In the annals of spaceflight, the distinction of having the most disorienting return to Earth must surely go to Sergei Krikalev and Aleksandr Volkov. When the two cosmonauts boarded the MIR space station in 1991, both were citizens of the Soviet Union. By the time they landed on Earth the following year, there was no such country.
Nothing quite so extreme awaits Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield as he concludes his mission on the International Space Station, including a two-month stint as the station's commander. Canada will still be here when Mr. Hadfield and his crewmates touch down in Kazakhstan – scheduled for 10:31 p.m. ET Monday. But when he sets foot on Earth for the first time in 146 days, he will be stepping into a future fraught with uncertainty for the program he represents as well as for the $100-billion facility he leaves behind.
Back home, the Canadian Space Agency has lost its president since Mr. Hadfield lifted off and the cash-strapped agency remains in need of a "reset," as recommended by a government mandated review.
Up above, after a costly and drawn-out construction, the station is seeking relevance as a scientific outpost at a time when applied research on Earth is becoming a faster-paced game and access to orbit is limited by the retirement of the space-shuttle fleet.
Such challenges at the program level make Mr. Hadfield's achievement all the more impressive. Few would disagree that his mission has been a genuine public-relations coup, raising awareness of the station and space-based science, both in Canada and beyond.
"What he's done … is extremely beneficial," said Duane Ratliff, the chief operating officer of the Centre for the Advancement of Science in Space – an organization given the task of aiding U.S. companies and researchers outside of NASA that want to run experiments on the station.
While public engagement remains a necessity for the space program as a whole, Mr. Ratliff noted, it is "probably even more so for the International Space Station," where more than a dozen years of continuous human presence has not always translated into a growing awareness of the work being done there.
For Mr. Hadfield, the significance of reaching out on a daily, even hourly basis to followers on Earth through Twitter clearly cuts both ways.
"It's allowed me to get a direct reflection back," he said in a video last week. "That makes me feel like I'm there with people more … that this experience is not individual but it's shared and it's mutual and it's worldwide."
Marc Garneau, the first Canadian in space and a visitor to the station in 2000, said that while social media has provided a powerful channel for generating interest in the space station, it is Mr. Hadfield's approach and personality that made his voyage a media phenomenon.
"He has not just told people what is going on on the station," Mr. Garneau said. "Equally importantly, he has shared his emotions. He has communicated how it feels as a human being to be up there."
Mr. Garneau, a Liberal MP and former president of the Canadian Space Agency, said he is less impressed with how Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has managed the agency, particularly by including it in a 10-per-cent across-the-board budget cut last year to reduce spending. The cut means the agency is beginning to shed staff and projects at a time when it could be building momentum and boosting Canada's successful but undervalued space sector, Mr. Garneau said.
"I think the Canadian space program is a winner in this country and I think it's very short sighted of the government to cut that funding," he added.
Mr. Garneau said he is largely in agreement with the Emerson report, released last November, which recommends restoring the agency's budget and stabilizing core funding to facilitate participation in major projects with international partners. The report also recommends establishing an advisory council to improve ties with the research community and a Space Program Management Board with deputy minister-level powers to co-ordinate space-related activities across the government.
Ottawa has yet to act on the report. In February, Canadian Space Agency president Steven MacLean resigned before completing his five-year term, a development that cast further uncertainty over the agency's mission and direction.
In terms of public profile, Mr. Hadfield's mission is a high water mark that will not soon be repeated. He is one of only three astronauts currently employed by the agency. While no further missions for Canadian astronauts have been confirmed, it is expected that one or both of the others, Jeremy Hansen and David Saint-Jacques, will get to the space station before the end of the decade.
By then, Mr. Ratliff hopes the station will have come into its own as a laboratory that researchers can routinely access for a broad range of cutting-edge experiments. The delivery of a protein crystallization facility during Mr. Hadfield's tenure on the station is an example of the type of equipment that will enhance the station's usefulness to researchers, he said.
Mr. Ratliff added that the station's ultimate success as a laboratory will depend on improved access through commercial space capsules and a more efficient process of getting experiments from the concept phase to orbit. But he added that fundamental questions remain about the practicality and usefulness of certain types of research and technology development that might be done aboard the station.
"Once we can answer those questions, then you will start to see the pipeline of opportunity expand," he said.
But with the space station now completed and the U.S. space program in transition, the Canadian Space Agency will need to refocus on research and development if it is going to play a meaningful future role, industry watchers say.
"There are a great many useful things that would have commercial impact that the [agency] could help move forward," said Chuck Black a spokesman for the Canadian Space Commerce Association. The agency, he added, "has thrived under conditions when there is a public need for a solution, and the solution is a space asset."
Mr. Black suggested that asserting Canada's sovereignty in the high Arctic represents precisely such a need. In January, the agency awarded a $706-million contract to MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. to construct the Radarsat Constellation, a multiyear project that involves the construction and deployment of three satellites that will enhance Canada's surveillance and environmental monitoring capacity, to launch in 2018.