VICTORIA, British Columbia — The former head of the Canadian Forces is taking the helm of the country’s space agency, prompting both concern that the civilian organization could be heading in a more military direction and praise that a seasoned administrator is taking over.

Gen. Walter Natynczyk, who retired last year as chief of the defense staff, was selected by the Conservative government as the new president of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) on June 14.

Steve MacLean, the previous CSA president, left Feb. 1 and an interim president has been filling that role since. MacLean, a former Canadian astronaut, had served as president since 2008.

Natynczyk, a former armor officer, does not have a background in aerospace, prompting questions about why he was being appointed. “How is a former general who just spent the last three years fighting a war in Afghanistan and in Libya going to be contributing to a civilian space agency?” asked Steve Staples, president of the Rideau Institute in Ottawa. 

Staples, whose organization has advised aerospace workers and produced reports on the status of the country’s space industry, said that the CSA has always cooperated with the Canadian military on joint projects. “There is a balance there but what I’m concerned about is that the balance is going to be overtaken by the military side,” he said.

Staples noted that while the CSA has few future programs in development, Canada’s military has put together a robust and thriving space program. 

He pointed to the February launch of the Defence Department’s first dedicated military satellite. The Sapphire satellite, with its electro-optical sensor, is designed to track space objects in high Earth orbit as part of Canada’s contribution to space situational awareness.

A second spacecraft, called NEOSSat (Near-Earth Object Space Surveillance Satellite), was launched at the same time. The space telescope dedicated to detecting and tracking asteroids and satellites is a joint project by the CSA and the Defence Department’s science organization, Defence Research and Development Canada.

The Defence Department is also helping fund the CSA’s Radarsat Constellation Mission, a constellation of three radar-imaging satellites to conduct maritime and Arctic surveillance. It is expected to be launched in 2018. Last year the Canadian Forces announced it is also contributing funding for the construction of one of the spacecraft in the U.S. Wideband Global Satcom system.

In April, Canada’s military also announced it would provide search and rescue repeaters for the U.S. Air Force’s next-generation GPS timing and navigation satellites. The military will also provide new search and rescue repeaters for the Cospas-Sarsat satellite-based search-and-rescue system.

In an email to SpaceNews, Natynczyk said he looked forward to the challenges ahead in leading the CSA and praised MacLean for his work at the organization. “I expect to fulfill the current CSA mandate to promote the peaceful use and development of space, to advance our knowledge of space through science and to ensure that space science and technology provide social and economic benefits to Canadians,” he said.

Natynczyk said he starts his new position in early August.

Chuck Black, the treasurer of the Canadian Space Commerce Association, acknowledged that Canada’s future space projects seem to be dominated by military-oriented space systems. But he said he wants to give Natynczyk the benefit of the doubt and hear details on the general’s future plans for the CSA before passing judgment. 

“He will be facing a lot of challenges but he has a lot  of experience managing,” said Black, whose organization represents 50 Canadian companies involved with the space industry.

Among those challenges is a reduction of the CSA’s core budget; MacLean announced last year that it would drop from the current 300 million Canadian dollars to 258 million by 2014-2015 as part of government-ordered cutbacks.

Jim Quick, president of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada, welcomed Natynczyk’s appointment, adding in a statement: “The appointment is timely and encouraging given the pressing need to identify clear direction for Canada’s future in space.”

Quick’s association represents more than 100 of Canada’s aerospace firms.

Representatives from several Canadian space firms, who asked not to be identified, also supported Natynczyk’s appointment. Although they acknowledged he does not have an aerospace or space background, they see him as a seasoned administrator who will be able to provide better direction to the CSA.

Other industry representatives noted that Natynczyk’s appointment may help in pushing through the CSA’s planned constellation of polar communications and weather satellites tentatively scheduled for launch in 2016.

The CSA has acknowledged it does not have enough funding on its own to finance the Polar Communications and Weather (PCW) Mission, estimated to cost around 600 million Canadian dollars. So it is casting around for other nations, Canadian government departments and potentially private companies as it tries to put together a deal to build the spacecraft.

Canada’s Defence Department sees the satellites as key to its ability to operate in the Arctic, and Natynczyk’s former military connection could pave the way for the military to provide significant funding. 

The PCW Mission would see the launch of two optical satellites in a highly elliptical orbit to provide continuous communication services and weather observation for the Arctic. 

David Pugliese covers space policy and developments in the space industry in Canada. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and a degree in journalism from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.