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A Canadian astronaut's final frontier

Astronaut Chris Hadfield smiles during a press conference at the Canadian Space Agency, Longueuil, Que., September 2, 2010, announcing him as the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station when he leaves in December, 2012.

Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The naming of astronaut Chris Hadfield as Canada's first commander of the International Space Station is a moment for Canadians to feel especially proud of our efforts in the great beyond.

Canada's achievements in space exploration have rarely instilled in its citizens the level of chest-thumping nationalist sentiment often observed in the United States and Russia, but its contribution to discoveries beyond Earth's borders has been consistent and meaningful, and must not be overlooked.

The Canadian Space Agency is renowned for breakthroughs in robotics, with the Canadarm and Canadarm2 as the central emblems of that innovation. But it has also groomed nearly three decades of talented, brave space travellers, from Marc Garneau and Roberta Bondar to Robert Thirsk and Julie Payette. Less than three months ago, Ms. Payette was awarded NASA's Exceptional Service Medal.

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Mr. Hadfield's promotion is a well earned accolade for a hugely accomplished man. A versatile pilot capable of steering the Russian Soyuz capsule, an aviation-systems scholar, even a ski racer on the side, Mr. Hadfield earned the distinction of being the first Canadian to perform a space walk and the only one to board the Russian space station Mir. He has led major projects before, such as a NASA mission undertaken under the sea to test operations designed for planetary exploration.

That Mr. Hadfield, 51, would be chosen to lead a team of international astronauts at the ISS, despite Canada being allotted only 1 per cent of the station's crew time, speaks volumes about his credibility. And at a time when many young Canadian students are shown to be struggling to keep up in mathematics, he is a role model in a field that demands excellence in math, as well as engineering, physical fitness and sciences.

As recently as 2008, some were lamenting that Canada's space program was losing ground, but Mr. Hadfield's nomination brings with it a measure of renewed prestige. Also encouraging was the May, 2009 infusion of the astronaut corps's first new blood since 1992, when fighter pilot Jeremy Hansen and doctor David St-Jacques were culled from no fewer than 5,351 applicants.

It has been noted that Canada is alone among the five ISS partners in not having any prominent section of the space station bearing its flag. Mr. Hadfield has given Canadians ample reason to wave the maple leaf proudly on solid earth instead.

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