Space Strategy Needed to Set Canada’s Goals, Astronauts Say

Nine current and former astronauts participated in panel discussion at the University of Ottawa during Science Literacy Week. From left to right: moderator Amber Mac, Marc Garneau, Steve MacLean, Chris Hadfield, Robert Thirsk, Bjarni Tryggvason, Dafydd Williams, Jeremy Hansen, Joshua Kutryk and Jenni Sidey-Gibbons. Credit: University of Ottawa.

A group of Canadian astronauts expressed their support Friday for a space strategy to direct Canada’s goals in space, days after a coalition of organizations banded together to ask government for clarity quickly.

Canada has been bereft of a space strategy for over a decade, and the newly formed Don’t Let Go Canada group says it’s “decision time.” According to the coalition, Canada’s spending in space as a percentage of GDP fell from 8th place in 1992 to 18th place in more recent times.

Meanwhile, space has expanded from a two-nation government Space Race in the early 1960s to a commercial market worth more than US$380 billion. The players today include multiple governments principally working on the International Space Station and satellite technology, as well as several large companies in various aspects of commercial space.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau, who was also the first Canadian in space in 1984, said in a media scrum that he is “confident that it is going to happen”, but did not give a firm timeline for when the Liberal government would release a strategy.

While Garneau said he is supportive of a space strategy, he added he was he “wearing his astronaut hat” at this time instead of speaking in his usual government role. Minutes before the media scrum, Garneau had participated in a panel of nine astronauts at a Canadian Space Agency public event.

“I think it is very important to have a space strategy, because that sets a goal for many years ahead of time, and in space it does take a long time to make projects from its initial idea to its fruition,” he said. “I think a long term space strategy is a good way to guide us towards the right kinds of decisions that Canada needs to take.”

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who is most famous for commanding an International Space Station mission in 2013, said that space is at a “tipping point” because so many nations are discussing building a Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway space station, and returning humans to the moon, in the next decade. (Canada has not yet said if it is going to participate.)

But when it comes to discussions with the government, Hadfield said he and the other astronauts see Garneau as “just Marc” when it comes to discussions between them.

“He’s been a public servant his entire life. He’s trying to do good by Canada with his energy,” Hadfield told reporters of Garneau. Referring to the astronauts with Hadfield in the room, Hadfield added, “Marc has a certain set of influences, of course, but everyone here is involved in different parts of the Canadian aerospace industry.”

Other astronauts told reporters that it’s not only important that Canada stay involved in international space discussions, but also push for new areas of expertise on top of our traditional ones in robotics, telecommunications and remote sensing.

“We need to be talking about this all the time,” said Dave Williams, a two-time shuttle astronaut who also performed spacewalks. “We need to be talking about the priorities of space, because Canada is a major space faring nation … As astronauts, we’re very excited to see Canadian industry well-represented in the global space sector. We need to continue that for economic growth and job opportunities.”

“The world is changing,” added Bob Thirsk, whose last mission in 2009 was a six-month stay on board the International Space Station. “The world is dynamic. We need to keep expanding those areas of niche expertise so that the next generation has something new and exciting.”

Boldly going to the moon

Earlier Friday, nine Canadian astronauts participated in a panel discussion at the University of Ottawa talking about Canada’s role in space exploration. These included some retired astronauts who are not often seen in the public eye, such as Steve MacLean and Bjarni Tryggvason.

The other participants were retired astronauts Garneau, Williams, Hadfield and Thirsk, and current astronauts Jeremy Hansen, Joshua Kutryk and Jenni Sidey-Gibbons. (Sidey-Gibbons joined by teleconference from Houston, since her astronaut candidate training responsibilities required her to stay there.)

The event was widely publicized on social media and quickly attracted a lineup far beyond the room’s seating capacity of about 300 people. The CSA did its best to fit in a few extras. Many adults stood around the fringes of the room. Just before the panel began, a group of schoolchildren was ushered to a spot nearby the stage, taking seats directly on the floor.

Astronauts referred often to these children during their remarks to the crowd. They said some of the people in the room weren’t even born when the ISS started permanent occupation in 2000, and they also made many references to inspiring the next generation of Canadians.

Hadfield pointed out that space itself is a young industry, since the first satellite only flew into space in 1957 – just 61 years ago. “The biggest change, the greatest impediment has been access to space itself,” he said. “Spaceflight is younger than most of us on stage, in fact … it’s still a brand new technology, but it’s been improving in leaps and bounds.”

To a one, the astronauts all expressed enthusiasm for the role of commercial entities in space, saying that they appreciated the fact that not only governments are taking on the risk any more. Sidey-Gibbons called commercial space “bold”, adding that “the new era we are entering is exciting.” Kutryk said he was glad that commercial space is taking on ferrying astronauts to the ISS, since it allows NASA and the CSA to focus on deep-space exploration.

Even the approach to deep-space work is changing compared to when human moon missions last ran in the 1960s and 1970s, pointed out Hansen. “This is not a return to the moon like in the Apollo days. This is about reusable infrastructure. You have to think about this like railways across Canada or a hub in space … it’s something we can use forever, over and over again, and we won’t throw it away.”

The role of the astronaut will also be different as crews venture to the moon and possibly to Mars, which Thirsk said he hopes happens within 20 years. Tryggvason pointed out that although three Canadian astronauts spent half a year in space (if you include the unflown David Saint-Jacques, who begins his mission in December), that will be nothing compared to Mars – where it takes six months just to get there.

The astronauts collectively said that deep-space crews will need to be more autonomous, to use artificial intelligence, and to be proficient in matters such as basic medical procedures. “You end up being much more independent. I think that will be very exciting,” MacLean said.

But the first few steps will likely take place on the Orion spacecraft, which NASA is developing for moon missions. The agency ran the last parachute test of the spacecraft in Utah just one week ago, which Kutryk attended. If all goes well, Kutryk might fly on that spacecraft himself in the coming decade or so, after he finishes his astronaut candidate training.

“It’s there; it landed at my feet,” Kutryk recalled, “and it’s going to bring people back from the moon in the next few years. We live in very exciting times.”

NASA completes Orion parachute tests for missions with astronauts.
NASA completes Orion parachute tests for missions with astronauts. Credit: NASA

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.