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Canada Vows Swift Action on Space Program Reboot

Christian Paradis, Canada's Industry Minister Credit: Official Canadian Government photo

OTTAWA — The Canadian government is promising quick action on a new report that calls on it to reboot its space program and provide industry with a long-term space plan to show where the country is moving in that sector.

Industry Minister Christian Paradis did not provide specific details on how Canada intends to proceed on the report’s recommendations but he said there is an understanding about not only the challenges the country’s space industry faces but also the sector’s importance to the economy and security of the nation.

“This report is not going to sit on a shelf collecting dust,” Paradis said of the study conducted by David Emerson, a former Conservative government Cabinet minister.

Emerson’s report, a strategic review of the country’s aerospace and space sector, was released Nov. 29. It calls on the government to recognize the importance of space to national security and economic prosperity and recommends the industry minister produce annual, five-year and 10-year plans for the Canadian space program. Those plans would be brought to a Cabinet committee for discussion and approval each spring.

Emerson also called for better-defined roles for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), noting it should not be involved in policymaking or directly involved in designing space assets purchased by government. Instead it would act as a technical adviser for the federal government on procurement of major space assets. CSA would also continue to run the Canadian astronaut program, Emerson recommended in the 49-page report, titled “Reaching Higher: Canada’s Interests And Future In Space.” The Canadian government commissioned the report.

Emerson also recommended that major Canadian space projects be funded from multiple sources, both within and outside the federal government, and that increased international cooperation be pursued as a way of sharing costs.

He had a warning for his former government colleagues: “The Canadian space program has foundered. This cannot continue.”

Canadian space industry officials have long complained the country has been without a long-term space plan since 1994. The Conservative government had planned to produce one in 2008 but despite months of work by CSA President Steve MacLean nothing was ever made public.

Various Canadian space industry firms welcomed the Emerson report, noting that the recommendations will help provide a way forward for action by the Canadian government.

“There is a clear recognition of the strategic role of space and aerospace to the economic well-being of Canada and this report is a critical first step towards revitalizing this sector,” Dave Caddey, MDA Corp.’s executive vice president, said in a statement. It was one of several similar statements issued by industry.

MacLean called Emerson’s report “astute,” adding that it will be key in driving home the strategic importance of space to decision-makers in the federal government.

“It’s a first step,” he told SpaceNews. “What happens now is that industry and all the players will get together and develop an action plan that the minister will take a look at and decide what he wants to do.”

“MacLean said he expects action on the report to happen relatively quickly,” said Kevin Shortt, the former president of the Canadian Space Society. Shortt said the recommendations from Emerson’s report reflect what representatives from the country’s space community have been saying for years.

But Shortt also said the jury is still out on whether the government will take action. “The optimist in me would like to say this is the report that finally sparks some reaction on the government’s part but at the same time I look at the history,” he said. “What’s different with this report? What about it is going to spark the government into action?”

He noted that the Canadian government-sponsored Chapman Report, written in 1967, contained similar acknowledgements of the importance of the country’s space sector but much of the advice from that major study was not followed by government.

Emerson’s report comes amid concerns from industry representatives that Canada is facing a brain drain of some of its top space industry talent because of a lack of key government projects for the future.

MDA and Com Dev, the country’s two largest space industry firms, have laid off staff because of the lack of work from CSA and are warning that workers will leave the country if more government work is not forthcoming.

Mike Pley, chief executive of Com Dev of Cambridge, Ontario, said the only major project on the books for the space agency is the Radarsat Constellation Mission, or RCM. “If there are no programs of significance in the pipeline outside of RCM you’re going to see a loss of talent,” Pley said. “I’m not sure if it’s going to be easily reconstructed.”

Com Dev has laid off 31 employees, citing the lack of forecasted work and new projects from CSA. Those laid off were from the company’s division that worked on space agency payloads and scientific instruments. Pley says the decision about whether more layoffs will follow will depend on whether Com Dev receives new business, mainly from RCM.

Pley expects many of the workers who were laid off to be picked up by other firms, likely from outside Canada.

MDA has laid off more than 100 employees, mainly from its robotics division. MDA President Daniel Friedmann has warned there could be more restructuring depending on what happens with RCM. RCM was to have seen the construction of a number of radar-imaging satellites to conduct maritime and Arctic surveillance but MDA, the prime contractor on the project, has raised doubts about whether there is enough government funding to proceed.

A CSA official said the agency is currently in negotiations with MDA on RCM and cannot comment. But Canadian government representatives have stated they are committed to the project.

Space industry consultant Mike Kirby, who has worked for a number of organizations including CSA, said that without long-term planning that identifies projects for the future, talented employees question why they should work in Canada or in the industry itself. “There is definitely a concern people are leaving,” he said. “I think there is a lot of insecurity in the industry.”

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