It was not too long ago that the emergence of the airplane as a viable and reliable form of transportation was easily scoffed at and dismissed. Now, as I jet across the Atlantic for the sixth time in half as many months, it is of little wonder to whom the scoffing should be directed. Granted, we need critics, second-guessers and alternative hypotheses (perhaps this sounds somewhat familiar within many government departments), but we also need perspective, consensus and (gasp!) leadership. These are the attributes that are most in need when innovative (or perhaps “game-changing”) technologies and ideas come to the fore that cause us to rethink not only what we understand about the world, but also the priorities we set in advancing that understanding.
This year, Canadian space company MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) began to actively promote an innovative capability to extend the life of satellites whose orbital maintenance fuel would run out. Such an ability would have the potential to save hundreds of millions of dollars by reducing the need to replace vital space systems earlier than they regularly are today (in fact, the main limitation on the life of most satellites is the fuel needed to keep them in their proper orbital “real estate” as well as properly positioned to both acquire and deliver their data). By reducing the turnover of such systems, the technology also would potentially reduce the number of defunct satellites, especially those that might either die out within the valuable geosynchronous belt (which is bad) or that might otherwise collide with other satellites and cause an ever-growing field of space debris (which is worse). Clearly, the technology and the concept have some merit.
Unfortunately, MDA has yet to locate viable customers to take advantage of the service. For one thing, steering one orbiting body close to another at a range of some 36,000 kilometers is an especially daunting task — one that might make any satellite operator seriously consider its options when faced with the decision to either prolong the life of a satellite or risk destroying it and polluting the valuable satellite position for eons to come. Second, satellite operators understand only too well the fragility of the space industry, and that the technology that could reduce the need for more satellites also could seriously hamper the satellite-builders, and thus force them to hike their costs when the satellite operators finally come calling to replace a space system.
So what is a company like MDA to do? According to company officials, it is quite possible that they will have to abandon the idea if some kind of client does not materialize in the very near future. For them, that is a business decision. For Canada and the Canadian government, it is a policy decision, and not necessarily one of the caliber unseen on the Canadian political landscape — anyone remember that MDA-Alliant Techsystems () deal?
This is where the government can apply a fair amount of perspective on the problem. Canada not only boasts the ability to build satellites and satellite components, but it also is home to the fourth-largest (by revenue) satellite operator, Telesat Canada, which operates approximately 24 satellites and replaces its own at intervals. Companies such as Telesat, MDA,International Ltd. and even Magellan Aerospace have benefited over the years from the government’s taking the perspective of coming in and supporting the industry, even when it may not be seen universally as the most prudent thing to do.
That leads us to consider the power of consensus. Certainly, consensus in government can be a valuable thing (and some might say a mighty rare thing), as it demonstrates a willingness to come together, largely for the greater good, to move forward on an issue that will have either a significant impact in the near-term or an even greater one over the long term. Perhaps Canadian government consensus also could help to garner some type of international consensus in support of a potentially “space-saving” technology as that being proposed by MDA.
And finally, having perspective and fostering consensus normally require the presence of leadership. When the Canadian government acted to quash the MDA-ATK deal in 2008, it was demonstrating this leadership in a way that was heard loudly and felt broadly within the Canadian space industry. We are ready for this type of leadership again.
In November, the Canadian Space Society exercised its leadership by hosting its annual summit in Ottawa. This year’s theme was “2010: a New Canadian Space Odyssey,” which belies the fact that the Canadian space industry is at a watershed moment to define its future or be defined by missed opportunities. The society promotes the development of the Canadian space industry by serving as a conduit as well as an advocate to support the sharing of innovative technologies and ideas in the areas of Earth Orbit, Astronomy, Planetary Exploration, Law and Policy, Space Life Sciences, Space Commerce, and Space Education and Outreach.
At the time of this writing, the Canadian space industry is somewhat disappointed to hear that the Canadian Space Agency’s latest Long Term Space Plan, which is believed to be ready for consumption, is not being given the support it needs by the Canadian government to provide the necessary guidance. Does this mean a golden opportunity for leadership is being missed? Perhaps. I say let’s get the blueprint out there so that Canadian space companies can continue to innovate and push forward the frontiers of space technologies — technologies that might be scoffed at now, but that might also be “game-changing” for our collective future.
Wayne A. Ellis is an independent consultant with AppSpace Solutions Inc. and a board member of the Canadian Space Society.