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Canadian astronauts could take commercial flight to space station

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon capsule lifts off from launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force station in Cape Canaveral, Florida December 8, 2010.

SCOTT AUDETTE/Scott Audette/Reuters

The head of the Canadian Space Agency says a Canadian astronaut may end up hitching a ride to the International Space Station on board a commercial vehicle.

In early December, a capsule belonging to Space Exploration Technologies Corp. - better known as SpaceX - splashed down into the Pacific Ocean.

The "Dragon" spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral atop the company's Falcon 9 rocket, circled the Earth twice and then parachuted back to Earth.

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CSA president Steve MacLean says he's impressed by what SpaceX accomplished, noting Canada will launch a communications satellite atop the Falcon 9 rocket in 2011.

Most of Canada's astronauts have used U.S. space shuttles to travel to the space station, but the shuttles will be retired in 2011.

Mr. MacLean would not rule it out when asked if a Canadian might hitch a ride on a commercial vessel, like SpaceX's Dragon.

"If you were to ask me to be a betting man, when the time comes that will be a decision that I could see that could happen," he said.

"If everything goes well, and if it shows that to our satisfaction everything is OK, everything is safe and secure, yes, it's possible."

Mr. MacLean also has his eye on U.S. company Orbital Sciences, which is working on a winged space capsule.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is already scheduled to board a Russian Soyuz for a trip to the International Space Station in late 2012 for a six-month stay.

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And Mr. MacLean says another ISS visit is forecast "for a few years after the flight of Hadfield."

That space voyage will inevitably go to one of Canada's two newest astronauts - David Saint-Jacques or Jeremy Hansen - who are currently in training.

Mr. MacLean says the world's space agencies are looking at three possible ways to ship their astronauts to the space station after the American shuttles retire.

"A big player in that is the commercial sector. The Soyuz is there. And in addition you've got the ATV, which is the European vehicle.

"There are discussions about turning it into a crew-return vehicle."

Since its first voyage in April 2008, the European Space Agency's ATV, or Automated Transfer Vehicle, has been used as a supply ship.

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"All options are being looked at with respect to that because [space station]access is an issue," Mr. MacLean said.

He says one scenario has the Americans buying space for their astronauts on a commercially built spacecraft.

Because it helped build the space station using the giant robotic Canadarms, Canada has one "credit" left for a trip to the space station.

That basically means it will be able to send an astronaut, with the Americans picking up the tab.

Looking beyond the space station, Mr. MacLean says future space exploration has been narrowed down to two possible concepts - a trip to an asteroid or a voyage to the other side of the Moon.

Short term, after a quiet 2010, the coming year will be a busy one as several Canadian satellites are launched into space.

Mr. MacLean says NEOSSat, described as the first space telescope totally dedicated to keeping an eye out for the rest of the world, is due to be put into orbit in the coming months.

NEOSSat (Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite) will scan areas near the sun to pinpoint asteroids which have not yet been detected.

Other launches include: M3MSAT, (Maritime Monitoring and Messaging Microsatellite) - a satellite that can check all ships in the ocean; and Sapphire - a surveillance satellite that is being operated jointly with the Department of National Defence.

In the meantime, Mr. MacLean is still trying to get approval of a long-term space plan - which he first began developing in 2008.

"We're still working with people in Ottawa, senior representatives of government and we just have to wait and see," he said.

But that's not good enough for Kevin Shortt, the president of the Canadian Space Society.

He says stimulus funding will run out in 2013 and it will be difficult to maintain the space workforce in Canada unless the plan is forthcoming.

"After that, without any long-term goals and any additional projects, companies in Canada will be struggling to maintain their workforce," Mr. Shortt said.

He says Canada is already starting to lose out.

"Right now, there are people in the space industry and within the scientific community in general who are packing up and going to do business elsewhere because there isn't that long-term vision from the Canadian government," Mr. Shortt said.

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