At face value, Canada’s space program will look busier over the next several months than it has in years.
The action begins this fall when a NASA mission to retrieve a piece of an asteroid closes in on its target with the help of a Canadian-built scanning laser. Around the same time, a SpaceX rocket will launch Canada’s Radarsat Constellation, a trio of satellites that will repeatedly map the country’s vast and changing expanse.
Then, come November, physician-astrophysicist David Saint-Jacques will head to the International Space Station, marking the first trip to orbit for a Canadian astronaut since Chris Hadfield returned to Earth five years ago. Finally, in 2019, NASA will launch the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a $10-billion astronomical tour de force, whose penetrating views of the cosmos will be enabled by a Canadian guidance and infrared camera system.
These milestones suggest a space program that is firing on all cylinders, engaged in planetary exploration, Earth observation, human spaceflight and astrophysics.
But anyone who follows the program closely knows the crowded schedule masks a moribund reality: For the most part, it involves projects that were developed more than a decade ago; they are a reflection of the space program as it once was, not as it is today.
“Unfortu nately there’s nothing in the pipeline, and it’s going to hit home in another year or two,” said Gordon Osinski, a planetary scientist at the University of Western Ontario in London and a member of a government-selected advisory board on Canada’s space program.
Advocates for Canada’s space program say it has been stuck in low gear for years. Many saw last month’s federal budget as the perfect opportunity for a reset, following more than a year of public consultation. But while the budget was a win for science and technology overall, space barely got a mention. More worrying to insiders, the budget contains no explicit provision for the development of a new space strategy, something the advisory board said Canada urgently requires.
“There’s an entire planning process that needs to take place right now,” said Michelle Mendes, another advisory board member and outgoing executive director of the Canadian Space Commerce Association, which represents industry interests. “Without a strategy, we don’t know where we’re going.” In a statement to members last week, the association characterized the budget as a disappointment.
The lack of a new direction is especially tough on space science, a chronically underfunded element of Canada’s program. It includes planetary exploration, atmospheric science and astronomy – areas that are often the most interesting to the public and demand technical innovations that can lead to commercialization.
Canada has never supported space science well, but these days the funding is on life support. While the Canadian Space Agency’s annual budget hovers between $350-million and $400-million, its science budget comes in around $16-million, according to a white paper submitted to the advisory board last year. In comparison, the United States, with nine times Canada’s population, spends about 300 times more on space science every year.
“The current level of small and uncertain funding means that Canadian space scientists can’t develop new technologies or engage in international missions in an effective way,” said Jeremy Heyl, an astrophysicist at the University of British Columbia who co-authored the white paper.
The situation has left senior researchers spinning their wheels, while graduate students and postdoctoral researchers either abandon the profession or move elsewhere. “It’s very difficult for anyone doing space research in Canada to move forward, so people just leave,” Dr. Heyl added.
Science and commerce
Geography makes Canada’s need for a space program existential. No other country has so few people spread over such a large area, including the High Arctic, with so much land and ocean to monitor and communications infrastructure to deliver – duties that are best fulfilled from orbit.
It was this reality that led Canada, in 1962, to become the third country in space, after the Soviet Union and the United States. But Canada’s space presence evolved slowly, focusing first on telecommunications and remote sensing, then adding robotics in the form of the Canadarm for the U.S. space shuttle program and the space station.
When the Canadian Space Agency was created in 1989, it became the conduit for supporting the country’s forays into space science. Funding was tight, but by the early 2000s it was enough for Canada to contribute to a succession of Mars landers, develop its share of the JWST and even deploy a small but entirely Canadian-made astronomy satellite known as MOST (affectionately nicknamed the “Humble Space Telescope”).
Since then, the agency’s budget has stagnated and narrowed around two key objectives: maintaining its astronaut program and building Radarsat. The idea of an ongoing and balanced portfolio of space-related science projects that keeps the research community and contractors engaged has been swooshed out the air lock.
Space advocates say this has prevented Canada from setting its own science priorities in space or joining larger missions looking for international partners. For example, when NASA sends its next rover to Mars in 2020, Canada will not be involved. “The Canadian Space Agency wasn’t in a position to even say this was a possibility,” Dr. Osinski said. “We were just locked out.”
This means that as Canadian space science has dried up, so have opportunities for Canada’s space industry. In other countries, the industry is typically sustained by a triad of client categories that includes commercial satellites, the military and science. Out of necessity, the latter two are publicly funded, but because space science often requires forward-looking technical solutions, it can generate innovation and economic activity well beyond its public investments, along with a community of highly qualified engineers and technicians.
Public investment in space science is crucial for a viable commercial sector, says Michael Pley, a consultant and former CEO of Com Dev International Ltd., the prime contractor for Canada’s piece of the JWST. “It allows you to build that critical mass of engineering capability that you need to be able to address all three market segments effectively.”
Significantly, Canada’s reduced public space effort has been paralleled by big changes in its commercial space sector. In 2016, Com Dev was acquired by Honeywell International Inc., while MDA Corp., which built the Canadarm, has effectively turned itself into a U.S. company to facilitate business south of the border.
“Canada is well positioned to house a commercial space economy,” said Ms. Mendes. “What Canada requires is a long-term [public] space program so there is confidence from the investor side.”
A brighter future?
In their white paper, Dr. Heyl and his colleagues argue that Canada needs to grow its space science efforts tenfold just to be in the same ballpark as international partners and competitors. The amount roughly matches a 2016 report from the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada that proposes budgeting $100-million a year for space science, spread across a range of disciplines.
Such an increase would still only amount to about 1 per cent of the country’s total science budget. The result, Dr. Heyl said, would allow Canada to pursue a substantial number of missions each decade, create a critical mass of researchers in universities and the private sector and become a full player in the next wave of space development and commercialization.
The fact that so little of the Canadian Space Agency’s annual budget is currently allocated to science means Canada is also missing out on another key benefit of having a space program. Although space has obvious practical applications, it is the exploratory nature of space science that catapults many young enthusiasts into careers in STEM fields. And while other countries have made a point of using their space programs to build enthusiasm for science, Canada has largely stepped back from such activities. At one point, the Harper government eliminated funding for the Canadian Space Agency’s educational and outreach programs altogether, sharply diminishing the agency’s public profile. The current government has not elected to reverse the cut.
“Education is an easy thing to cut, but without it the space program really doesn’t have legs to stand on,” said Kate Howells, a space advisory board member who is also the global community outreach manager for the Planetary Society, a U.S.-based space science advocacy group. She added that the federal government’s apparent lack of urgency in developing a vision for the space program in the 2018 budget can be linked to the fact that the public does not perceive space as a national priority – a huge disconnect, given that space technology underpins the daily operations of the country.
“A lack of outreach has a lot to do with that,” she said.
The space agency acknowledges its communication challenges, but its relationship with Ottawa means it cannot publicly lobby for more funding. What it has done over the past year is marshal resources to develop a science program related to space medicine.
With the space station program set to end in 2025, the U.S. and its international partners have begun planning a more distant space platform in orbit around the moon, which would also serve as a precursor to crewed missions to Mars. And just as the Canadarm became Canada’s ticket to the space station, the agency is considering the feasibility of creating a medical facility for the next outpost.
To help sell the idea, the agency points out its direct application on Earth: bringing better medical technology and remote health services to communities across Canada’s North.
“We are looking at concepts for health systems on long-duration flights that can be used almost directly for terrestrial benefits,” said Gilles Leclerc, the agency’s director-general for space exploration, in an interview last December.
But Mr. Leclerc admits he is concerned about Canada’s ability to participate in other space science efforts in the next decade, including a mission to retrieve rock samples from Mars and bring them to Earth.
“That’s the holy grail for planetary science, and it’s going to be an international effort,” he said.
Whether the agency will have the resources to participate in such an effort or provide rovers for the lunar surface or land humans on an asteroid or any number of other possibilities all depends on the government developing a space strategy.
In addition to pressing for a strategy in its recommendations last year, the space advisory board said Ottawa should designate space a national asset as a matter of sovereignty and security, strengthen Canada’s capabilities, restore sustainable funding and boost outreach and education.
In a statement to The Globe and Mail, a spokesperson for Navdeep Bains, the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, who oversees the space agency, said “space is an important part of Canada’s infrastructure and a strategic sector of our economy so it is important that we take the time necessary to get this right.”
The statement added that the work of the space advisory board “continues to inform the government’s work on a vision for the space sector and future planning,” but made no commitment to a timeline for that vision.
Several board members said that despite concerns that a way forward for the space program was not included in the budget, they felt the ministry was taking the file seriously.
“Our recommendations haven’t landed on deaf ears,” Ms. Howells said.
She added that in public consultations and ongoing discussions around the space program, she has been encouraged by the determination of a younger generation eager to move Canada forward.
“The future is bright because there are so many talented people who really want to make it happen – and make it happen here,” she said. “They don’t want to move to the U.S. to work for NASA.”