Commentary | Ready for Command?

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It was not the fact that Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield went to space last year, or that he was on the international space station, or even that he was operating Canadian space technologies‚ he has done all that before — that we should note, but rather the fact that this time he accomplished something that no other Canadian astronaut had done before: He was station commander during part of his time there. This is both a testament to the abilities of the man himself — a former Canadian Forces test pilot and engineer with previous space experience — as well as a notable nod from the other station “owners” that Canada is more than ready and able to assume such an important role. This then raises the question: Why is it so difficult to leverage this recognition of Canadian space expertise toward concrete industry investment and outcomes?

Where Canada Leads

Even before the 1962 launch of Alouette-1, Canada’s first indigenous satellite, Canada’s scientists and engineers were becoming noticed for their expertise in communications and radar — largely technological offshoots from World War II experiences and investments in providing communications across Canada and notably up north. Canada then became an expert in ionospheric studies, which furthered its understanding of the challenges of satellite communication. It was then not much of a stretch for Canada to eventually invest in its own domestic geostationary satellite, Anik-1, and see the birth of Telesat — now the fourth-largest satellite operator by revenue in the world. And we should also not forget that Cambridge, Ontario-based Com Dev International Ltd. provides satellite communications components for a good part of the satellites flying today.

Let’s also consider Canada’s significant leadership in robotics — born in large part from MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) activity to provide shuttle robotic arms (the Canadarm and later Canadarm-2) for the space station. This technology has positioned the company to contemplate other applications, not the least of which are asteroid mining and robotic servicing of spacecraft.

Staying with MDA, the need to provide all-weather, day-night observation of a land mass as diverse and large as Canada facilitated the investment in synthetic aperture radar technology. This expertise manifested itself in Radarsat-1 (operated from 1995 to 2013) and Radarsat-2 (operating since 2005) and the eventual construction and deployment of the Radarsat Constellation Mission (launch expected in 2018).

More recently, Canada has distinguished itself as being a serious provider of microsatellite technology. Companies such as Microsat Systems Canada Inc., Magellan Aerospace and Com Dev have all had a hand in developing this timely capability. A Com Dev subsidiary, exactEarth, is becoming world-famous for its space-based Automatic Information Service system of satellites that is able to track thousands of ships around the world. 

In effect, it seems Canadian space leadership abounds in many diverse areas, and I have not even included the academic influence on Canada’s space economy, which is significant.

Where Canada Lags

Unfortunately, the fruits of the previous labors were largely the result of strong foresight in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1967, Canadian space pioneer John H. Chapman produced the study “Upper Atmosphere and Space Programs in Canada,” which formed the basis for key niche technologies that were seen as being particularly applicable to Canada due to its unique geography and demographics. Even the eventual establishment of the Canadian Space Agency in 1989 was a telltale sign that growing Canadian competency in various space-related technologies warranted an organization to properly coordinate and develop such capabilities for the benefit of all Canadians. 

The challenge for Canada’s space economy is that there tends to be a significant lag in the development, promulgation and implementation of government-approved guidance, usually on the order of a national space policy, to establish the same direction for the Canadian space community (civil, industry and academia) to continue to achieve the same heights of expertise.  

Recently, the Canadian government announced its new Space Policy Framework, which identified five core principles: Canadian Interests First, Positioning the Private Sector at the Forefront of Space Activities, Progress through Partnerships, Excellence in Key Capabilities, and Inspiring Canadians. In effect, there is no real surprise here as this has largely been how the Canadian space community has been operating for years.

Hand-in-hand with a national space policy is the identification of the requisite amount of funding to develop and ensure the success of innovative and “game-changing” technologies that space capabilities often represent. Notice that I did not say “fund in totality,” “subsidize,” etc. — Canadian industry already has a track record of taking meager research-and-development funding and turning that into value-added products and services, effectively achieving high return-on-investment for the Canadian taxpayer.

The new Space Policy Framework identifies four avenues of action: Commercialization; Research and Development; Exploration of Space; and Stewardship, Management and Accountability. I think it can be argued that space commercialization is a common trend, especially in an era of compressed or shrinking national budgets, so a formal commitment to this direction is certainly welcome. The framework reiterates its support for technology development, international ventures and the astronaut program. It is also encouraging to see a commitment to more high-level input via a deputy minister-chaired committee on objectives and expenditures, as well as the future establishment of a Canadian Space Advisory Council. Unfortunately, many people will be looking for hard numbers in terms of budgeting priorities, funding allocations and established targets, and it does not yet appear that this is available at this time. 

And so, just as Col. Hadfield had achieved the requisite experience and competence to take charge of a $100 billion space asset, so has the Canadian space community “earned its stripes” to continue its leadership among the space-enabled nations of the world. 

The release of the 2012 Aerospace Review was an opportunity for the government to re-establish its leadership role in providing the necessary direction to this important segment of the economy, and we are hopeful that the new Space Policy Framework adds momentum. In effect, we’ve received the commander’s intent — we are now ready to receive our orders. 

 

Wayne A. Ellis is president of the Canadian Space Society.