In a prescient engraving from 1793, English poet and printmaker William Blake depicted a figure at the base of a long ladder that leads up to the moon. Beneath it, Blake famously carved the words: “I want! I want!”
The historic image offers an apt description of Canada’s space sector for the past year as it has repeatedly urged the federal government, both publicly and behind the scenes, to join a multibillion dollar international effort to build a next generation space station in lunar orbit.
On Thursday, Ottawa finally acquiesced, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada will become a partner in the Lunar Orbiting Platform-Gateway, a facility that the U.S. space agency, NASA, envisions as both a proving ground for space technology and a precursor to an eventual human mission to Mars.
“Today, we are stepping up,” the Prime Minister said during a press conference at Canadian Space Agency headquarters in Saint-Hubert, near Montreal. “Canada is going to the moon.”
The announcement means that Canada is the first partner to officially commit to the Gateway after the United States, although Europe, Japan and Russia have all indicated their interest and are expected to follow suit in the coming months.
The centrepiece of Canada’s involvement in the new platform will be supplying a robotic arm that Mr. Trudeau called “Canadarm 3,” a successor to the Canadarm 2, the unit that is depicted on the back of the Canadian five dollar bill and that has become crucial to operations aboard the International Space Station.
The commitment is the largest for the country’s space program in over a decade and will inject $2.05-billion into Canada’s space sector over the next 24 years. It also creates a focus for the Canadian Space Agency, which has been seen as adrift in recent years without a long-term plan or direction from political leaders about what happens after the space station.
The agency’s official entry into project, also sets the stage for Canadian astronauts to visit and work aboard the deep space outpost.
“Our objective is to have a Canadian on the Gateway within the next 10 years, as soon as the Gateway is completed,” said Gilles Leclerc, the agency’s director-general of exploration.
Jennifer Sidey-Gibbons, who was selected in 2017 to be a Canadian astronaut, said the prospect of a future mission to the Gateway was an opportunity almost too great for words.
“To hear the moon discussed as something we’re pushing towards is phenomenal,” she said.
Because of its remote location, it is expected that the Gateway will be unoccupied most of the time. The new Canadarm and other systems on board the platform will be more reliant on artificial intelligence with less real-time input from mission controllers on Earth.
Mr. Leclerc added that Canada’s partnership in the Gateway would also open the possibility of access for scientists and Canadian companies to use the outpost as a base for conducting robotic mission on the lunar surface.
“It’s a door opener,” said Gordon Osinski, a planetary scientist at the University of Western Ontario. “Now that Canada’s at the table for a return to the moon it creates a way for scientists and engineers [at Canadian universities] to participate too.”
Thursday’s announcement also includes a $150-million allocation to the agency over the next five years for an accelerator program to spur projects by Canadian companies to develop technologies related to the Gateway. The program includes support for remote health technologies – a facet of human space exploration where the space agency hopes to develop a second niche alongside Canada’s established track record building space robotics.
Navdeep Bains, Minister for Innovation, Science and Economic Development, said that up to 200 companies stand to benefit from the initiative. The new funding will be included in the 2019 federal budget that is set to be tabled on March 19.
But the biggest potential winner is likely to be MDA, the company that built and operates Canadarm 2. While MDA is now part of Maxar, a U.S.-based aerospace firm, its robotics division remains in Brampton, Ont.
MDA has already been working on preliminary contracts to develop technologies toward Canadarm 3 and is a likely front-runner for the main contract to build the new arm.
For the past 10 months the company has led a vigorous public relations campaign under the banner “Don’t Let Go” to encourage the federal government to sign onto the Gateway.
“If Canada missed this moment, that would have meant a very large erosion in Canada’s position,” in the space sector, said MDA president Mike Greeley.
The next step in space exploration may be the Lunar Gateway, which will orbit the Moon rather than the Earth, as the aging International Space Station does now. Globe Science Reporter Ivan Semeniuk outlines the important choice Canada needs to make to participate in the Gateway or be shut out by other international partners.