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Canada's Hadfield headed for five-month space station rendezvous

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LONGUEUIL, Que. - Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield headed for a rendezvous with the International Space Station on Wednesday after a chilly blast-off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The Russian space capsule carrying Hadfield, NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn and cosmonaut Roman Romanenko is expected to arrive on Friday.

During his five-month visit, Hadfield will become the first Canadian to command the giant orbiting space laboratory when he takes over in mid-March.

It's a task that former Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk says will be challenging. Thirsk spent six months on the space station in 2009.

"Chris is the ultimate authority for any emergency situations that will occur on board," Thirsk said after watching the launch from the Montreal-area Canadian Space Agency.

But like all astronauts, Hadfield has been well prepared.

"We train over and over for on-board fires, for cabin depressurizations, for toxic atmospheres," Thirsk said. "If these kinds of events should occur, you need to react quickly."

Thirsk noted that he was getting mentally fatigued toward the end of his six-month stint and that Hadfield, as space station commander, will have to keep his crew motivated.

"Chris's job as commander will be to maintain crew morale and make sure the crew paces itself well," Thirsk said. "This is a marathon, not a sprint."

When Hadfield blasted off, his wife Helene, sons Kyle, 29, and Evan, 27, and 26-year-old daughter Kristin were there to watch and listen to the roar of the booster rockets.

"I'm feeling so happy,'' Kristin said. ''I mean, my dad just went to space. It's amazing. I'm feeling amazing.''

But Thirsk cautioned that being away from family can be tough on astronauts who spend a long period of time on the space station.

"You miss family, you miss friends, you miss nature, you miss everything familiar on the ground, you miss birthdays and you miss school concerts," he said.

Rookie astronaut David Saint-Jacques also watched the blast-off and joined Thirsk in providing a running commentary.

The 42-year-old astronaut is looking forward to his first space trip, which he admitted is still several years away .

"I'm training to go to the International Space Station aboard a Soyuz spacecraft on a similar mission to the one that Chris is embarking on," he told reporters.

Saint-Jacques could not put a date on that voyage, but Thirsk suggested it may not happen for four or five years.

Fellow rookie Jeremy Hansen, the only other active Canadian astronaut, is also continuing his training.

"Both of them are well on the way to getting ready for a space station expedition, (but) the launch date for them will not be in the immediate future," Thirsk added.

"Canada is the smallest partner in the space station partnership so we'll have to wait a few years before one of them will be able to launch."

Gov. Gen. David Johnston described Hadfield's launch as "a great day for Canada, a great day for the world of discovery and innovation."

He joined the families of Canadian Space Agency employees who watched the event on a giant TV screen.

During his stay, Hadfield, an avid guitar player, plans to do some strumming to help him deal with homesickness.

The 53-year-old space veteran will also be involved with more than 130 experiments including Micro-flow, a Canadian blood-sampling experiment he compared to a hospital in a box.

This is Hadfield's third space journey.

His first space trip was in November 1995 when he visited the Russian Space Station Mir. His second voyage was a visit to the International Space Station in April 2001, when he also performed two space walks.

The Soyuz craft Hadfield and his colleagues are travelling on is a variation on the vehicle that has been in constant use by the Soviet and then Russian manned space programs since 1967.

With the decommissioning of the U.S. shuttle fleet, the Soyuz is now the only vehicle able to carry astronauts to the space station.

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