Canada's forlorn space program has a new champion in the corridors of federal power: the country's former top soldier.
The Harper government, which was warned just months ago that Canada's space efforts are foundering because of vague priorities and unpredictable funding, has announced that retired general Walter Natynczyk will take the helm of the Canadian Space Agency.
The appointment is a bid to give the agency – which languishes in a Montreal suburb, far from Ottawa decision makers – a high-profile advocate with solid communication and organizational skills who can try to restore the CSA's purpose and clout.
Mr. Natynczyk, the former chief of the defence staff, has a strong reputation as a manager. He has also previously served as the vice-chief of the defence staff, a job that includes being the chief operating officer of the military.
His blurb at the National Speakers Bureau describes him as part of a "new breed of modern day operational military leader with a business administration degree who speaks the language of values, loyalty and humility."
Space industry insiders say the CSA has been hobbled by ineffective management. "Astronauts are fantastic people but they're not the best administrators to run a big organization like that," one said.
Perhaps most important for the CSA, Mr. Natynczyk has strong relationships with U.S. government officials, both because of his time at the helm of the Canadian Forces and because of an exchange program with the U.S. military. He has served with U.S. troops in Iraq and as deputy commander of the U.S. Army's III Corps at Fort Hood, Tex.
That will stand the Canadian Space Agency in good stead as he works with the U.S. government and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on joint activities.
In November, former Conservative cabinet minister David Emerson submitted a report for the Harper government saying Canada is falling behind other countries on space programs.
"There is no over-arching articulation of what we want to do in space or how we want to do it," Mr. Emerson's review said.
The Canadian Space Agency is seeing its base funding cut during this era of federal restraint, and space industry insiders say its coffers get raided for cash if special projects run over budget.
Today it's no longer the sole authority on space-related activity in the Canadian government. Many departments and agencies – including the Department of National Defence – have space initiatives.
Mr. Natynczyk, who retired from the Canadian Forces in December, 2012, knows how to work the federal system, having spent years as a top military commander fighting for money and resources in Ottawa.
He will take over at the CSA on Aug. 6, replacing astronaut Steve MacLean, who quit unexpectedly several months ago.
On Friday, Harper government officials rejected out of hand the notion that the former soldier's appointment represents a shift to a more militaristic focus for the civilian space agency.
Dan Harris, NDP industry critic, congratulated Mr. Natynczyk on his appointment.
He said he thinks the spending cuts at the agency will make the former soldier's job more difficult.