Editorial | Mixed News from Canada

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Canada’s recent commitment, after a lengthy period of indecision, to the three-satellite Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM) is a welcome but isolated piece of good news in an otherwise sobering outlook for the country’s space program.

According to Steve MacLean, outgoing president of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), spending on space activities is expected to decline by 13 percent by 2015 as part of a broad government effort to get its fiscal house in order. The CSA typically has an annual budget of about 300 million Canadian dollars ($304 million) — the 424 million Canadian dollar figure from 2012 was an economic stimulus-driven anomaly — and Mr. MacLean expects that to drop to some 260 million Canadian dollars in the next several years.

RCM promises a needed shot in the arm to a Canadian industry that in recent months has been shedding employees amid government inaction and signals of a funding downturn. MDA Corp., Canada’s largest space prime contractor, signed a $692 million contract Jan. 9 to begin building the RCM satellites while component manufacturer Com Dev is expected to garner additional work on the project as well.

But there appears to be little else on the horizon for the CSA, and Canadian industry officials remain pessimistic that things will turn around anytime soon. One must wonder what the future holds, for example, for the Canadian Polar Communication and Weather satellite mission, which the CSA has been studying for several years in cooperation with other Canadian government agencies.

Perhaps most worrisome is the dearth of government funding for work in space robotics, where Canada has long been a world leader. MDA supplied the robotic manipulator systems aboard NASA’s now-retired space shuttle fleet as well as on the international space station.

“On robotics we have basically shut down as a country,” lamented MDA Chief Executive Daniel Friedmann. “Frankly we have lost some amazing people forever and we are hanging on by a thread to some of the world’s experts.”

Both MDA and Com Dev have substantial commercial work — MDA last year acquired telecom satellite manufacturer Space Systems/Loral of the United States — that will get them through the lean years ahead. But if Canada’s space robotics industry is allowed to wither, the loss could be felt throughout much of the spacefaring world: Not only will robotic systems be instrumental in any future exploration campaign, which likely will be international, they also could come in handy for cleaning up the hazardous debris that has been proliferating in Earth orbit.

Mr. MacLean suggested recently that other Canadian government agencies that rely on space capabilities share responsibility for funding them. Two that come to mind are Environment Canada and the Department of National Defence, both of which have collaborated with CSA on the two-satellite Polar Communication and Weather mission, which is optimized for arctic-region coverage.

The multiagency funding model certainly is worth exploring in Canada. It appears to be working — albeit with some hiccups — in Europe; the Galileo satellite navigation program likely never would have survived without an infusion of cash from the European Union, for example. Similarly, it appears that without a substantial contribution from some other agency besides the CSA, the Polar Communication and Weather mission won’t make it off the drawing board.

The RCM of course is an important mission that will dramatically improve Canada’s maritime surveillance and environmental monitoring capabilities while keeping the country at the forefront in radar-imagery collection and commercialization. The RCM is an appropriate national flagship, but Canada needs a balanced national program that funds a variety of activities including space-robotics development. It will fall on Mr. MacLean’s successor, and perhaps the Canadian defense minister, to convince the national leadership that space is worth more than the annual investment now being projected.