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Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield assumes command of space station

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield took the helm of the International Space Station on Wednesday, marking only the second time in the outpost's 12-year history that command has been turned over to someone who is not American or Russian.

"It's a huge honor and a privilege for me, but also for all the people at the Canadian Space Agency and for my entire country," Hadfield, 53, said during a change-of-command ceremony broadcast on NASA TV.

"Thank you very much for giving me the keys to the family car," Hadfield told outgoing station commander Kevin Ford, a NASA astronaut who is due to depart on Thursday along with Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Evgeny Tarelkin. "We're going to put some miles on it, but we'll bring it back in good shape."

Ford, Novitskiy and Tarelkin have been orbiting 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth on the station since October.

Command of the station, a project of 15 nations that has been permanently staffed since November 2000, normally rotates between the two primary partners, United States and Russia. But in May 2009, Belgian astronaut Frank De Winne became the first station commander from the European Space Agency.

Hadfield, a veteran of two space shuttle missions, is the station's first Canadian commander. He will be part of a three-man skeleton crew until NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Pavel Vinogradov and Alexander Misurkin arrive later this month.

Hadfield, astronaut Thomas Marshburn and cosmonaut Roman Romanenko have been aboard the station since Dec. 21. They are due to return to Earth on May 13.

Among Hadfield's first duties as commander is overseeing the packing and release of the visiting SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule. The capsule, making a second resupply run for NASA, is due to depart the station on March 25.

Hadfield has taken to Twitter to share his experiences in orbit, firing off short messages and pictures several times a day. His followers now number more than 512,000.

"My heartfelt congratulations to Commander Hadfield and his family on what is an important milestone for all Canadians," the country's industry minister, Christian Paradis, said in a statement.

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