The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews
 

 
John H. Chapman Space Centre
The Canadian Space Agency, its headquarters pictured above, may not have the “right stuff” needed to give Canadian space efforts a dyanamic new future. (credit: CSA)

Can we finally reach for the stars?

Joy and jubilation greeted the space shuttle Discovery as it touched down at Cape Canaveral last month. But even as NASA heaved a collective sigh of relief, the agency was all too aware that this highly successful mission was simply NASA getting back on its feet as it prepares for the long haul toward the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

And as the US space agency embarks on its most ambitious venture since the Apollo landing, Canadians also want in. The question is, can the Canadian Space Agency take us there?

They have been in the business for 15 years, yet the Canadian Space Agency continues to dish out the same bland fare. Rather than providing an inspiring and coherent vision for Canada’s role in space, the agency still looks to major programs abroad for direction at home. The result is a patchwork of programs with no unifying theme.

Its public relations efforts remain prosaic and unimaginative, leading Treasury Board president John Baird to mockingly suggest that the CSA was simply “waiting for E.T. to call home.”

Despite its best intentions and efforts, the CSA clearly does not have the right stuff.

The agency has also been plagued with several internal problems. With Marc Garneau lost to federal politics, a staid bureaucrat with no background in space affairs tries to hold the fort as the agency grapples with a Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigation into contracts doled out to cronies, and a damning report from the Public Service Commission over unethical hiring practices.

All this clearly frustrates its highly talented corps of scientists and engineers, many of whom yearn to see Canada become a leader in space. “We are firmly on the path—to nowhere,” mourned a young scientist at the agency.

Today, the international space community stands at the crossroads as the shuttle and space station era winds down and spacefaring nations the world over look to deep space exploration as the next frontier.

If Canadians want in, we would need visionaries to lead us into this new era of space exploration. Despite its best intentions and efforts, the CSA clearly does not have the right stuff.

It is now up to dynamic grassroots organizations like the Canadian Space Society and the Mars Society of Canada, as well as leaders in academia and industry—many of whom are brilliant orators—to join forces to articulate this vision, one that would appeal to diehard space enthusiasts and Joe Average alike.

The message should be universal: Space exploration is as much about worlds beyond yonder as it is about ours here on Earth. Probing other planets forces us to reflect on our own fragile planet and our relationship with it. In trying to foresee signs of life on Mars, we scout little-known corners of our planet—the Arctic, scorching deserts, deep oceans, and lakes to see living creatures thrive in these unforgiving environments. If such hostile places harbor life, could Mars be far behind? And even as we prepare to send smart robots and, one day, humans, to look for signs of life on Mars, we will find ourselves grappling with the most fundamental question of them all: What constitutes life?

Undoubtedly, lofty dreams do not come cheap and the Harper government, currently contemplating a national science and technology policy, ought to give space its pride of place. After all, space-based exploration—be it observing Earth from the heavens, or leaving our planet to venture into outer space—is the ultimate scientific undertaking for any country, replete with innumerable technological and socio-economic benefits.

All in all, a concerted effort by government, industry, academia and grassroots advocates is needed to inspire Canada into playing a leading role in space exploration.

Let’s just look back to how the space race began. Five decades ago, a clunky satellite named Sputnik caused quite a stir. It spurred a smug United States into action, leading to the birth of NASA, along with unprecedented investment in science and education, the creation of world-class research institutions and funding agencies, and an exponential rise in enrolments in science programs in universities.

A similar scenario might well be playing out now as technological powerhouses like India and China take the stage with bold space ambitions of their own. Countries like Canada should get their act together or risk being left behind.

All in all, a concerted effort by government, industry, academia and grassroots advocates is needed to inspire Canada into playing a leading role in space exploration. With the right mix of poetry and pragmatism, we might not only unveil new worlds but rediscover our own as well.

As the late British poet T.S. Eliot once wrote, “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started—and know the place for the first time.”


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