Can Canada’s sensational spacemen find happiness back on Earth

Chris Hadfield says it's "good to know" his suit still fits after five months in orbit ~ Chris Hadfield CSA/NASA Photo

Chris Hadfield says it’s “good to know” his suit still fits after five months in orbit ~ Chris Hadfield CSA/NASA Photo

Published May 11, 2013 _ Chris Hadfield, also known as “the coolest guy in outer space,” will soon be packing up his camera, guitar and keyboard for his descent back to Earth next week. But what, exactly, does he return to? Is any career back on solid ground going to be enough?

The 53-year-old farm boy from southern Ontario is due to blaze across the sky in a Russian Soyuz capsule Monday evening before landing on the steppes of Kazakhstan.

His five-month mission to the International Space Station, where Hadfield has been both commander and seemingly non-stop entertainer, has been a sensation. He has enchanted millions with quirky videos, stunning photographs and often-poetic tweets. “This man has single-handedly made space sexy again,” one of his more than 750,000 followers tweeted recently.

Former president of the Canadian Space Agency and now Liberal MP Marc Garneau put it this way: “What he’s done is phenomenal.”

There have been charming videos about sleeping, eating, even crying in space. More than 10 million people have watched Hadfield wring out a soaking wet cloth – the veteran astronaut apparently as captivated by the resulting tube of water as the 10th graders in Nova Scotia who suggested the experiment.

Hadfield’s daily photographs and tweets from 350 kilometers up have been a hit, providing a refreshing take on Earth’s beauty and uniqueness.

Hadfield has not said what he plans to do for an encore, but Garneau says some have suggested the spaceman could be prime minister tomorrow if he wanted to run for office.

He would be an even more serious contender for president of Canada’s beleaguered space agency, which is in even worse shape now than when Hadfield left the planet in December. ”Chris would be a very good candidate, but I have no idea if he is interested,” Garneau said.

Hadfield’s tech-savvy son Evan, 28, scoffs at the notion.

“Dad never wants to be a politician or go into the political side of things, and being head of the Canadian Space Agency is 100-per-cent politics,” the younger Hadfield said bluntly this week in an interview from Germany, where he’s been major force behind his father’s soaring success on social media.

Hadfield’s passion has been spaceflight and exploration since boyhood. Indeed, his only public complaint from orbit is that he has had to waste time sleeping. “If he could stay in space another 10 years, he would,” said Evan.

Yet the odds of Hadfield, who’s been to space three times, getting back into orbit are slim to none – at least as an astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency.

The CSA has been hit with budget cuts: Ottawa has asked it to  trim another $25 million this year. And it is awaiting word on whether the Harper government will proceed with the overhaul recommended by former Conservative cabinet minister David Emerson, who in November said Canada’s space program had “foundered” and needs clear priorities and plans.

At this stage there are no more missions for Canadian astronauts on the books. And Canada’s two other astronauts would be ahead of Hadfield if an opportunity were to open up.

With Canada’s space program in limbo, the CSA’s veteran flyers have been walking out the door.

On Wednesday Julie Payette, who was hired with Hadfield in 1992 and flew on two missions to the International Space Station, announced she’s off to become the chief operating officer of the Montreal Science Centre and vice-president of the Canada Lands Company, a Crown corporation that manages properties the federal government no longer wants.

In January, former astronaut Steve MacLean quit, five years after the Harper government hailed him as a “modern hero” and appointed him CSA president. MacLean is not talking, but it’s well-known he was frustrated with the Harper government, which cut his budget and shelved his plan for moving the agency into the modern age.

And Dr. Robert Thirsk, who spent six months aboard the space station in 2009 – becoming the first Canadian to make a long-duration space flight – departed last summer. Thirsk is now a vice-president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in Ottawa

It is hard imagine Hadfield heading to the office in a grey suit.

But there are not exactly a lot of Earth-bound jobs that can take full advantage of astronauts’ skills. Astronauts tend to be driven, brilliant, highly trained technicians with nerves of steel – and in Hadfield’s case, a love of music and entertaining.

Given his credentials and popularity, he’s expected to have lots of options.

“He’s very highly regarded at NASA but he works for and is paid by the CSA,” said Garneau, who worked and partied with Hadfield when they were astronauts together in Houston. “He’ll be at a bit of a crossroads in terms of what he will do.”

“NASA may offer him something, or he may decide to do something in Canada,” said Garneau, noting that many retired astronauts move into the space industry. After Garneau’s three spaceflights, he became CSA president before launching a career in federal Liberal politics in 2005.

Hadfield, a former military fighter pilot, may be employed by the CSA but has been based in Houston for years.  He has been chief of robotics for the NASA astronaut office, chief of International Space Station operations and NASA’s director of operations at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia. And in March he became the first Canadian to take command of the $100-billion space station.

While Canada’s own space program may be rudderless, there are some big adventures on the space horizon Hadfield may want to get involved with.

NASA’s chief administrator and former astronaut Charles Bolden, told a Mars summit in Washington on Monday that it’s “man’s destiny” to go to another planet. “Interest in sending humans to Mars has never been higher,” Bolden said, calling it a priority for the agency.  Some predict there could be astronauts on the red planet in 20 years.

Meanwhile, private companies and entrepreneurs – several Canadians among them – are busy making plans to mine asteroids, start commercial space flights, and capitalize on the International Space Station.

Hadfield is, at least in the near-term, committed to working for the CSA, which needs all the star power it can get.

Evan Hadfield says he has no idea what his dad will do next. Like his father, he is focused on making the most of the current mission by helping Hadfield share the experience with as many people as possible.

The younger Hadfield, who has an MBA in marketing, has been working “seven days a week, 16 hours a day” managing Hadfield’s presence on Twitter, Facebook, SoundCloud and other social media sites.

Evan sorts through the thousands of messages sent to Hadfield each day. He flags the most interesting ones so his father can respond while he’s eating breakfast or floating by his computer with a few minutes to spare.

Evan also helped Hadfield stay plugged in to events on the ground. When the new Pope was elected, Hadfield was quick to produce a picture of Rome from on high. “I’m not certain you can make out the new Pope from here,” Hadfield tweeted.

Hadfield’s Twitter and Facebook accounts are independent of the space agency. But they compliment CSA’s Hadfield blog and videos that have gone viral on YouTube with more than 22 million views so far, says Anna Kapiniari, manager of CSA’s strategic communications.

She says the plan was to take advantage of Hadfield’s talents and have fun with the way the mundane becomes “magic” in space. “We expected it to be successful,” said Kapiniari. “But never to this extent. It’s been absolutely magnificent.”

Hadfield is not the first astronaut to make videos, take pictures or tweet from space, but is by far the most successful. Kapiniari says he has a “great eye” and incredible skills with language – whether it is describing what stars looks like to a youngster in Grade 2 or writing a caption for a picture of England at night.

Like Evan, Kapiniari describes Hadfield as a great  “ambassador” for space exploration.

He’s even got the sensitivities of a diplomat, carefully sidestepping minefields that might rile the space agency’s political masters in Ottawa.

Hadfield often touches on the fragility of the planet.  “Dust blows from what was once the Aral Sea floor. Tragic mismanagement of a natural resource,” he tweeted.

“In proportion, our atmosphere is no thicker than the varnish on a globe. Deceptively fragile,” said another.

But he has not posted a single photograph of the massive holes in the ground at Alberta’s oilsands operations, which are clearly visible from space.

“We get requests for the oilsands,” said Evan. But he and his father decided not to go there. “There is no way he can post that picture without people turning it into a political circus.”

The space agency is keen to make the most of Hadfield’s popularity once his feet are back on the ground.  Though details are under wraps, Kapiniari says something is in the works for Canada Day.

Hadfield and his crewmates are to land in Kazakhstan at 10:31 p.m. ET on Monday. Hadfield will be whisked to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for medical tests and debriefing.

His fans are already lamenting his return. “I sure will miss you when you come back to earth,” Glynis Humber posted on Hadfield’s Facebook page after the astronaut posted a “breathtaking” shot of the sun.

But the tweets and Facebook posts are sure to continue as Hadfield takes his first shower, hears his first bird, and gets his first whiff of fresh cut grass.

“I’m positive a lot of people will really enjoy what he does, especially what we’ve got planned for coming weeks,” said Evan.

Hadfield is expected to at some point head for the family’s Ontario cottage to wind down. He’s already invited actor William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk on Star Trek, to swing by for a cigar and whiskey.

Hadfield’s YouTube Hits:

Wringing out Water on the ISS – for Science!

Tears in Space (Don’t Fall)

Mixed Nuts in Space

Sleeping in Space

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