1st Canadian Commander of Space Station Named
Canadian Space Agency Astronaut Chris Hadfield.
Credit: NASA

A Canadian astronaut is set to become the first International Space Station commander from the Maple Leaf Nation.

Veteran Canadian spaceflyer Chris Hadfield will take command of the space station during the second half of a six-month mission that begins in 2012, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) announced Thursday. [Graphic: Inside and Out: The International Space Station]

"The selection of a Canadian astronaut for a long-duration mission and as Commander of the International Space Station reflects the achievements of our space exploration program and the renowned quality of our Canadian Astronaut Corps," Gary Goodyear, Canadian Minister of State for science and technology said in a release.

Hadfield is only the second astronaut from a country other than the United States or Russia selected to command the International Space Station since astronauts began living aboard the outpost in 2000. Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne of the European Space Agency was the first during his 2009 flight.

Hadfield called the opportunity an honor for himself and his country's space agency.

"It means a lot for both," Hadfield told SPACE.com. "For the CSA, this is really another benchmark measure of our steadily increasing capability. From a personal point of view, I've operated a lot of aerospace machines in my life ? but to command a spaceship, that's just a tremendous thrill."

Hadfield is scheduled to launch aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket in December 2012 for his third trip to space ? and his second long-duration mission. He is Canada's second long-duration astronaut.

Construction of the International Space Station began in 1998. The $100 billion space outpost is currently home to six astronauts ? three from the United States and three from Russia.

Jack of all trades

During the mission's first four months, Hadfield will perform duties as a flight engineer on the station's Expedition 34 mission, where he will be responsible for carrying out scientific experiments and station maintenance.

As a veteran spacewalker, Hadfield could also be called upon to perform tasks outside of the station if necessary.

Among Canada's contributions to the International Space Station are the lab's robotic arm, Canadarm2, as well as the Dextre maintenance robot designed to perform external tasks on the station.

"Through our commitment to producing innovative, reliable Canadian space technology and the expertise of our highly skilled astronauts, Canada has earned the confidence of our international partners," said Josee Verner, Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs.

In March 2013, three of the station's six-member crew will return to Earth and be replaced with newcomers, while Hadfield will assume the role of Expedition 35 commander.

As commander, Hadfield will be responsible for the safety of the crew, ongoing operations and will oversee the maintenance and equipment of the ISS.

He will also be responsible for ensuring that scientific experiments onboard the orbiting outpost are carried out on behalf of Canadian and international scientists. Hadfield may be called upon to operate the station's robotic arm to perform assembly and maintenance, or to assist with the docking of spacecraft to the station.

"I'm looking forward to the things that a commander is asked to do, and I very much want to prepare all of us so that we're as capable a group of people as we can possibly be," Hadfield said. "It's a fascinating human challenge to be a leader. How do I bring people from various cultures and languages together?"

Practice makes perfect

In May, Hadfield led a 14-day NASA expedition in the ocean depths off the east coast of Florida, in a mock space mission to test exploration concepts and learn more about working in an unforgiving, treacherous environment. The undersea mission also tested emergency astronaut rescue techniques for spaceflights.

Hadfield's position at the helm of the 14th expedition of the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations, or NEEMO 14, was an invaluable experience in preparation to take command of the space station, he said.

"It was an excellent simulation, and I got to try out different leadership techniques," Hadfield said. "At the end of it, I sat down with each of the other crewmembers and told them to be frank and honest about how to do this better when I do it for real. It was a great way to work out some of the kinks."

Hadfield's already-distinguished career in space exploration includes being the only Canadian to board the Russian Space Station Mir in 1995, and the first Canadian to perform a spacewalk, when he attached the Canadarm2 to the ISS in 2001.

The International Space Station, which was originally slated to end its orbital life in 2015, has now been extended through 2020.

A native of Milton, Ontario, Hadfield was raised on a corn farm and nurtured a love of flying from a young age. He joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 1978 and trained as a fighter pilot, and later as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California. In 1992 Hadfield was selected to join the Canadian astronaut corps.

Hadfield has already begun training for the upcoming mission ? part of a 2 1/2 year process in the buildup to launch. In 2009, he also trained as a backup for fellow Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk, who took part in Canada's first long-duration mission on the ISS.

At the conclusion of the mission, Hadfield is scheduled to land in Kazakhstan in June 2013 aboard a Soyuz spacecraft.

And despite having a career already punctuated with milestones, Hadfield remains humble about his latest achievement.

"Most of it is good timing," Hadfield said. "I'm one of the early Canadian astronauts, and that's just the way it's worked out. But, the beauty of it is that it has built on itself, and I can draw on the experience I gained each time. This is how it has unfolded and I'm very grateful for it."