Editorial: Canada’s Space Planning Should Emphasize Flexibility

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Space advocates and industry officials in Canada appear to be getting antsy about what they see as the lack of a long-term strategy for the nation’s space program. A primary cause for concern is the fact that the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) budget is slated to gradually decline to the 300 million Canadian dollar ($300 million) level after spiking to 424.6 million Canadian dollars for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, which began in April.

According to the Canadian government’s newly released “Report on Plans and Priorities,” the near-term increase is driven largely by the Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM), which will continue the nation’s space-based radar observations but with three satellites for better coverage frequency. Mission design is slated for completion next year, with launches projected to occur in the 2014-2016 timeframe. Also on the drawing board is the Polar Communication and Weather Mission, a pair of elliptical-orbit satellites that would launch around 2016 and provide communications and weather observation services in the Canadian Arctic for the nation’s military.

Beyond that, however, there are no major development projects on the horizon, at least none that have been made public. The CSA completed a long-term space strategy for the government in 2009, but that document has never been released.

Canada of course is one of the partners in the international space station program, and also is contributing to the NASA-led flagship astronomy mission, the James Webb Space Telescope, which is still under construction and well behind schedule. The CSA’s main contribution to the space station is the robotic Mobile Servicing System, built by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA), the nation’s leading space hardware prime contractor. MDA will continue to support that system on the space station, but at the same time will be losing its work related to Canadarm, the robotic manipulator arm on NASA’s soon-to-be-retired space shuttle.

Like a lot of countries, Canada is looking to rein in its debt, and the government could be excused for being reluctant to take on expensive new commitments in space. Moreover, if Canada is serious about the Polar Communication and Weather Mission, that effort likely will slow the decline in space spending that under current planning would start with the 2012-2013 fiscal year.

Canada possesses some unique technical capabilities, particularly in space robotics, but the CSA, with its relatively modest annual budgets, traditionally has aligned itself as a contributor on major programs led by NASA or the European Space Agency. In that regard the uncertainty over Canada’s long-term future in space is not terribly surprising; the same uncertainty hangs over the United States and Europe, not only in the realm of human spaceflight but also in large robotic missions. Given its expertise in robotics, for example, Canada likely would have had a significant role in a Mars sample-return effort, which for budgetary reasons has been postponed indefinitely.

The Canadian government has identified space as a key national strategic capability; that was its rationale for refusing, in 2008, to allow MDA to be acquired by a U.S. company, Alliant Techsystems. Assuming this is still the case, Canada may simply be awaiting clarity on where CSA’s international partners are headed in the long term before laying out a strategic plan of its own. This would explain why Canadian space budgets are projected to retreat to what appears to be a default level in the next few years.

A wait-and-see approach, if in fact that is what Ottawa has consciously adopted, seems prudent for the moment. At the same time, however, the government would be wise to devise a flexible long-term space plan whose industrial and technological objectives can be met either via participation in international programs that could materialize in the coming years or, if necessary, primarily on domestic efforts.