Prepped 'for years,' Chris Hadfield takes over space station command

Chris Hadfield becomes the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station this afternoon, a role that will see him tap both the technical and leadership skills he has been honing for decades.
Chris Hadfield floats freely in the Unity node of the International Space Station on Dec. 31, 2012. (NASA)

Chris Hadfield knows it's easy to be in charge when things are going well.

It's a lot tougher to be a leader when they are not.

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Join us Thursday at 7 p.m. ET for a live chat about what Chris Hadfield accomplished during Expedition 34 on the International Space Station, and what the Expedition 35 crew hopes to achieve under his command.

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But the astronaut who becomes the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station this afternoon has done everything he can for the past 20 years to be ready for what he sees as the pinnacle of his career.

"I think the hardest part is being ready all the time for things to go badly because when things are going well, it's easy to be in charge," the 53-year-old told students via videolink from the ISS to Chris Hadfield Public School in his hometown of Milton, Ont., earlier this year.

Maybe a meteorite might strike the $150-billion high-tech orbiting laboratory. Maybe a fire might break out. Maybe a crisis might hit a crewmember's family back on Earth and he can't get home right away. These are the kinds of eventualities a commander has to be prepared for.

Hadfield's two decades as an astronaut have been geared toward an assignment like this. But his preparation probably started even earlier.

"In truth, I started training to command the space station when I was 14," he told University of Waterloo students via videolink from the ISS last month.

"I was in the Air Cadets and I went to a junior leaders' course and they taught me the basic precepts of leadership at 14 years old as a young Canadian, and since then I've watched leaders, and you can learn something from every leader."

Good and bad

Even bad leaders can teach lessons to those below them, and Hadfield said he's learned from all kinds.

"I've also, through the military and then in my 20 years as an astronaut, been given increasing opportunities to manage and to lead people, and that all put me in a position where I could get assigned to command a spaceship," he told the students.

"This is something I've really worked hard to be prepared for, an unprecedented opportunity personally and professionally and nationally, and I'm just really pleased that I'm in a position and really happy to have the chance to pick up the reins here."

Hadfield assumes command from NASA astronaut Kevin Ford, and others who have held the role or lived on the space station have full confidence in Hadfield's abilities to handle everything the job entails.

Ken Bowersox, shown on the International Space Station in 2003, says Chris Hadfield wil be able to cope with any eventuality during his command. (NASA)

Retired NASA astronaut Ken Bowersox, who has worked with Hadfield, says he'll be able to cope with any eventuality.

"He's really good," Bowersox says in an interview from Houston, Texas, noting Hadfield has both the technical and leadership skills needed to be commander.

Leroy Chiao, a retired NASA astronaut who commanded the space station for six months in 2004-2005, says Hadfield is "very capable" and doesn't need any advice for his new job.

Chiao, who now lives in Houston, said via email that the key to being a successful commander is bringing all members of the team together, and working with each individual according to personality.

Keeping an eye on the big picture – something Chiao says Hadfield has always done — is important, too.

More than running the machines

Retired Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk, the first Canadian to fly a long-duration mission on the space station, says the most important thing the ISS commander does is ensure the safety of the crew, followed closely by ensuring their well-being.

"Astronauts, we're typically Type A behaviour people. We'd work all 24 hours if it was totally up to us. But I think it's important for Chris to be aware of the well-being of each of his five crewmates and make sure that they do take time to attend to their own personal needs and also to their families' needs on the ground," Thirsk said in an interview before Hadfield's launch.

Being in charge, it seems, is much more than overseeing the mechanics of the space station or the science experiments running in the orbiting lab.

"In fact, the ground does a very good job of taking care of the station systems. The crew's job is just monitoring it. I think the soft skills are more important for Chris than … the operational skills," says Thirsk.

Where is the space station?

Spot the Station, a free service offered by NASA, sends you an email or text message a few hours before the space station passes over your city.

NASA monitors sighting opportunities for 4,600 locations worldwide. Space enthusiasts can sign up with an email account or a mobile phone number on NASA's website.

"One of the things that Chris wants to avoid at all costs is to make sure that the relationship between the crew and the ground doesn’t devolve into an us-versus-them kind of mentality. If that kind of mindset prevails, the situation is hopeless and their productivity will go way down."

And that has happened.

"Not in the ISS experience," says Thirsk, "but in other space stations in the past, crews have become territorial on board their station. They've also rebelled with mission control on the ground.

"In at least one case, crews had to be brought home early because the work just wasn't getting done due to behavioural problems on board."

A gentler style

If conflicts among astronauts emerge, then the commander has to step in, Bowersox says, but that doesn't happen very often.

"On the space station typically you'll see a bit of a gentler leadership style and that's kind of universal amongst all the different teams whether you end up with a Russian commander or a Canadian commander or a U.S. commander."

Bowersox knows first-hand how the ISS commander has to be ready for anything.

While he was on the station in 2002-2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. Seven astronauts died.

The space shuttles were grounded, and along with dealing with the emotional impact of the disaster, the astronauts on the ISS no longer had access to their regular way home. (They ended up coming back in a Soyuz vehicle and landing in Kazakhstan.)

Bowersox says he's really proud of how the team on board the station handled several unexpected events, including the Columbia incident.

"We managed to keep working and stay productive despite the emotional effects of the accident," Bowersox says.

Avoiding mutiny

Bowersox looks back on his 5½ months as commander and sees one way he might have done things differently as leader.

"There were times when the space station and the environment can bring out emotions that in a team environment may not be productive," he says.

Sometimes, the on-board atmosphere of the space station has carbon dioxide levels that are a bit higher than on Earth, and that can make a person feel more irritated.

"I remember one day in particular I was ready to yell at somebody on the ground and … you'd like to avoid that if you can," says Bowersox.

"One of my crewmembers saw that I was feeling irritated and he wouldn't give me the microphone. So we had a little mutiny. I said give me the microphone. He goes, 'No, I'm not giving you the microphone,' and that was really a great support."

Chris Hadfield waves as he boards the Soyuz TMA-07M spacecraft at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan ahead of his launch on Dec. 19, 2012, for the International Space Station. (Dmitry Lovetsky/Reuters)

Bowersox and Chiao have few words of wisdom for Hadfield — just that they wish him well.

"Enjoy every minute of it because as long as it may seem, the mission is going to come to an end and you're going to be back on the ground and you'll have those memories," says Bowersox.

"It's fun and ... when you think about it, it is really a pretty rare opportunity. There aren't that many people who have had the privilege of doing that job and I think Canada should be really proud of Chris."


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.