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Chris Hadfield and a Canadian dream

bobmcdonald-190.jpgBy Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

Against all odds, Chris Hadfield fulfilled the dream of a nine-year-old Canadian farm boy to become commander of the world's largest spaceship. It's a dramatic lesson in the power of determination and the relentless struggle to accomplish the impossible.

Meeting Chris Hadfield is a dual experience. He is Canada's most popular and accomplished astronaut, but he's also a quintessentially friendly Canadian; humble, always happy to joke around, have a beer and especially play guitar. He is generous with his time and willing to do whatever he can to help you out.

But to see Chris in action, handling complex equipment while training for a space mission, is an entirely different experience. 

He transforms into an ultra-capable pilot/spacewalker/commander. No matter what the task, his eyes seem to become darker as he totally focuses on the moment, absorbing every detail, learning the techniques and then carrying them out flawlessly. Whether it's performing a spacewalk, flying a Soyuz capsule or fixing the toilet, he gives the task undivided attention, making sure he gets it right every time.

In 2001, as Space Shuttle Atlantis disappeared into the Florida skies, carrying Chris on his second trip into space, his father, Roger Hadfield said, "Chris always knew he had to be the best to get where he wanted to be, and that's what he did. He was always the best."

But along with this incredible over-achievement, Chris Hadfield never lost his sense of humility. 

As he describes in his new book, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, he avoided becoming arrogant and condescending about his accomplishments, which annoys everyone, and he also avoided being an underachiever, which inconveniences everyone.

ChrisHadfieldAtQuirks.jpgInstead, he was a perfect "zero," getting the job done to the best of his ability. That ability, developed through years of determined effort, got him where he really wanted to be, which was in space.

He also never lost his Canadian identity. During that same mission in 2001, when he became the first Canadian to don a space suit and step out into the void, he noticed that there was a large American flag on the left shoulder of the suit. So he brought up a Canadian flag of the same size and taped it over the shoulder before going on the spacewalk, to remind everyone of his full identity. 

Since then, Canadian spacewalkers have our flag sewn onto their suits ahead of time.

Many of us were inspired, as Chris was, by the moon landings in the late 1960s. We could easily imagine ourselves floating weightless on the Space Station, performing daring space walks or exploring other worlds. But after following Hadfield for 17 years, getting just a glimpse of the intensity of the training - including learning Russian, becoming familiar with both American and Russian technology, the hours of classroom time, hours spent underwater practicing space walks, the physical and mental strain to accomplish these missions - it's become clear that it takes a select few to leave the planet. Most of us, including this astronaut wannabe, would not make the cut.

That is not to say Chris Hadfield is Superman. In fact, he would be the first to deny that.

He is the result of good, old-fashioned hard work and a dogged determination to be the best he can possibly be, in pursuit of a childhood dream. It's a pretty good lesson for all of us, no matter where we've come from.

As Chris is fond of saying, "The sky is not the limit."

(And if you want to hear my interview with Chris about his new book, then tune into Quirks this Saturday on CBC Radio, or listen to the podcast on our web page).