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Canada extends commitment to space station ahead of space conference

Backdropped by the Earth's oceans, the Space Shuttle Endeavour's Canadarm, controlled by Canadian astronaut Julie Payette, is about to hand off the Integrated Cargo Carrier (ICC) to the International Space Station (out of frame) on Sunday July 19, 2009.


As the heads of major space agencies gather in this country to discuss the future of the International Space Station, Canada has finally committed itself to remaining involved in the orbiting lab beyond 2015.

Industry Minister Christian Paradis made the announcement Wednesday, with the station's five international partners getting set to discuss the future of the ISS at a group meeting in Quebec City.

The heads of the space agencies will discuss Thursday co-operation in space exploration, the maintenance of the space station, and its potential benefits for humanity.

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"With this renewed commitment, we are helping to maintain Canada's leadership in space technology and its everyday critical applications," Mr. Paradis told a news conference. Steve MacLean, head of the Canadian Space Agency, said in an interview that details of the arrangement still have to be negotiated.

Before the announcement, some industry players had been concerned that, unlike its partners, Canada had not signed on for the period until 2020, the end of the current projected lifespan of the station.

"Not having committed to being on the space station for another five years certainly makes our partners wonder whether we will continue to be part of space at all," Iain Christie, president of the Neptec Design Group, had said in an interview beforehand.

"Europeans, Japanese, Americans, everybody else who is part of the space station has said they have renewed their commitments; Canada has not."

Ottawa-based Neptec made the laser-camera system that was used to inspect for damage on the exterior of the recently retired U.S. space shuttles.

Given that a number of industry projects are supported by the Canadian Space Agency's $424.6-million current annual budget, its upcoming decisions carry deep financial implications for space-sector players, like Neptec. The agency, like other federal bodies, is preparing for major budget cuts this year.

Mr. Christie said that while the space agency might have felt there was no rush, people were starting to wonder why the Canadian government was dragging its heels.

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"Certainly in the circles that I travel in, it's beginning to really stick out that everybody else re-committed fairly quickly and Canada seems to be taking its own sweet time," he said earlier. Mr. Christie said there are a lot of countries that would have "happily (taken) our place" on the ISS.

Member states of the European Space Agency, after some debate, agreed a year ago, in March 2011, to endorse continued support and financial assistance of the space station until 2020.

Chuck Black, the treasurer of the Canadian Space Commerce Association, had said questions were being raised about why Canada had not signed on until the end of the decade.

"It is going to hold up some of our Canadian advancements, it's going to hold up some of our Canadian science experiments," he said in an earlier interview.

"There's an urgency, especially among businesses which deal in quarterly results and because of that I would really hope things would go faster."

Mr. Black suggested the CSA may have been trying to renegotiate its agreement to get more Canadian astronauts up to the station.

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Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield will travel to the ISS for a six-month stay at the end of 2012, but it's not clear when another Canadian will follow. There are no flights – beyond Mr. Hadfield – scheduled for Canadians before the end of the decade.

"I don't think it's reasonable to assume that ... the Canadian Space Agency aren't going to try to renegotiate the agreement so they can get one or two more astronauts up there between now and 2020," Mr. Black said before the announcement.

Mr. Black, who is also a space blogger, is keeping an eye on the upcoming federal budget which is expected to have an impact on spending by all departments. Bureaucrats in every department have been asked to prepare for scenarios under which their budgets would be cut either five or 10 per cent.

"My understanding is that some departments, including the Canadian Space Agency, are going to be cut back (and) there might be concerns there," Mr. Black said.

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