Ewan Reid is the president and CEO of Mission Control Space Services Inc.
“Canada is inviting you to dream big.” These were the words directed at our country’s youth, from Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques, who was orbiting 400 kilometres above the surface of the Earth in the International Space Station (ISS) last Thursday.
Relayed to the Canadian Space Agency headquarters in Saint-Hubert, Que., the live event followed an announcement from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: Canada will join NASA and be the first country committed to participating in the next generation space station, the Lunar Gateway – a platform orbiting the moon. The announcement includes more than $2-billion to be spent over 24 years and comes at a critical time for the space industry and the world.
The leadership shown by this government to make a bold commitment, a promise in the Prime Minister’s words, that “Canada is going to the moon,” is more than an investment in the future; this is a critical step toward a new universe of intellectual and practical possibility.
Canadian leadership in space goes back a long time. But over the last 20 years, our authority has declined. With shrinking budgets and no comprehensive space strategy, we limped along, living off the legacy of past successes. Mr. Saint-Jacques’s mission to the ISS inspires us, but for the three active Canadian astronauts waiting on the ground, a mission opportunity was starting to seem like an unlikely dream.
With last week’s announcement, that dream has moved closer to reality. There is a strong possibility that we will see a Canadian astronaut orbit the moon. Perhaps Calgary-born Jenni Sidey-Gibbons will be the first woman to walk on the moon. What is certain is that we will build another Canadarm: a smart robotic system that will include small and large arms, specialized tools and advanced autonomy capabilities essential for operation so far from Earth.
We will likely develop many of these new and innovative technologies using a commercial model, designed to support a cislunar economy and allow our industry to thrive in the long term without further support from the taxpayer. All the Canadian space industry needed was this bold vision to allow us to consolidate our position as a world leader in space robotics and AI, technologies that all future space activities will be depend on.
An important part of the announcement was funding for a new program called LEAP: Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program. This program, which includes the goal of advancing and demonstrating innovative technologies on or around the moon, will provide Canadian businesses and academic institutions a chance to develop technologies and – critically – test them near or on the lunar surface. From rovers and cameras, to drills and medical devices, Canadian companies and researchers will be poised to contribute our technologies for future lunar missions from home and abroad.
This program is critical because it fills an existing gap and will provide our organizations an advantage needed to compete internationally in all the segments of this new economy. Space is already the most important arena for telecommunications and climate monitoring and is about to emerge as an active domain for tourism and transportation, resource extraction and security. Taking a strong position on the most far-reaching international space collaboration allows Canada to engage in other important discussions closer to home.
For instance, how to regulate space-based observation technologies that soon will allow for persistent, ubiquitous, near real-time surveillance of anywhere on Earth. Or the White House’s space policy directive 1, which not only directs NASA to return to the moon, but to use the resources there. It is in the best interest of all Canadians that we become vital international partners on contemporary space initiatives and continue to adapt and innovate, to inspire and lead in the years ahead.
The last piece of the puzzle remaining to be put in place is the long-overdue space strategy of which this announcement would become a part. With the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains committing to its release in the coming weeks, the future again looks bright for the Canadian space industry.
Perhaps the most essential part of this announcement is what it implies for Canadian youth. At a time of uncertainty and division, climate change and pervasive social media, there are many pitfalls besetting our young people. Looking toward the future and an opportunity to be a part of something modern and meaningful, something we can’t yet fully comprehend or appreciate, can be a source of inspiration like nothing else.
We should all be looking to the moon, and beyond, to discover new ways to live sustainably here on Earth and to recognize the utter fragility of our tiny blue planet. The Prime Minister’s announcement asserted that Canada is committed to peaceful international collaborations and, indeed, is a country where youth, innovation, science and a view to the future are esteemed; that Canada is going to the moon.