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A photo made from NASA television shows the Atlantis as it passes under a solar panel on the International Space Station after undocking for the last time on July 19, 2011. (NASA/AP)
A photo made from NASA television shows the Atlantis as it passes under a solar panel on the International Space Station after undocking for the last time on July 19, 2011. (NASA/AP)

Ask an astronaut

Readers ask: What will the mid-term future look like for the international space program? Add to ...

The Globe and Mail asked readers to pose questions for Chris Hadfield, Roberta Bondar and Marc Garneau - three Canadian astronauts that have travelled aboard the space shuttle. Questions were selected and have been submitted to Mr. Hadfield, Ms. Bondar and Mr. Garneau. Here are some of their answers. More will appear in this space over the coming days.

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Devon Brooks asks: Do you have any insights as to what the mid-term future (10 to 20 years) will look like for the international space program with huge government cutbacks and a shaky world economy? Is space exploration going to become a private enterprise in the future?

Chris Hadfield: Devon - space exploration is almost exclusively a private enterprise, with equipment built by private companies, for profit, across Canada and around the world. The key, as you mention, is what proportion and amount is bought from those companies by the government. In the US and Canada government funding for research and space exploration has been steady. My best guess is that it will continue that way, especially when balanced across the globe. Companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are some of the first to seek significant funding from other sources, primarily tourism to this point. But step-by-step, invention-by-invention, the price will come down, safety levels will rise, and it will become an ever-more viable commercial business.

Don Gibson asks: What does re-entry feel like? Is it rough? Are you pressed into your seat or pushed out?

Chris Hadfield: Don - re-entry begins by firing our small orbital engines to slow down a tiny bit. That lowers our orbit just into the upper atmosphere, and then we let friction with the air take over. At the start we're still weightless, but as the air slows us down more and more it is like falling into jello, a steadily increasing deceleration. The force builds up, and squishes us into our seat - smoothly in the Shuttle about 3G down into the floor, in roughly in the Soyuz about 4G through our chest into the seat backs. The friction is so high that it gets to 3000 C on the outside skin of the spaceship.

Julian Gray asks: For the men in the sky beyond I'd like to ask how they feel about humanity compared to before they saw the Earth in Orbit?

Chris Hadfield: Julian - seeing the Earth from space gave me a renewed and strengthened sense of responsibility. We all live on the same ship, and its life support system is razor-thin; a wisp of air and water between rock and eternity. I am very heartened that 16 leading nations of the world have sent emissaries to see the world from beyond the sky, to live on the International Space Station, to use that platform to better understand our planet and ourselves, and to then return and share that perspective. So many of our daily squabbles seem diminished in comparison. By seeing our World as one connected place we can better understand what we are doing, right and wrong, and where to best focus our energies for the future.

Paul Lowe asks: What is the strangest out the ordinary observation you have witnessed in space, that is truly unexplainable.

Chris Hadfield: Paul - for me, the hardest thing to try and explain is the existence of our Earth. A fragile, jewel-like orb glowing and thriving in the middle of unending dark dead emptiness. Until our best telescopes find another one, our Earth is a wonderfully unique mystery.

Nicholas Cashmore of Milton, Ont. asks: Do you think there is life in our universe? What do you think they would like and what would we have to learn from them?

Chris Hadfield: Nicholas - we don't know for sure, but I think there is life beyond Earth, yes. Just a few hundred years ago we used to think the universe revolved around us, but the more we have explored the more we have found that Earth is simply one planet of a countless number. We have now seen over 1400 planets around other stars. To think that life is unique to Earth seems an extension of self-important ignorance. To try and help answer that question, Canada is part of a scientific research rover headed to Mars this Fall to look for evidence of life.

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