We seem to punch above our weight in terms of space contractors. Why do you think that is?
Well, we’ve been in the game longer than just about anyone, apart from the Soviet Union and the United States. We built world-class hardware from the very beginning. I don’t know if you’ve studied the STEM, the storable tubular extendable module?
No, what is it?
It’s an interesting history. We wanted to understand the upper atmosphere, so we built this combination science and research satellite, called Alouette. And then the inventors came up with how to put a big antenna on a little satellite: They realized that if you took a piece of metal that was rolled flat and fed it through a roller—like when you roll your tongue through your teeth—it would form a cylinder. And since there is no gravity, it would keep getting longer and still be stiff, so you could send it out for metres. It was called STEM. They patented the idea, and it became the industry standard. These guys worked for de Havilland, in a group called Special Products and Applied Research, which became Spar Aerospace.
And then in 1974, when the U.S. started looking for someone to build an arm for the shuttle, Spar got the contract. The Canadarm, which did all the work on the shuttle, made a lot of money for Canada and became the invitation to build Canadarm2, which built the space station, which led to the research robots we have up there now, which is Dextre. And that led to NeuroArm, which is used for remote brain surgery at a hospital in Calgary, using the same algorithms that were developed for Canadarm. It’s a wonderful, long continuum of invention that started with STEM.
We’ve sent eight Canadians to space. Why have so many of our astronauts made it, do you think?
We provided an absolutely vital part of the shuttle program with Canadarm, and we had a very close relationship with NASA. NASA astronauts come up here to train in Brampton all the time, and we’ve had people at the Johnson Space Center since the start of the shuttle program. Out of the initial six Canadian astronauts chosen, five flew. So it’s mostly because our big piece of hardware was integral to the shuttle.
We are now flying as part of the International Space Station organization and agreements. It has decreased our flight rate, because it’s proportionate to the percentage of money you put in as a country. Bob Thirsk was our first and lived up there for almost six months. I was our second, and now we’re looking to our next opportunity, so that David [Saint-Jacques] and Jeremy [Hansen] both have a chance to fly.
The future is moving toward privately funded space exploration. What does that mean for the Canadian industry?
That’s a misnomer. It’s always been commercial space flight. The Apollo lunar lander was built by Grumman. The space shuttles were built by Rockwell, and the space station is run by Boeing, for profit. Elon Musk is exactly the same as Boeing or Howard Hughes—a government contractor.
The big deal is who the customer is, and it has always been governments. What we’re trying to do now is make the customer someone besides a government. In unmanned space flight, we've gotten to that—where private companies can pay a rocket company to launch a satellite. But in human space flight, only the Russians have been able to fly private citizens who can pay for their ticket—eight of them, including Guy Laliberté.
What Richard Branson is trying to do is make an entire business based purely on privatized space flight, for the cost of a high-end luxury car—a quarter of a million dollars, which is expensive for regular folks, but there are a lot of people who can afford a high-end luxury car. Just go down to L.A.
Why have so many programs, like the Ares rocket, been killed over the years?
It takes about 10 years to build a human spaceship, traditionally. It takes about four years to run a political cycle, and that’s the inherent problem. How do you sustain funding for something for two-and-a-half political cycles? You need to somehow tie the program to something larger than politics. In the sixties, it was a proxy for the Cold War—the space race. The only other way is through an international, intergovernmental agreement that each country’s transient politics can’t back out of. That’s not just in the space business, of course—it’s any big international project. That’s why the space station exists—because it was international. If it had been the U.S. space station, it would have gone the way of Skylab. The first great American space station fell into the atmosphere and burned up because the space shuttle program was delayed for so many years.