It is a disorienting business, being in space, and most astronauts in the first days of orbit scan the Earth for reminders of home. The Russians look for their great lakes; the Americans for mountain ranges. For Chris Hadfield, the former commander of the International Space Station, it was Plank Road, a 19th-century thoroughfare running through southern Ontario, Canada. "These guys put it there 150 years ago, and it was a neat thing for me to see from orbit. Hey, look! That's where I'm from!" After a few days, the perceptive lens widens. "And you just start seeing the whole world."
Hadfield, 54, is sipping coffee from a Nasa mug in the sun room of his home on Stag Island, a picturesque retreat 300km west of Toronto. Since returning from space last year, he has faced an old-school astronaut problem, one that general boredom with the space programme had all but erased: not just celebrity, but a sort of stunned adoration. At a recent event, he was asked in front of 5,000 people, "What is the meaning of life?" The music video he shot from orbit, a version of David Bowie's Space Oddity, has been viewed 200m times. Hadfield's skills are extraordinary: he is a fighter pilot, a test pilot and an aeronautical engineer capable of docking a rocket ship ("It's not like parking a car"). But that's not why the world loves him. Of the hundreds of astronauts who have gone into space, none has humanised it quite the way Hadfield has. It's weird that goofy guitar playing and exchanging tweets with William Shatner should seem remarkable, but in the context of the space station, it was. For the first time, it seemed like an extension of Earth. The night before our interview, he says, he took a stroll along the waterfront and, glancing up, remarked on the passage overhead of the International Space Station, a pinpoint of light in the darkness. "I used to live there," he mused, with a casualness to make the mind boggle.
It is also the deftness with which Hadfield is able to describe his experiences, not something those with advanced engineering degrees are necessarily well primed to do. As he says diplomatically of a super-bright former colleague, "He wasn't maybe gifted at interpersonal relationships." Hadfield, on the other hand, gives a good impression of being a regular guy. "I look like a cop," he says drily, in response to being told by lots of people how cool he is, something that Helene, his wife, finds hilarious. Actually, he looks like a biology teacher; it's the moustache and the boyish enthusiasm. "You get the question all the time: when are normal people going to be able to go to space? Well, I'm kind of a normal person."
Hadfield isn't worshipped at home. At one point he asks the photographer to avoid his shoes, because Helene hates them and will kill him if she sees them in the shoot. "What a wonderful wife you are," he says when she brings him more coffee and Helene replies with a withering look.
These qualities have served to head off a syndrome long recognised by Nasa as problematic for returning astronauts: the crashing anticlimax and existential difficulties of life after space travel. Hadfield was a veteran by the time he took off from Kazakhstan last year - it was his third space flight - but he was still braced for the possibility that if the mechanics of the mission didn't kill him, the mind-warp just might. He wouldn't merely be travelling in space this time; he would be living there for half a year, on a space station the size of a five-bedroom house, with up to five other people. "We are our own town," he says. "Every single skill that exists in a town, we have to have on board. There are six of us, then three leave and are replaced by another three. But if they have a problem on the way up, then there's three of you. So every trio that goes up has to have all the resident skills necessary for the entire time." And if something goes wrong? If the one doctor on board dies? He smiles. "Nobody can come get us."