceship, healthy, well rested and with everything in order in our lives so that we can be absolutely ready to handle whatever goes on for the next six months," he says.
"That goes right from a fire or a problem with the vehicle sitting on the launch pad, a launch abort or problems docking or any sort of problem that might occur during our five months on the station and then our return to Earth in late May."
Even more mundane matters have been on his mind, like making sure everything is sorted out for filing his taxes.
"It's kind of almost a stripping away of the noise of life and focusing very much on the specific music of what needs to happen now."
When not consumed with experiments, spacewalks and just making sure all is well on the space station, Hadfield would also like to make some real music. A guitarist, he hopes to record songs he composed with his brother. Hadfield hopes to premiere a new song for Music Monday 2013 in March, an interstellar jam session with Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies performing back on Earth.
'Nose to the glass'
Other quieter moments could give Hadfield time to put his "nose to the glass" and look back to Earth.
"Just seeing our world in a way that you can't see it any other place — it's a wonderful, constantly changing, mesmerizing view."
For all the lofty plans he has for the next few months, Hadfield is still rooted in his Canadian upbringing, wondering during this week's interview just how the weather was in southern Ontario. On his Twitter feed, one of the last photos he posted from Star City showed a stunning church glistening in the sunshine, and he made special note of something else in the picture: a snowblower.
As the days count down to Dec. 19, Hadfield is full of hope that his mission will live up to all those dreams born watching Neil Armstrong.
"But if it doesn't, that's OK, too," Hadfield says. "We will do our very best to make it go that way."