Beyond Orbit: A Canadian Space Exploration and Development Institute

Interest in space exploration among the peoples of Canada and the world has never been greater. The United States and Russia have long been dominant in this frontier, but today Europe, China, Japan and India are pursuing their aspirations in space. Canada was the third nation in space, and the first to put a commercial satellite in geosynchronous orbit. We are leaders in satellite and remote manipulation technologies, respected worldwide for our contributions to telecommunications and space robotics, and for our active astronaut program with the space shuttle and now, the International Space Station. As a space-faring nation, we have done very well in the world arena. But the time has come to expand our participation in the international exploration of space.

A nation undoubtably grows by nurturing its young, for they are the explorers who will make advances in all aspects of life. The young need opportunity, vision and inspiration. Great cultures provide these for all their citizens. Many of these advances occur when groups and individuals seek out understanding of the world around them and the nature of things. Throughout the history of invention and knowledge, all great cultures that sought these were the cultures to advance them. Two interacting forces drove developments in each other: science and technology. Without the one, the other lags, and a culture with it.

If Canada is to follow a successful course in space exploration, then as a nation we cannot afford to support, as we do now, just space applications. We must explore space with minds free to contemplate its nature, not constrained by a drive solely for immediate industrial applications or completely tied to another nation’s goals. We must support a policy for space that gives our people a chance to expand horizons in any field in which we wish to study.

John H. Chapman is hailed as the “Father of the Canadian Space Program”. His work in the Alouette program became the bedrock of Canada’s space program. Audaciously, his team proved Canada could develop, build and launch one of the most complex scientific satellites of its time. When the Canadian government sought to develop a policy on space research in Canada, they commissioned Chapman to lead a committee on the matter. The Chapman report recommended that the central theme of the space program in Canada be the application of space technology to specific Canadian needs. At the time for Canada this was in telecommunications, for the expressed purpose of knitting together the nation like a national railroad of its time. The exploration of deep space was deliberately left to others.

Our capabilities in space technology have brought us a well-earned seat at the table in discussions of international projects such as the ISS. But elsewhere, we have few citizens participating in the international dialogue between scientists discussing space and planetary sciences. A generation after the Chapman report, we are seeking a new national mission. That mission should be in all areas where our scientists and engineers desire to work in. Our scientists and engineers deserve the chance to participate in the international dialogue we have been missing out on for far too long. Our science goals should be something audacious enough to inspire the nation, and something bold enough to push our technological capabilities. Canadian scientists and engineers yearn to become involved in space exploration missions to the planets, moons, and other bodies in the Solar System. The Canadian Space Agency has recently started a space exploration program, but it is still at a young stage with no guarantees of its success or continuance. So at the present time, career opportunities in space exploration, planetary science, and interplanetary mission design are still limited in Canada. The consequence is that many who would become involved, who dearly love this country and want to see it be adventurous on the high frontier, have been forced to pursue their work in the United States or Europe.

But there are limits that are imagined and limits that are real. The reality for space sciences in Canada today is that what the space exploration community can pursue is limited by systemic constraints in the way space policy is now formulated. The government lacks a comprehensive vision of how the nation should use its resources to explore the Cosmos. Its Canadian Space Agency has provided workshops in which recommendations for space policy can be made, but has no mandate to approve and support those suggestions independently of government directive. Government policy is disconnected from the desires of the space exploration community. It is therefore not surprising that Canada has no coherent, long-term space exploration policy.

For these reasons, the advocates of space exploration in Canada are currently building a Canadian Space Exploration and Development Institute. While many institutions provide funding to support individual research projects, none, other than the Canadian Space Agency, hold space sciences as a specific area of focus or expertise. A credible entity that can act outside of government directives is needed to nurture and convey to the public a vision of a broad, coherent, and ambitious space exploration agenda. Constraints on imagination can be removed. A Canadian space exploration program, directed and nurtured by the space exploration community and their scientific interests, would then be a reality.

If a new space exploration agenda is to be created, it shall be by the space exploration community itself. Instead of scattered individual efforts across the country, an institute would give Canadian space researchers a unified voice to shape the nation’s space exploration policy. An institute would focus efforts on creating a mandate for Canadian space exploration. The entire space community would gain a vibrant program that would inspire public imagination, answer fundamental scientific questions, expand commercial and industrial opportunities, and build a strong future for all Canadian space activities.

An immediate goal is to establish a credible voice. That voice would be in the form of the Canadian Journal of Space Exploration. The Journal will be a forum for Canadians both to present their results and to define new areas of research that should be explored. Published quarterly, the professional Journal will become a respected platform from which the Canadian space science community will speak – and be heard. It will focus on subjects that are both visionary and practically achievable within such fields of science and technology as astronomy, astrophysics, astrobiology, engineering, geochemistry, geology, geophysics, life sciences, medicine, meteorology and atmospheric sciences, mission analysis and design, physics, planetary sciences, robotics, as well as political and policy issues directly related to space exploration. The goal is to open a regular forum for charting Canada’s future in all aspects of space exploration.

Already several individuals who are part of the Canadian space exploration community have accepted invitations to join this endeavour. Serving on either the CSEDI Board of Advisors, or the Canadian Journal of Space Exploration’s Board of Editors, or both, is Dr. Stephen Braham of Simon Fraser University; Brian Feeney of the Da Vinci Project, Dr. Veena Rawat of Industry Canada; Dr. Ram Jakhu of McGill University; and Dr. Christian Sallaberger of MacDonald Dettwiler Space and Advanced Robotics Ltd. Many more have expressed support for this enterprise.

We are seeking for each Board a dozen Advisors or Editors representing academia, industry, government and private individuals involved in space exploration. With your help, and this Journal and Institute, Canadians have a chance to build a future in space exploration for themselves and their children. We can affect change. We can do more-we can live audacious dreams. For more information, to express support or inquire about serving on the Board of Advisors or Board of Editors, please contact rocky.persaud@utoronto.ca.

The views expressed in this op-ed are that of the author.

About Rocky Persaud