Canada Planning for a Generational-Type Change for the Astronaut Program

The Soyuz booster rocket and MS-11 spacecraft is seen as it arrives at the launch pad after being rolled out by train on Sat. Dec.1, 2018 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Launch of the Soyuz rocket is scheduled for Dec. 3 and will carry Expedition 58 Soyuz Commander Oleg Kononenko of Roscosmos, Flight Engineer Anne McClain of NASA, and Flight Engineer David Saint-Jacques of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) into orbit to begin their six and a half month mission on the International Space Station. Photo Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani.

BAIKONUR COSMODROME, KAZAKHSTAN – While Canada has been without a detailed space plan since 1994, there is some indication this might be happening soon.

Last month, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine delivered a speech in Ottawa asking Canada to partcipate in his agency’s Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway. That same day, Navdeep Bains (the minister responsible for the Canadian Space Agency) promised a plan before the Trudeau administration finishes its mandate in 2019.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) would be the biggest beneficiary of this plan, although it works with multiple agencies to achieve its work in remote sensing, telecommunications and the astronaut program. However, industry observers say the agency will need to make some plans quickly to make sure it can keep programs rolling in the next few years.

Specifically, the next assigned flight for Canada may not be for a few years (the exact timing is unclear, for reasons that will be explained below). That is because our country as a 2.3% share of space station time, based on our contributions of Canadarm2 and Dextre. At current flight rates, astronauts only get to fly about once every five or six years.

Here in Baikonur, CSA president Sylvain Laporte said Dec. 2 it is very possible that the next astronaut in line — Jeremy Hansen — could fly a lot sooner, depending on the performance of the commercial crew program. Uncrewed test flights are expected next year, then the first crewed flights will be full of American astronauts. Hansen would fly sometime afterwards.

“He is guaranteed a flight,” Laporte said, pointing to the federal government’s extension of the ISS program in 2016 and saying that flight was bundled into the extension. “When, we don’t know.”

By the time Hansen flies, the ISS program may be wrapping up. Its planned retirement is in 2024, and then current NASA plans suggest the agency will focus on a moon space station.

The CSA had had a flat budget of the $300 million range for many years now, excluding stimulus funding in some past budgets. But the agency does maintain it is investing in its future with the funds that it has. In 2017, for example, the CSA hired two new astronauts that are expected to fly on commercial crew flights.

Industry, however, remains concerned about the lack of a long-term space plan. A few months ago, several companies united under the Don’t Let Go Canada banner, going so far as to plaster buses in Ottawa with their logo and website to raise public awareness.

The coalition includes more than 60 representatives from academia and industry, and is calling for participation in the new space station as soon as possible. This is not only for reasons of astronaut access, but because the space industry depends on exports for it sales. Canada has a great reputation in robotics, the website says, but if we do not step up shortly, another country will take our place.

Laporte said part of the complexity in formulating a plan was waiting to figure out as a coalition what the ISS partners wanted to do. Now, the priority is going back to the moon, he said, and he added that Canada is now planning for a generational-type program to ensure continued Canadian astronaut access to space. (Laporte did not say directly if Canada would contribute to the Gateway, though.)

“It is a resource intensive plan and we want to make sure we do this right,” he said of the plan. He added that it is unclear on what program the new astronauts would fly, but possibilities could include the ISS or the Gateway, depending on how the long-term space plan is formulated and the rate of flights to the ISS.

About Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell
Canadian space and science reporter, researcher and consultant. I also am pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of North Dakota.