Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. He is the co-founder of the Outer Space Institute.
If all goes well, 175 tonnes of kerosene and liquid oxygen will propel David Saint-Jacques to the International Space Station on Dec. 3.
Mr. Saint-Jacques will become the ninth Canadian astronaut to visit space, joining luminaries such as Marc Garneau, Roberta Bondar, Julie Payette and Chris Hadfield. These incredibly brave and accomplished people have boosted national pride, assisted on extraordinary scientific discoveries and inspired countless youth to study science, technology, engineering and math. They’ve joined together with astronauts from around the world in a remarkable project, with the 15 countries involved in the ISS contributing money, rocket launches, supplies and equipment. Canada drew on its experience with the Canadarm I, which flew on the U.S. space shuttles and made us a leader in robotic-arm development, to contribute the Canadarm II and Dextre, a smaller robotic manipulator. It thus earned the right to slots for its astronauts.
But the clock is ticking on the ISS, which is due to be shut down by 2028. Now, the next major project appears to be the U.S.-led Lunar Gateway, a space station that will orbit the moon in order to facilitate access to its surface, while serving as a refuelling and transfer point for missions to asteroids and Mars. The Russian, Japanese and European space agencies have already agreed to co-operate with NASA in this endeavour. The first component of the Lunar Gateway will be its power and propulsion unit, which has a planned launch date of 2022, with a habitation module following in 2024.
NASA has asked the Canadian Space Agency to provide a Canadarm III that includes new technologies such as artificial intelligence. The arm must be able to grapple, move and refuel spacecraft automatically because the Lunar Gateway will sometimes be unoccupied, and the station’s orbit – which will periodically take it behind the moon and out of contact –makes it impossible to operate remotely from Earth. The cost of such an arm, however, would be substantial – perhaps as much as $2-billion.
But it is essential that Canada earns its place on this new project, too.
With this investment, Canada would gain access to the Lunar Gateway, and through it, the Moon, asteroids and Mars. The ISS has provided a laboratory in microgravity for experiments that cannot take place on Earth, but it has not added substantially to our knowledge about other celestial bodies, which are the next great scientific frontier.
Partnering in the Lunar Gateway would also ensure that Canada gets a seat at the table for international negotiations about the future of space, including new rules on debris, mining and settlement. These negotiations, which will be required when access to the Moon, asteroids and Mars are opened up, could be more important than those that led to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the so-called “Constitution of the Oceans”; fortunately, Canadian diplomat Alan Beesley chaired that drafting committee. But if Canada is not at the table, it will become a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker as this frontier becomes defined.
Canada is already well-positioned to supply this essential equipment because of its considerable experience with space robotics and its growing strength in artificial intelligence. MDA, the company that built Canadarm II and Dextre, maintains facilities and staff dedicated to space robotics in Montreal and Brampton, despite having recently become a subsidiary of a larger U.S. company. Building a Canadarm III would create thousands of high-tech jobs in robotics and artificial intelligence, both directly at MDA and its contractors, and indirectly as the resulting scientific and technological advancements find new applications and markets. Canada is already a leader in these fields, but the science and technology – and other countries – are moving quickly.
But perhaps most crucially, partnering in the Lunar Gateway would provide Canada with astronaut slots for decades to come. This, in turn, would enable Canadian astronauts to continue their most vital mission: inspiring youth to study the universe around them. It’s time for Canada to reach for the stars.