Op-ed | How Canada is Shaping the World’s Future in Space
On the global stage of mature space powers, Canada has earned its place, though it does not always receive the public acclaim it is due. For those in the space community, however, Canada is not only an important stakeholder but also a vital partner. As Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield said in a NASA preflight interview in 2012, “Canada has almost linearly built our capability and our responsibility and therefore our international respect over time.”
For decades, Canada has taken part in space research, exploration and defense, and while the nation’s contributions are not always the flashiest, they are almost always mission-critical. The legs of the Apollo Lunar Module were built in Quebec. The robotic arms on NASA’s space shuttles and the International Space Station were created by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), as were sensors and instruments currently observing the universe on the James Webb Space Telescope. And next, Canada is going to the Moon, with a Canadian astronaut scheduled to fly on the Artemis 2 mission, which will be the first crewed flight to the Moon since the Apollo program.
Throughout these and many other space endeavors, the common theme is Canadian collaboration and partnership. To understand where the Canadian space ecosystem is headed, we need to look at where they are partnering today and what that could mean for our collective future in space.
Entering the Next Stage of Space Defense
One significant factor that has fueled Canadian space investment and activity is defense. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is a prime example. During the Cold War, the joint American-Canadian organization was critical for continental defense, early warning detection of airborne threats, and satellite tracking. A valuable byproduct was that NORAD was a vehicle for regular collaboration in U.S. and Canadian space activities.
After the September 11 attacks that brought the world violently into a new era of aviation security, the U.S.-Canada space relationship under NORAD became somewhat separated from Air Force Space Command with the formation of U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), and a new dual-hatted Commander for NORAD and USNORTHCOM, according to Charity Weeden, a 23-year veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and currently Astroscale U.S.’s vice president for global space policy and government relations.
“Fast forward to the emergence of a combined space operations concept in 2014,” said Weeden. “The Five Eyes partners at the time realized that there is strength in numbers when it comes to common approaches to space security, not to mention the added benefit of more resources and capabilities to address growing space threats.”
In lockstep with its partners, Canada is making investments and establishing new authorities to contribute to not just North American security but global security as well. In June, Canadian Defence Minister Anita Anand announced the country will invest upwards of $3 billion over six years to modernize NORAD. In July, Canada established a new division within the RCAF called 3 Canadian Space Division. The move consolidates space-based capabilities into a streamlined division. While 3 Canadian Space Division might be seen as Canada’s answer to the U.S. Space Command and Space Force, the new division remains under the functional authority of the RCAF, akin to the U.S. Air Force Space Command until 2019. These moves come amid significant activity in developing and expanding its defense-related satellite communications, Earth observation, and space surveillance. For example, Surveillance of Space 2 is a Canadian defense project that will replace a Canadian-operated satellite contributing data to the U.S. Space Surveillance Network.
In this, we see how partnership and shared interests are driving Canadian space investments and initiatives. This same paradigm is playing out in Canada’s civil space sector.
Moon Missions and International Norms in Space
While Canada’s civil space activities are great, the CSA’s budget is modest. The estimated budgetary spending for 2022-23 is just $329 million. This figure reflects the reality that a country of 38 million people with a $2 trillion GDP can only fund so much space ambition.
“Canada needs to be a good teammate, and that’s why Canada has been a consistent partner,” said Dr. Shawna Pandya, director of the International Institute of Astronautical Sciences. “Be it with the James Webb Space Telescope, uncrewed missions or human spaceflight, we haven’t been overshadowed. It’s a $300 million budget, but the bang for the buck is pretty impressive.”
With budgetary limits, investments are expected to deliver a return beyond mission success. The focus on using space for the benefit of the country’s citizens is evident throughout Canada’s Space Strategy, which is oriented around innovation, workforce development and job creation. Thus, Canadian space investments are targeted to simultaneously capitalize on the country’s strengths and assets, contribute what is needed for international missions, and capture tangible value for Canada as a result.
“Canada cannot do it all,” said Weeden. “It has to make choices and develop niche capability that is world-renowned, and with a $300 million a year budget, one has to be selective to what is most important to Canada and Canadians.”
One of Canada’s niche areas is space medicine, which is critical for safe and successful crewed space missions and also advances medical techniques and understanding that can fuel opportunities (and better health) for Canadians on Earth. Similarly, the Canadarm3 that Canada will build as a part of its contribution to Artemis requires mastery of not just robotics but also artificial intelligence, two technical areas that can create jobs, inspire innovation and help Canadians compete in a marketplace disrupted by emerging technology.
But there is something else happening here that is bigger than discrete missions or job-creating research. Canada is helping to shape the future of space access, and its partnership makes all the difference.
“There is another space race going on, one of who can set the norms of behavior in space,” said Weeden. “Because there is little appetite for a new international legal agreement on space, nations are forming partnerships and alliances on non-binding, voluntary best practices and norms of behavior. Norms that are banded together by multiple nations give more weight. So when it comes to new things like private lunar activity and long-term space sustainability, those stepping out and taking a leadership role will set the tone for the future. This is why the Artemis Accords and the announcement of a destructive direct-ascent antisatellite weapon moratorium will be impactful.”
The future of space is being defined today, and Canada is a significant and important force in that process. The country may be sending only two astronauts to the Moon with a robotic arm, but through its participation, Canada is helping create a space ecosystem that will impact people for generations to come.
Room to Grow in Commercial Space
The Canadian space sector adds $2.3 billion to Canadian GDP and employs 10,000 people, according to the Canadian government. The government reports that 90% of Canadian space firms are small- and medium-sized businesses, but the one dominant presence in the space marketplace is satellite operator Telesat. Still, Canadian commercial space is in an early growth stage. This may seem surprising, given Canada’s geographic proximity to the dynamic U.S. space market. One of the hurdles for innovators and new space companies is accessing government support and the credibility that comes with it.
“There are beautiful things coming out of the United States, and Canadian companies want to showcase that they can do that too,” said Jason Michaud, founder of Ontario-based Stardust Technologies. “In Canada, there is a huge amount of great talent, just in rocketry alone. This has stemmed from a grassroots movement of students who want to build rockets. The Canadian government may say, why would you want to build rockets? If our kids are being told you shouldn’t build them, then they will cross the border never to return. There is an incredible amount of talent, and we need to support commercial space. There are students knocking.”
One path forward, according to Michaud, is to encourage the CSA and Canadian government to invest not only in large multimillion-dollar projects but also in smaller programs and pathfinder projects, which can help new companies finding their footing in the space marketplace. The international return to the Moon is an opportunity for Canada to leverage its partnerships to unleash its domestic commercial space sector. The CSA’s Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program (LEAP) moves in that direction.
With a $150 million budget over five years, LEAP will support innovation in technical areas that are important for Artemis missions, but just as important, the program intentionally supports the commercialization of innovation. This is important as commercialization can be a place where spacefaring nations stumble, since government demand and funding does not automatically (or even usually) lead to a sustainable, competitive business earning revenue in the marketplace. That takes intention and unique skill sets, and there is reason to think that Canada’s private space industry is on the launch pad and ready for liftoff.
Successful companies, of course, require a ready supply of talent. As the leader of a space medicine group who teaches and works with students, Dr. Pandya is hopeful.
“The kids are alright,” she said. “It’s the best time to be a young professional in space. When I look at what it has taken me an entire career to achieve, and now I’m seeing what even teenagers are achieving. We are breaking down barriers. It’s not on the horizon. It’s happening now. Based on current trends, we are at an inflection point where the democratization of access to space is irreversible. The future is unwritten, but anyone who is passionate about this can carve out their role in that future.”
Indeed, the world is writing its space future, and one of the chief authors is Canada. We could not ask for a better partner.
Shelli Brunswick is chief operating officer of The Space Foundation, a Colorado Springs, Colorado-based advocacy group.