15 Years Without a Long Term Space Plan – The Failure of Successive Canadian Governments

In our special series, What’s in Canada’s Long Term Space Plans, we presented a chronological history of the key documents that supported or were considered Long Term Space Plans. In this the final story in the series we look at the failure in leadership that’s existed for 15 years.

In 2003 the newly released Canadian Space Strategy pivoted to a framework instead of a Long Term Space Plan setting the stage for successive failures within government towards the space file.

The idea of a framework to be revisited and to evolve may have seemed like the right path to follow at the time. After all, the government in 1999 had decided to create a stable annual base funding of $300 million to start in 2002 and be supplemented each year on a program by program basis. The problem that arose though is that successive governments slowly began to fund fewer new programs resulting in what we have today, a shrinking budget with no significant programs in the pipeline.

For successive governments it was altogether too easy to opt out of funding new programs as there was no long term plan to follow. The purpose of long term planning is in part to identify the needs of the government, the direction stakeholders see forward and plan funding cycles that survive change in governments. Some space programs tend to have much longer lead times, which is why long term planning is used.

The missing 2009 plan

In September 2008 Steve MacLean was named the new president of the Canadian Space Agency with an immediate mandate by the Conservative government to create a new Long Term Space Plan. The framework instituted by the Canadian Space Agency in 2003 was now going to change once again in favour of a Long Term Space Plan. That plan was to have been released in 2009, it never was.

Led by Steve MacLean, the Canadian Space Agency in consultation with stakeholders worked diligently to produce a new plan. The plan, which was reported to include a $1 billion in spending over a longer period, was hidden away almost as soon as the government received it. With a global financial crisis underway, the government wasn’t about to embark on a long term spending plan for the space program even if it was spread out over 5-10 years. As a stop-gap measure they invested $110 million to support the development of advanced robotics and other space technologies over three years starting with budget 2009.

Platitudes

The Conservative government then mandated an Aerospace Review in budget 2011 which was completed in late 2012. After the review the government in 2014 unveiled a new Space Policy Framework which amounted to a regurgitation of past strategy talking points, particularly the 2003 strategy. The Conservatives also began the process of reducing the Canadian Space Agency annual base funding from $300 million to $260 million.

Almost a year after the Liberals came to power in 2015 they announced the need for a new Space Advisory Board. That board would meet with stakeholders and report back to government with recommendations meant to influence a Space Strategy. That strategy was to have been unveiled in June of 2017.

As the Liberals begin their fourth year of their mandate all we hear are platitudes.

A declining civil space power

It came as no surprise then that a 2016 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report on Space and Innovation showed that Canada’s civil space budget had fallen to 18th as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) versus other nations.

Earlier this year when the Canadian Space Agency released their Departmental Plan for 2018/19, it included a graph showing a steadily declining budget. The decline is in part attributed to the RADARSAT Constellation Mission build phase being completed. As well, the Liberals never restored the Canadian Space Agency base funding the Conservatives had cut. Another contributor to declining budget is that there are no new significant programs on tap.

Canadian Space Agency Departmental spending trend graph
Canadian Space Agency Departmental spending trend graph. Credit: CSA.

The Liberals have stated they will announce a new Space Strategy. When that will be is unknown. They have one more budget to announce before the election next fall.

It’s been 15 years since a new Space Strategy was announced and 19 years since an update to the last Long Term Space Plan. The Canadian space community has gone as far as creating the Don’t Let Go Canada Coalition campaign with over 50 organizations supporting it. For them, the message is clear, it’s time the government step-up and meets its responsibility.

About Marc Boucher

Marc Boucher
Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactice Inc. Boucher has 18 years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 25 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.