As a young boy, Chris Hadfield spent many nights looking at the stars above his family’s Ontario farmhouse, dreaming of flying among them.

Lying in bed, he would raise his knees to his chest and pretend they were the control panel of a spaceship about to leave the Earth’s orbit.

Across the room in his own bed, Hadfield’s brother would do the same. Together they logged countless hours in imaginary space missions, zipping around the universe without leaving their home.

Today, a much older and bigger Hadfield tucked into the Russian Soyuz space capsule, his knees almost touching his chest, and launched into history as the first Canadian commander on the International Space Station.

The Soyuz is expected to arrive at the ISS on Friday.

“For me, it’s just surreal,” Hadfield said during a teleconference with reporters from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan last week, where he was under quarantine with two fellow space travellers – Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn.

The trio is spending five months at the International Space Station, joining several other astronauts to conduct various tests and science experiments. Hadfield is acting as the commander during the latter part of the mission.

The 53-year-old’s journey to space began at an early age. 

By the time he was 16, Hadfield was winning pilot scholarships and excelling academically. He then joined the Canadian Armed Forces and studied mechanical engineering before earning a masters’ degree in aviation systems.

As an accomplished pilot, Hadfield flew CF-18 fighter jets for the North American Aerospace Defence Command before taking a shot at his childhood dream of becoming an astronaut.

In June 1992, he was chosen as one of Canada’s four new astronauts from a pool of more than 5,300 applicants.

He passed “the world’s hardest physical” and a barrage of other tests designed to ensure only the best candidates were selected to fulfill Canada’s role in space exploration.

Since then, Hadfield has travelled to space twice and become the first Canadian to take a spacewalk.

But this mission is different.

Hadfield and his colleagues will be orbiting the Earth for five long months, relying only on each other and their extensive training in case anything goes wrong.

To prepare for the trip, dubbed Expedition 34/35, Hadfield has had to learn how to do everything from drawing his own blood and performing cardiac ultrasounds to collecting bits of dark matter from the universe for analysis.

The team is scheduled to conduct roughly 130 experiments commissioned by scientists from around the world.

The planned Canadian experiments will study the effects of gravity on things like human balance and blood pressure, Hadfield said. 

“It’s a very unique set of circumstances that weightlessness provides for us,” he said.

To stay on top of all the tasks scheduled for the mission, Hadfield has undergone rigorous training, which included daily physical exercise that will continue in space. 

“If we did nothing…we would be incapable of standing (upon return),” he said, noting that lack of gravity rapidly ages a person, deteriorating muscle and bone strength.

“You don’t even have to lift your head up in space -- that’s how lazy you could be,” he said.

But laziness is not an option on board the ISS -- Hadfield and his colleagues will be using a treadmill and doing weight-resistance training to stay in shape.

They will also consume healthy, rehydratable food matched as closely as possible to individual astronauts’ tastes.

Hadfield has secured one indulgence -- tubes of maple syrup to remind him of home.

The crew will also celebrate the holidays with special meals tailored to different cultures represented on the space mission. That means that Hadfield and his American colleagues will enjoy a Christmas turkey dinner on Dec. 25, while their Russian crewmates will celebrate the Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7 with traditional fare.

Being away from his wife, their three grown children and other family members will be difficult for Hadfield. He’s taking personal mementos -- a ring from his wife and a watch from his daughter -- to the ISS.

He also plans to photograph his hometown of Sarnia, Ont., from space and is looking forward to the night when -- if all goes according to plan -- most of the city’s residents leave their lights on as a way of waving hello.

Watching the Earth from 400 kilometres away is “like a present unwrapping itself each time you look out the window,” Hadfield said.

And after all these years, space travel is “fundamentally ‘little-boy’ exciting” for him.

“I’m not doing this for admiration. This is something that I thought was going to challenge me to the limits of my ability so I would find the greatest personal satisfaction in it,” Hadfield said.

“I think if you’re doing what you truly believe is important and you’re doing it to the absolute best of your ability and a lot of people that you don’t know agree with you and tell you so, then that’s a pretty good reaffirmation that you made some good choices.”

Gov. Gen. David Johnston, who watched Hadfield blast off, said the launch is "a great day for Canada, a great day for the world of discovery and innovation."