By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield took the helm of the International Space Station on Wednesday, 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 aboard the station broadcast on NASA Television.
"Thank you very much for giving me the keys to the family car," Hadfield told outgoing station commander Kevin Ford, 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," Hadfield said.
Ford, Novitskiy and Tarelkin have been aboard the station, a $100 billion research laboratory that flies about 250 miles above Earth, since October.
Command of the station, a project of 15 nations that has been permanently staffed since November 2000, normally rotates between 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.
Hadfield will be part of a three-man skeleton crew until NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and cosmonauts Pavel Vinogradov and Alexander Misurkin arrive later this month.
Hadfield, astronaut Thomas Marshburn and cosmonaut Roman Romanenko have been aboard the station since December 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 Space Exploration Technologies' 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 with short messages and pictures dispatched 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," Canada's Industry Minister Christian Paradis said in a statement.
(Editing by Kevin Gray and Phil Berlowitz)