A space odyssey: There’s a bona fide hero out there and he’s got a Maple Leaf on his spacesuit
Instead of an autograph from the first man on the moon, I got stuck with one from a guy the parents of most of the American kids I grew up with thought lived on another planet.
For a 10-year-old boy crazy about outer space, Trudeau was a letdown.
If only there'd been a Chris Hadfield back then, at the height of the space craze, I'd have made out like a bandit. An autographed photo, for sure. Likely, a fascinating letter back. Maybe even a phone call.
Hadfield, if you haven't noticed, has single-handedly become the face of Canada's space program, floating 400 km aloft in the International Space Station (ISS). He tweets. He plays guitar. He snaps awesome photos. He beams into schools for live news conferences.
Oh, and Hadfield is also commanding the ISS, only the second non-American handed the keys to the space station. Not bad for a Sarnia-born Ontario farm kid, who cut his aerospace teeth as a Cold War fighter pilot intercepting Soviet bombers in our airspace. Forget the Canadarm, which isn't even Canadian any more.
Hadfield, with his high-tech engineering skills, Renaissance twists and blue-collar ethic, isn't just the poster child for our space program. He's the kind of personality and salesman for science that NASA could only have dreamed of putting before the cameras in the agency's heyday.
The year was 1971. Nixon was in the White House and the Pirates won the World Series. Like a scene out of the movie October Sky, little boys - I was among them - fired off tiny balsa wood rockets, swapped astronaut trading cards and knew the names of all the space missions.
In my New York school, our Grade 5 English teacher was explaining how to write proper business letters.
We were assigned to write a celebrity and ask for a return letter and signed photograph. There was only one catch: We couldn't write Elvis, baseball great Hank Aaron or Armstrong. They were so huge, we'd never get a reply, we were told.
In the small galaxy of celebrities within reach of kids back then, astronauts occupied the highest orbit.
Bring told it would be a moon shot to get Armstrong was crushing. With no fallback, and as the only Canadian in the class, I was ordered to write the prime minister.
Order of Ontario
Twenty-five years later, in 1996, I met an astronaut - not Armstrong, but Hadfield. He was receiving the Order of Ontario.
It was October Sky all over again. He told me what you can and can't see from space; what he took into orbit and what he left behind. Hadfield was funny and engaging.
By then, Hadfield - one of four Canadian astronauts selected from 5,000 applicants in 1992 - already had one of two space shuttle flights under his belt, the first Canuck to use the Canadarm in orbit.
Walk in space
He'd go on to become the first Canadian to walk in space. He served as NASA's operations director at the once-secret Star City cosmonaut training centre in Russia.
Last December, he rocketed back into space to the ISS aboard a Soyuz spacecraft. Talk about the right stuff - and more than 500,000 Twitter followers.
I know now the late Armstrong was shy and retiring, nothing like I imagined as a kid. "I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer," he said in 2000.
If he hadn't already shuffled off this Earth, I'd say move over, Mr. Armstrong, we now have the space hero we always dreamed of, only there's a Maple Leaf on his spacesuit.