Editorial | Space on the Canadian Campaign Trail

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Space has been largely if not entirely absent from the U.S. presidential election debates to date — notwithstanding the constant news coverage, it’s still very early in the process — but the same cannot be said for Canada, where space strategy, or more precisely what critics say is a lack thereof, has entered into the conversation in the waning days of the campaign.

Canada’s three-way parliamentary race has brought vows from candidates — one of whom is a former astronaut and president of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) — to formulate a long-term space plan that the current Conservative Party government promised but is yet to deliver.

Perhaps sensing a political opening, New Democratic Party leader Tom Mulcair said that if his party wins the right to form a new government Oct. 19, it would commit 40 million Canadian dollars ($30 million) over four years for a CSA technology development program. Marc Garneau, the former CSA president and Liberal Party candidate, said his party, led by Justin Trudeau, would produce a long-term space plan and also boost funding for space technology development, primarily in communications.

The Conservative Party, which has been in power since 2006, has been criticized over the years by some Canadian industry officials for what they say is its failure to commit sufficient resources to the CSA, whose annual base budget is around 300 million Canadian dollars. The government of party leader Stephen Harper in 2012 pledged to develop a long-term plan ­— this after a 2011 report on the space industry called on the government to recognize the important role space plays in the economy and national security — but the document that ultimately came out was lacking in substantive details.

Marc Garneau, the former CSA president and Liberal Party candidate, said his party would produce a long-term space plan and boost funding for space technology development, primarily in communications. Credit: Liberal Party
Marc Garneau, the former CSA president and Liberal Party candidate, said his party would produce a long-term space plan and boost funding for space technology development, primarily in communications. Credit: Liberal Party

The Conservative Party has defended its space record, noting that it has supported continued Canadian involvement in the International Space Station and committed resources to the Thirty Meter Telescope, a multinational effort to deploy a huge ground-based astronomical observatory. Canada also is moving ahead on the Radarsat Constellation Mission, but other projects, notably the Polar Communications and Weather mission, have struggled to get real traction.

It’s impossible to predict whether the New Democratic or Liberal parties would deliver on their space-related promises should one of them garner enough votes to form a new government, but industry advocates, including Marc Boucher, executive director of the Canadian Space Commerce Association, are hopeful. Perhaps the Conservative Party, which has been largely silent of late on the matter, will feel pressured to make some sort of commitment in the next week, or perhaps sometime thereafter if it holds onto power.

Politics surely is part of the reason space has become an issue — albeit a small one — in the election. But space is worth discussing, politics aside. The United Kingdom, for example, has identified space as a pathway to economic prosperity and is investing accordingly. In other words, there are legitimate reasons to be talking about space policy in an election — it matters.

Hopefully a similar understanding of space’s contributions to economy and national security will be drawn in Canada, which has substantial industrial capabilities. Only time will tell, of course, but the fact that space is at least part of the political discussion is certainly a good sign.