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.
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.
You spent a lot of time looking down at the planet. How did that change the way you thought about climate change?
It didn’t change my thinking. The climate always changes. We live in a place that had two miles of ice 15,000 years ago, right here. The real key is what is currently causing the changes, how much of an impact people are having, how deleterious is it and what we should do about it.
We’re not threatening the health of the planet. The planet has been around for four-and-half billion years. The moon was torn out of the Earth in an impact billions of years ago. The dinosaurs were rendered extinct by a huge impact millions of years ago, and the world recovered fine. The real question is: What is the impact on us? And which “us” are we talking about? Are we talking about people in Toronto, or people in sub-Saharan Africa, where a tiny change in the annual rainfall can cause a natural genocide?
We have to try and somehow solve these problems and not just cast recriminations. We can’t just say that the government needs to do something. We are the government. We vote our government in, and governments only last a few years. Why would it be to our current government’s advantage to do something that has an effect 30 years from now?
But that’s so cynical.
No, it’s not cynical at all; it is realistic. People say, Why doesn’t the government do something? Why don’t you do something?
But you can’t deny that some sort of stick would stimulate a bit of innovation. And no private enterprise seems willing to take the risk at scale.
I agree. It requires leadership and vision, and it requires a feeling of individual responsibility. I spoke at We Day this year—that’s two brothers from Toronto who are inspiring young Canadians to work both locally and globally on projects that are good for the world. Nobody told them they had to do it. They aren’t government, and they aren’t big business, but they are a big influence. So what’s to stop everybody from doing something like that?
Do you feel a sense of responsibility because you have this platform now?
I’ve always felt a sense of responsibility. But I don’t want to just add to the noise. That’s the opposite of actual action—getting a bigger and bigger megaphone. I want to say something that is worth listening to. In my book, I talk about being a minus one, a zero or a plus one. It’s really easy for me to come in here thinking I’m a plus one right now and, in fact, be a minus one. And if I start jumping on a bandwagon where I haven’t actually done the research, then I’m a minus one. Right now, I am absolutely aiming for zero, until I can get my act together.
This interview has been edited and condensed.