No Canadian has ever led a mission in space, so Chris Hadfield's promotion to lead the International Space Station in 2013 is a plum without precedent.
As the most junior partner among the five space agencies building the space station, Canada is entitled to only one per cent of crew time on the station. With his elevation to the key post announced on Thursday, Mr. Hadfield is getting the most out of Canada's latest allotment.
A former CF-18 fighter and test pilot, Mr. Hadfield, 51, is qualified to fly many aircraft. They include the Russian Soyuz capsule - the only means of emergency escape for the astronauts aboard the space station. It's just one detail on the resumé of the astronaut, aviation systems scholar, ski racer and guitar player.
But he prefers to frame his promotion as part of a long legacy of national achievement, starting in 1962, when Canada became the third country to send a satellite into space, and continuing next year when the Canadarm2 puts the finishing touches on the space station.
"We've definitely been at the vanguard and building on our expertise. Based on what we've proven, we were trusted to build the space station. That didn't come because we outbid somebody. It was because of our proven capability," Mr. Hadfield said.
Mr. Hadfield took his first leadership course as a 13-year-old military cadet and retired from the Canadian Forces as a colonel. On the space station, he will lead up to six astronauts.
"It's actually a very flat command structure; there are very few decisions I'm going to make unilaterally. It would mainly be when there is a time constraint, such as when we have a fire or a leak," he said.
Mr. Hadfield holds a rare combination of qualifications for the job, but Canada's small but key role in providing the robotics that built the station add to the logic of his appointment by NASA, experts say.
Mr. Hadfield helped unwrap Canada's contribution, officially known as the Mobile Servicing System, during two 2001 spacewalks at the space station. He visited the Russian space station, Mir, in 1995.
Unlike its partners, Japan, Russia, the United States and Italy, Canada has no high-profile section of the space station bearing its flag. Instead, it's robotics, best known by the main part, Canadarm2, have assembled the modules that make up the structure.
"It's easy to draw flags on different modules. That's superficial. It's harder to envision what kind of space station we would have been limited to without these robotics," said James Oberg, a former NASA mission controller.
Mr. Oberg said the precision of the arm made possible simple improvements like large doorways that will allow outdated equipment to be replaced over the station's lifespan.
"I don't think there is enough appreciation north of the 49th that this is not just an add-on," said Mr. Oberg, now an author and consultant based in Galveston County, Texas.
Canada has contributed some $1.4-billion to the tens of billions that have gone into constructing the station.
Agencies from the U.S. federal General Accounting Office to Industry Canada and the European Space Agency have all attempted to tally the station's cost.
Estimates for the U.S. share alone range from $35 billion (U.S). to $100 billion. (NASA doesn't include the cost of space shuttle missions in the tally. Other agencies do.) Other players, such as Russia, don't provide any detailed accounting.
The European Space Agency has estimated the entire cost at 100 billion euros.
Each space agency has been allotted crew time under an agreement. According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, Russia gets half while the rest is divided among the United States (38 per cent), Japan (6 per cent) Europe (4) and Canada (1). All of the main partners in the space station will get turns at the helm, Mr. Oberg said.
Mr. Hadfield is scheduled to rocket to the space station in late 2012. He will assume command a few months later. He will spend a total of six months in orbit.