What’s the next frontier?
The next logical step after the space station is the moon—it’s three days away. And other countries recognize that. China is using everybody’s technology to leap-frog rapidly, and they’ve almost caught up. They built their own little 10-man space station, and they soft-landed a rover on the moon. Nobody has done that for 40 years, so good on them. Russia is looking really seriously at putting people on the moon, and they’ve worked a lot more closely with the Chinese than we have. The natural thing to do is to set up an international consortium to put a human base on the moon, after the space station, which will hopefully fly for another decade or a little more.
What’s Canada’s role there?
We have myriad problems to solve to go to the moon. You could draw a whole list of them, and most of them have direct application back here on the surface. Canada just needs to look at that list and start choosing. Are we going to become experts in fuel cells or power generation or navigation or communication or radiation protection or in-situ resource usage, or just how to keep a crew from going crazy?
It is complicated and multidecadal, and you’re not going to turn a profit in two years. To me, the fact that the Canadarm is on the $5 bill is very prideful, but it’s also a good reminder: This was largely a 50-year project, and it is the most recognizable symbol of Canadian technology.
Tell me a bit more about China’s role in space.
Nobody does infrastructure better than China—they’ve been doing it for 3,000 years. I think every Canadian should go to Shanghai and spend a week, and then come back here and get to work.
It is phenomenal what’s going on in China. They built the Beijing airport from nothing in three years. Sure, they have their own internal political problems, and maybe they don’t treat their citizens the way we think citizens should be treated. They’re not perfect; we’re not perfect. But at the same time, they are a roaring economy with great capability, and the government can make a decision and stick with it for a few years. As a result, they’ve had astronauts do space walks. They are the third nation on Earth to have their own human launch capability, and they are going to the moon.
Like it or not, that’s what the Chinese are doing. The real thing to decide is how this benefits Canada. If a horse is running by, you’ve got three choices: You get out of the way, you try and jump on, or you get trampled.
I would hope we’re trying to jump on.
It’s not that much different from working with the Americans in the late fifties and early sixties. We had nothing, and they were building rocket ships. Or look at what we did with the Soviets in the late eighties and early nineties: I used to intercept Soviet bombers off the coast of Newfoundland, up until 1988. In 1993, I donated a bunch of my furniture to a Russian cosmonaut so that his daughter could have a bunk bed when she moved to Houston. And in 1995, I went and helped build part of their space station, Mir. Who could have predicted that?
So it is easy to make the same noises about China. And China has a terrible history of industrial espionage, and we don’t want to give away our hard-earned inventions for nothing. But there is an enormous amount of middle ground, even if it’s symbolic. Have one of our astronauts train there, and one of theirs train here—just get it going.
Canada always gets this rap for being deadsville in terms of innovation. Why do you think we don’t trumpet this better?
It’s not our nature, and maybe it’s part of how we’ve been so successful—because we don’t spend time trumpeting it; we spend time actually doing it.