One hundred years from now, humans may look back and define early 21st century space exploration as nothing more than a progression of tiny baby steps, says one of Canada's most experienced astronauts.
But for Chris Hadfield, who will be the first Canadian to command the International Space Station in 2013, each of those tiny steps is more like a giant leap forward.
“For us, we're still the baby,” said Mr. Hadfield. “Those are huge … we fall down a lot. We're going to bang our head a lot. But we have to take these steps on the way to being able to go farther.”
The 52-year-old astronaut and retired air-force colonel was in Vancouver on Saturday for an annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
For much of the day, he met with the public and members of the media, explaining what it's like to visit space and where humans are headed in the exploration of that final frontier.
In fact, Mr. Hadfield will climb aboard a Soyuz spacecraft in Kazakhstan this December and for the third time in his career blast into space.
But this voyage will be unlike any other for Mr. Hadfield, who was born in Sarnia, Ont., and grew up in the community of Milton near Toronto.
He'll remain aboard the space station for six months, performing work that will pave the way for future generations.
“Before we go any significant distance, we need tough reliable proven technologies that you can absolutely count on with your life,” said Mr. Hadfield. “The best place to test them and develop them is the space station.”
If humans want to travel farther into space, they'll have to solve basic problems like turning waste from astronauts back into food and water, said Mr. Hadfield.
Astronauts aboard the space station are trying to solve those problems, said Mr. Hadfield, and are on average running about 100 experiments simultaneously.
So busy is the schedule that personal projects can be only completed during sleeping time, and there's less than eight hours scheduled for that, he said.
Mr. Hadfield, who according to his biography was the first Canadian to ever leave a space craft and float freely in space, said during his six-month voyage he may even get to take a couple of space walks.
To top it off, Mr. Hadfield will command the space station for more than two months, beginning in early March.
“It's very big for me personally. It's very big for me professionally. But it's also very big for Canada as a level of responsibility and respect and authority.
“It's unprecedented in space exploration for Canadians, and it's a big deal.”
When asked about how pending budget cuts at NASA will affect Canadian exploration, Mr. Hadfield appeared to worry little, noting budget fluctuations are just a fact of life.
“People ask that question every year, and yet still we manage to have an incredible space program.”
He said space craft are currently looking at Mercury, orbiting Jupiter and Saturn and one is even headed to Pluto.
Meantime, rovers are on Mars, and people are living in space, he added,
When it comes to the future of Canada's space program, Mr. Hadfield said this country will continue to co-operate and fly with other nations, trading on the expertise of our astronauts.
“We are doing, especially in the Canadian Space Agency, we are doing our absolute best with every dollar that we're are given to try and get the most return from it. We work hard at it.”
Mr. Hadfield said all that hard work is paying off, and even those baby steps are getting bigger.
He said Canada has progressed from putting a small satellite into space to designing and building its own satellites and even commanding the space station.
“It's not easy, and it's unpredictable but it's happening,” he said.
Mr. Hadfield said he'll now return to Russia where he will continue preparations for the December launch.