The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews
 

 
CSA HQ
The Canadian Space Agency is in a time of transition, which provides an opportunity for the nation to examine what it should be doing in space, and how. (credit: CSA)

The future of Canada in space

It is a time of change for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Steve MacLean, a former Canadian astronaut, has just been chosen as the CSA’s new President, while a shuffle in the federal government’s cabinet has led to the appointment of a new Minister of Industry. The election of a new administration in the United States also means that our closest neighbor and partner in space will be undergoing a review of its space activities.

Historically, Canada has played a leading role in space, but this status has been eroded by the entrance of major new players around the world: China, India, and Japan, all having probes orbiting the Moon, launched on their own rockets. Other recent entrants to the space arena are quickly developing their own advanced capabilities. For Canada to continue to be a leading spacefaring nation, our government must employ new measures and methods. This does not merely reduce to the redistribution of the space agency’s funding, or identifying new niche technologies; instead, the agency must be prepared to create clear visionary goals, reimagine the purpose of national space agencies and how they work, and embrace the unique opportunities that are available to our nation.

We can increase innovation within a limited budget

It’s true that, in comparison to some space agencies, the CSA is small. NASA employs thousands of people; CSA employs hundreds. The European Space Agency (ESA) spends around 3 billion euros; CSA spends approximately 300 million dollars. Are we smaller? Yes. But being small is, in fact, a strength. Maintaining a small, lean space agency means that we aren’t burdened with the bureaucratic inefficiencies of much larger organizations, allowing us to be more flexible and adopt changes faster. History is replete with example of small groups that accomplished feats unattainable to larger organizations.

For Canada to continue to be a leading spacefaring nation, our government must employ new measures and methods.

The potential of CSA’s budget depends on the way in which programs are structured, as much as it depends on which projects are pursued. Rather than emulating the Cold War-era spending habits of other space agencies, we should be modeling ourselves after the most innovative and successful programs in the world. One example is the $10-million Ansari X PRIZE, which led to the development of a spaceship that is now being licensed to Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, the world’s first “spaceline”. With only $10 million, the Ansari X PRIZE enabled the creation of new technology that might have taken a traditional government program hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars to accomplish.

Prizes are just one way to provide incentives for new space technologies and capabilities. When prizes aren’t the answer for technology development, fixed price, milestone-based development contracts can help overcome the financial hurdles faced by industry while controlling government costs, as evidenced by NASA’s current Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program to develop low-cost commercial alternatives to the Space Shuttle. In addition to all of this, a government program to develop more standardized components, systems, and processes could help to lower to cost of space missions and provide a new competitive edge for Canadian industry.

We need clear goals and a coherent vision

Merely having a vision for the Canadian Space Agency is not enough: the vision must be one that can inspire a nation, provide leadership for industry, and create a clear basis for making decisions about which space projects to pursue.

The CSA currently focuses on assisting industry in the development of “niche” technologies—areas where we already have expertise and a presence in the market. Examples include the space radar system on RADARSAT-2 and the famous Canadarms. While it is important to make the most of our existing capabilities, if we hope to advance our industry and play a key role in the international exploration and development of space, we need to think bigger. Through developing visionary projects that are aimed at the development of not just current markets, but future ones, the CSA can ensure the creation of new jobs, increased wealth, inspiration for Canadian youth, and continued pre-eminence of our nation in space.

Being small is, in fact, a strength. Maintaining a small, lean space agency means that we aren’t burdened with the bureaucratic inefficiencies of much larger organizations, allowing us to be more flexible and adopt changes faster.

While Canadian citizens must see concrete, near-term benefits from government space spending such as telecommunications and climate monitoring, we must also recognize the importance of having long-term objectives for our agency. An international consensus is building in the US and Europe that humans must return to the Moon as a steppingstone for the exploration of Mars and the solar system. While part of the motivation for these efforts is scientific discovery, the real (and rarely stated) driver of human space exploration is the innate expectation that humanity must one day spread out from the Earth. This view has been stated by such authorities as physicist Stephen Hawking and NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. If we are to perpetuate Canadian values in future generations on Earth and elsewhere, it is critical that the CSA clearly establish that it will be an enabler of the development and settlement of space, and pursue programs that measurably contribute to this goal.

We have opportunities right now

The most immediate and important opportunity we have is to use the current period of transition at our space agency to develop a truly visionary role for it, and to adopt innovative new ways of enabling that vision, as described above.

The second opportunity is to foster a renewed diversity and growth within the space industry to ensure that the failure, loss, or sale of any single company does not critically impact our national capabilities, as what may have happened when a US company attempted to buy out one of Canada’s largest space company, MDA. It is vital that the CSA implement strategies to encourage the development of multiple new entrepreneurial space companies across the country, and not be dependent on a single “crown jewel”. One measure the CSA can adopt is to begin establishing technology incubators and small-business incentive programs for space companies. This will not only ensure increased competition in the market and improved national capabilities; it will allow Canada to increase its role in the creation of enabling new space technologies and the creation of new commercial markets in the space sector.

A third opportunity exists for Canada to lobby the incoming US administration for ITAR reform. ITAR, a set of US regulations restricting the export of any technology related to space, can be considered the biggest single impediment to cross-border trade in space. Canadian companies and individuals face immense difficulties when attempting to work with or for US space companies. While pushing for ITAR reform in the US, our nation should also be hedging our bets by pursuing “ITAR-free” strategies that make it possible to market products and services globally without the expensive and sometimes unreasonable restrictions placed upon ITAR-controlled goods. This strategy will mean more business and a broader global customer base, which are both desirable outcomes for the Canadian space industry.

A fourth opportunity exists within our nation’s universities, where top-quality space missions can be created and developed at a low cost to maximize the value of our space spending while simultaneously providing learning opportunities for our future space workforce. We believe that the CSA should embark upon a national space university program, through space-related projects, in partnership with universities in every province and territory. In addition, establishing new university chair positions dedicated to space research would help to provide support for CSA-supported student projects and would draw in space experts who live abroad by providing incentives for them to pursue their research in Canada.

Canada has the resources and skills to perform groundbreaking work as a leader in space, provided that we use our resources creatively and are willing to adopt challenging and visionary goals.

Finally, there are huge numbers of talented young professionals and students around the world that want to participate in the development of space. Since the US is off-limits for many of them due to ITAR regulations, Canada is in a prime position to recruit the best of these bright and talented people, adding their abilities to the Canadian economic base. Canada should be actively recruiting such people and providing incentives and support for them to pursue their careers in Canada. This will benefit Canadian industry by adding to our talent pool and ensure our continued success in the space arena.

In short, Canada has the resources and skills to perform groundbreaking work as a leader in space, provided that we use our resources creatively and are willing to adopt challenging and visionary goals. We have nearly limitless potential—now is our time to realize it.


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