Commentary | Canadian Space Sector Needs Framework (and Funds)

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On the one hand, the multisegmented Aerospace Review led by David Emerson could be seen as a breath of fresh air for Canadian aerospace industrialists and enthusiasts who have been waiting for some kind of spotlight on their rudderless plight since long before the Canadian government achieved its majority. Certainly for the space sector, which seems akin to an overachieving yet underappreciated younger sibling to the larger aero sector, the review has helped to provide a forum to, again, articulate both the value and challenges this special sector faces in advancing into the 21st century. What it really boils down to: decisions and dollars.

The space sector report was researched, developed and compiled by the Space Working Group as one of the key reporting factions to the overall review. In this, the working group did an exemplary job to accurately describe from where the current Canadian space industry has come in terms of time and achievements — it really is a good summary of the technology and triumphs over the past 50 years, and I will not rehash the facts that should be appreciated by many Canadians upon reading the report.

What should be re-emphasized, however, are some of the key takeaways for the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper: notably, the need for policy and the need for funding. As was eloquently stated in the report, the current Canadian space sector has been operating largely without much coherent guidance from the federal level. It has been well over a decade since Canada has enjoyed a long-term space plan, which effectively is used by industry and academia to align their activities and processes to produce the capabilities that Canadian society needs in the future. These capabilities largely take the form of applications and services whose origins, to most of the Canadian public, are virtually unknown and sadly somewhat unappreciated. Space technologies and capabilities oftentimes really are rocket science and thus require the upfront and long-term view on establishing the necessary architecture, infrastructure and guidance to bring them into existence.

In terms of guidance, the space sector is looking for a few, albeit necessary, things:

  • Guidance for innovation. Real, game-changing capabilities usually come about via the fostering of an innovative culture — one needs only look at Apple, Google and many other examples of companies able to move the innovation sticks far afield. For this, the Canadian government needs to make a commitment to encouraging the space industry to achieve a high level of innovative spirit via policies that reward such values and cultures.
  • Guidance for technology. The Canadian space industry cannot reasonably invest in and develop every kind of space technology out there. As per the report, the industry needs guidance and policies that delineate the types of technologies that will be of primary use to Canadian society as well as place the sector as an attractive supplier of such technologies to a global market.
  • Guidance for competitiveness. While it seems painfully apparent that the pace of federal decisions is incredibly slow, the same cannot be said for the pace of technology advancement of the many other international actors out there — many of whom have benefited from Canadian investment in international development and technology-sharing over several decades. What the industry is asking, and has been asking for some time now, is that the Harper government recognize that competition is becoming more fierce for our companies, and thus provide policies and regulations to help respond to the rapidly changing competitive environment.

In terms of funding, the space sector is looking for an investor, not a handout:

  • Investing in consistency. While there should always be a high level of expectation that funding will be properly managed and efficiently consumed, the Canadian space sector has been operating from a reactive approach to government initiatives as budgets rise and fall. This has meant that its ability to maintain and/or prepare for the development of necessary technologies has been hampered by inconsistent funding. Even the recent announcement of funding for the Radarsat Constellation Mission cannot be completely viewed in terms of providing consistency, as its delay had impacts along the Canadian space industry chain.
  • Investing in innovation/technology. The flip side of the former argument, it is necessary not only to inform the industry about the government’s capability roadmap, but also to supply it with needed seed money to get the ball rolling. It has been proven many times that the commercial sector is very capable of leveraging minor investments into major program wins — both domestically and internationally.
  • Investing in leveling the playing field. Our international partners are not playing by our rules, but their own. This means that Canada’s competitors are enjoying substantial funding advantages when compared with our local counterparts, which has to be recognized and mitigated in a responsible and reasonable manner. Obviously, the industry cannot expect to be level with the United States, but there should be an expectation of funding competitiveness for nations of similar technology development and perhaps GDP.

The third need: advocacy and awareness. To be fair to the Canadian government, it should be acknowledged that instead of continuing the drought of discussion on this subject, it did choose to institute the Aerospace Review, and one should also praise Emerson and his team on producing the report well within the anticipated deadline. But the praise could very well end there if no substantial action is taken. One important way to keep the pressure on is to keep moving the message, and this is supported by advocacy groups, technology and policy forums, and communication with local members of Parliament. Further, constant and effective public outreach helps to educate the many stakeholders that, largely unknowingly, are benefiting from Canadian space technologies.

Is it unrealistic to expect the government to enact all of the review’s recommendations? Probably. But it is not unrealistic to expect the government to respond to its key themes, and that is to start to get involved in the development and sustainment of this important industrial sector.

 

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