The Canadian space sector needs to stop the “cross talk” and unite its message after the government releases a Canadian space strategy, said Iain Christie, executive vice-president of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada. The importance of space will be lost if everyone presents different messages and priorities to the public, he added.
Christie said strategy drafts may be circulating quietly among cabinet committees for release in Budget 2018. The government, however, has given few updates since delaying releasing the strategy this summer. Christie urged attendees of the Canadian Space Policy Symposium in Ottawa Nov. 9 to write their Members of Parliament for more information.
“The words you want are ‘balanced space program’,” he said in a speech. “These are the words you are looking for, and long-term commitment to that. The details really don’t matter. It’s really more important to get that big thing [the strategy] done.”
The symposium was organized the Canadian Space Commerce Association and attracted roughly 75 attendees.
Calls for a Canadian space strategy come after the industry suffered from a decade of financial neglect under the previous Conservative government, conference delegates said. The Space Advisory Board released a report this summer calling for better government support. This echoed concerns raised by the Conservative-commissioned Emerson Review in a two-volume report released in 2012.
Canadian Space Agency president Sylvain Laporte, while saying nothing about the strategy in a separate speech, said his agency is evolving with the industry. For example, the CSA now splits some competitions into separate buckets to appeal to small companies or research-driven projects; previously, it looped all proposals into the same process. “There’s no way a small study would be compared to a large $2 million investment in terms of its impact and what it would bring to Canada,” Laporte acknowledged.
The Space Advisory Board also took questions from the audience concerning how best to prepare for the space strategy. Conference organizer and board member Michelle Mendes said Canada needs to prepare its workforce now for imminent retirements. She suggested following the European example. About a decade ago, they began “building up the workforce pipeline through STEM”, she said, which included bringing children directly to European Space Agency facilities to look at “inspiring projects” in the works.
Board member Douglas Hamilton – a former flight surgeon at the NASA Johnson Space Center who supported dozens of space shuttle missions – called for better outreach. “Canadians are too humble and don’t brag enough,” he said. “For a country of 35 million, we probably do the work of 200 [million]. We just need to do a better job.”
A key problem with outreach, however, is many programs reach few students. One conference panel brought up examples such as Mission Control Academy provided by Mission Control Space Services. The program allows a few dozen students to plan simulated missions using a rover in the Canadian Space Agency’s “Mars Yard” near Montreal. While the activity is popular, organizer Melissa Battler acknowledged it is difficult to expand the concept as only so many students can physically participate*.
There may, however, be other means of outreach. Laporte said the 2016-17 Canadian astronaut recruitment earned 22 million impressions on social media in a country of only 35 million people. To this day, the CSA still receives queries from teachers and guidance counsellors seeking information on the biographies of finalists. Educators want to inspire teenagers who are bright but struggle with motivation in school, Laporte said.
The CSA also said they must expand their work beyond robotics to earn work with NASA’s long-term plans in space, which include a Deep Space Gateway lunar space station and missions to Mars. Laporte mentioned biomedicine and quantum encryption as possibilities. The CSA’s director-general of space exploration, Gilles Leclerc, also suggested artificial intelligence. Machine learning, for example, could organize terabytes of imagery generated by CubeSats and small satellites.
Space Advisory Board chair Marie Lucy Stojak said her group “covered a lot of ground”, including spring industry roundtables and a discussion this summer with Navdeep Bains, the minister of innovation, science and economic development. “The space strategy will have a positive impact, and will be bold, and will lead the way for those who are in the space community,” she said to delegates, adding the board will continue providing advice even after the strategy is released.
* Update: After we had published this story, president and CEO Ewan Reid of Mission Control Space Services told SpaceQ that the program reaches only a few dozen students now, but with more funding support they could “deliver this experience to thousands of students all across Canada.” As well, we updated the name of the education and public outreach program to Mission Control Academy.