LONGUEUIL, Que. - Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who became a worldwide sensation thanks to his tweets, musical performances and stunning photos from the International Space Station, was back on the ground Monday night.
Hadfield touched down in Kazakhstan on a Russian Soyuz capsule which was also carrying Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn — the same pair the Canadian astronaut blasted off with on Dec. 19, 2012.
During his five-month mission at the International Space Station, the 53-year-old space veteran became the first Canadian to command the orbiting laboratory.
The cramped Russian space capsule carrying Hadfield and his two space companions tore into the atmosphere before a parachute opened, slowing its descent until it hit the ground with a hard thud.
There was silence among the 200 people who gathered at the Canadian Space Agency south of Montreal to watch the event.
When the Soyuz landed, the crowd quietly stared at the giant screen then broke out into cheers and applause. The space audience, which included employees and their families, cheered again minutes later when Hadfield was lifted out of the capsule.
Former Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk, who spent six-months on the space station in 2009, described Hadfield's return to Earth as "a really dynamic event."
Thirsk, who joined rookie astronaut David Saint-Jacques at the space agency, said "the real icing on the cake is the landing."
"Sure it's bumpy, sure it's a little bit dynamic, sure you get tossed around," he told reporters. "But you can bet Chris and his two crewmates were laughing all the way down — they were having a good time."
To space watchers and his followers, it may have looked like Hadfield was spending a lot of time in the Twittersphere during his long space station visit.
But rookie Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques pointed out that Hadfield and his colleagues also set a record for the amount of time spent on research on the orbiting space laboratory.
They conducted more than 100 experiments.
"In terms of science achievements, it's just been a stellar mission," Saint-Jacques added.
Rescue teams moved quickly to help the crew in their bulky spacesuits get out through the narrow exit hatch of the capsule. They were then put into reclining chairs to start adjusting to Earth’s gravity.
The three astronauts smiled as they chatted with space agency officials and doctors who were checking their condition. Hadfield, who served as the space station’s commander, gave a thumbs-up. They then made quick phone calls to family members and friends.
After his landing, Hadfield was to be put on a NASA plane and flown to Houston to undergo tests and be reunited with his wife, Helene.
Officials at the Canadian Space Agency said they were hoping to make Hadfield available for a video conference with the media on Thursday from Texas.
During his stay in space, Hadfield became something of an extraplanetary media star. He not only tweeted photos, he also talked to schoolchildren, strummed his guitar and provided videos about daily life on the station.
He bid a dramatic farewell on Sunday with his own, revised version of David Bowie's "Space Oddity," recorded at the space station and posted to YouTube.
It's believed to be the first music video made in space, according to NASA.
Before he left the space station, Hadfield tweeted one last photo to his more than 800,000 Twitter followers.
His spaceflight finale was an image of the sun rising over the Earth and under the photo was the caption: To some this may look like a sunset, but it's a new dawn.
By the time Hadfield and his fellow space travellers were back on solid ground, the sun had in fact, already risen in the sky.
In a statement issued after Hadfield returned to Earth, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the astronaut has done an ”absolutely remarkable job as the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station.”
“His highly effective use of social media has brought the miracle of space travel home to Canadians and to the entire world,” said Harper.
The prime minister also noted that Hadfield’s ”tireless and unique efforts” to educate Canada and the world about space ”are nothing short of inspirational.”
Harper had earlier tweeted: "Thanking (Hadfield) for his inspiring contribution to discovery and for making all Canadians proud."
The BBC's science editor called Hadfield "the most famous astronaut since Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin," who had done more than anyone to raise the profile of the space station.
One Brazilian news organization dubbed him the "pop astronaut."
Meanwhile, Canada's most famous fictional astronaut, William Shatner, tweeted: "I have 2 words for him: 'SHOW OFF!' I'd even look good floating there singing!"
This visit to the space station was Hadfield’s third space journey.
The engineer and former test pilot from Milton, Ont., made his first trip to space in November 1995 when he visited the old Russian Space Station Mir.
His second voyage was to the International Space Station in April 2001, when he also performed two space walks.
The latest trip is, in a sense, the end of an era for the Canadian space program.
With Hadfield's return, it will now be at least three years before the next Canadian astronaut visits the space station.
Gilles Leclerc, the interim head of the Canadian Space Agency, has said there probably won't be another Canadian visit to the space station before 2016.
That trip would go to one of Canada's two new astronauts: Saint-Jacques or Jeremy Hansen.
The station will be kept in operation until at least 2020.
In the meantime, the future of the entire Canadian space program is on hold as the Harper government reviews the recommendations of a report on the space sector.
Former cabinet minister David Emerson, who headed the review, was blunt when he issued his report last November. He said the Canadian space program had "foundered" over the last decade.
Jim Quick, the president of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada, admits the space industry is going through a quiet period, but he is optimistic about the future.
"I think we've gone through a period of time where we could be doing more than we have been," he said in at interview at the Canadian Space Agency.
But Quick predicted that "some really good things are going to happen for the CSA and the space industry."
The space agency also has been without a president since Steve MacLean quit earlier this year and his replacement is yet to be found.
"Government is aggressively seeking new leadership at the CSA and I understand that's ongoing," Quick said. "We'll have a new path to follow going forward as we move past the Chris Hadfield era."
One industry insider said he expected a replacement for MacLean to be named in August or September
— with files from the Associated Press.