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Sam Ayre and Harry Kowalik working on the Alouette 1 mockup spacecraft.
Sam Ayre and Harry Kowalik working on the mockup of the Alouette spacecraft - June 5, 1961. Credit: Harry Kowalik.

Opinion: Towards a History of the Canadian Space Program

The year 2017 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the space age and no doubt the major spacefaring countries of the world will mark this occasion, but it is unlikely that Canada will be among them. For some strange reason, despite its direct involvement in the exploration and exploitation of outer space since the very dawn of the space age, Ottawa seems to have forgotten how much of a role the nation has played in the most dangerous and exciting period of human exploration since Columbus sailed the Atlantic in search of the new world.

Indeed, it seems odd given the investment Canada has made in pushing the boundaries of human knowledge of the upper atmosphere and outer space, that it would not make a similar albeit much more minor investment in creating a permanent record of its achievements, warts and all, for all Canadians to read and consider. While other national space agencies such as the NASA and the ESA routinely record the history of their organizations, Canada and more recently the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) appear content with letting history pass them by. It is an unfortunate and easily corrected state of affairs, if only the government and the CSA would invest more seriously in it.

How much would it cost in the grand scheme of things if the CSA sponsored a historical series along the lines of NASA’s SP history program? Would there not be merit in capturing the experiences and lessons learned of those who led and participated in the very start of Canada’s space program? The development of black brant rockets and the building of the Alouette satellites? The design and the construction of the Canadarm? The origin and evolution of the Canadian Astronaut Office? The design, construction, and launch of RADARSAT-1? The evolution of Canada’s role in the International Space Station?

Since the dawn of Canada’s space program, very little of the country’s achievements in have been examined by scholars and practitioners in any detail. Aside from a few contemporary government publications and a small number of popular books focused mainly on Canada’s astronauts, very little else has been written about the six-decade long Canadian experience in breaking the bonds of the Earth. It is a shadow record and a rather paltry one for a program that is rich in experience and achievement. Simply put, the Canadian space program deserves better from Canada’s space agency as well as from Canada’s historians.

The people who pushed Canada into outer space are getting on in years, and sooner or later their memories and experiences will be beyond our reach. Now is the time to capture them, and ensure that future generations of Canadians know from whence their country’s journey into outer space began.

Andrew B. Godefroy is a Canadian space historian and author of ‘Defence & Discovery: Canada’s Military Space Program, 1945-74’ (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2011) and ‘The Canadian Space Program: From Black Brant to the International Space Station’ (New York: Springer Books, 2017). He is currently researching a biography of Dr. John Herbert Chapman, Canada’s space pioneer for whom the current CSA HQ was named after. He can be reached at andrew.godefroy@mac.com. The views expressed are the authors.

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About Andrew Godefroy

Andrew Godefroy
Andrew B. Godefroy is a Canadian space historian and author of ‘Defence & Discovery: Canada’s Military Space Program, 1945-74’ (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2011) and ‘The Canadian Space Program: From Black Brant to the International Space Station’ (New York: Springer Books, 2017). He is currently researching a biography of Dr. John Herbert Chapman, Canada’s space pioneer for whom the current CSA HQ was named after. He can be reached at andrew.godefroy@mac.com.