It was a privilege to listen to Chris Hadfield at last night’s Canadian Aerospace Summit banquet, where he was guest of honour. Before then, I was aware of Hadfield as the astronaut in that incredible YouTube video where he sings a version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity on the International Space Station. But in Canada, Hadfield, who spent five months on the ISS, is a national hero and one of the country’s biggest celebrities. He is the first Canadian to command anInternational Space Station crew - only three other nationalities, USA, Russia and China – have had that distinction. Since returning to Earth he has become an evangelist for the benefits of the ISS project to mankind. As well as being an aviator extraordinaire and talented musician, he is fluent in Russian (and being Canadian, French) and is an inspirational speaker.
Canada is not a major spender on space – its budget is roughly the same as Italy’s – and it has long been in the shadow of its southern neighbour when it comes to exploring the heavens. Until Hadfield, the country’s most famous spaceman was Star Trek star William Shatner. But just as it celebrates early Canadians’ taming of its western and northern wilderness, the nation has always been proud of its pioneering record in that other frontier in the sky. Its citizens will remind you that Canadian equipment was the first to touch the Moon – the Apollo 13 lunar module’s landing gear was made by Heroux-Devtek of Montreal. Canadian industry also made the Canadarm, the ISS’s giant robotic arm, and now celebrated on the country’s five dollar bills.
With his tweets, videos and countless media appearances from the ISS, Hadfield was exactly the kind of ambassador for the benefits of the station the governments that fund it need. At a time of austerity, it is easy to ask what the ISS is for exactly and why countries with relatively small national budgets, such as Canada, should pay towards it. Hadfield makes a convincing case for his country to stay involved and for its citizens to stay engaged with space. The industry needs more of his kind.