Opinion – The Future of the Canadian Space Industry From the Student Perspective

UTAT Team - With the support of University of Toronto students, UTAT Space Systems was able to secure a student levy to fund the development and launch of their next iteration cubesat, HERON MK II. The team will be launching the 3U Cubesat onboard ISRO's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle in 2020. Credit: UTAT.

Why is it so hard for young entrepreneurs and innovators to contribute to the Canadian space industry? As a student engineer with a passion for space technology this is a question often on my mind.

In the context of the #DontLetGoCanada movement and an increased awareness of the importance of space efforts to our economy and national identity, I believe that leveraging our existing resources and talent for space development is the fundamental issue regarding space in Canada today.

I serve as Director of Aerospace Policy at the University of Toronto Aerospace Team. We are a design team comprised of over 140 undergraduate students with a passion for aerospace technology. We are primarily a design team, with 4 major project areas in rocketry, space systems, aerial robotics and fixed wing UAV. We’re redefining the limits of what a student group can achieve. In 2019, will see our team send the first Canadian student funded microsatellite to space and break the Canadian amateur rocketry altitude record with a hybrid propulsion system. We also maintain outreach, STEM education, and policy advocacy efforts. This work is driven by well over one hundred well-educated, passionate Canadians who want to work in space. And we are by no means the only ones. Our university has a world class robotics and aerospace research institute, and specialized undergraduate programs. Design teams similar to UTAT are found in dozens of Canadian universities, launching small satellites and winning international rocketry competitions.

From our vantage point, it is evident that the issue is not a lack of talented individuals, or enthusiasm and support for space technology. But ask any graduating aerospace engineer across Canada, and the cause of the issue is evident: the lack of opportunity in the Canadian space market in terms of quality and quantity. The University of Toronto’s official Professional Experience Year internship portal has over 400 job postings for undergraduate students, with only a single space technology related company offering an internship. UTAT has partnered with the DLR (German space agency) to send students on rocket propulsion research internships, since the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has no such opportunities. While most students would prefer to work and live in Canada, they dream of working at NASA and SpaceX, not the CSA. We are witnessing a brain drain of our best and brightest, at a time where we need to leverage this talent pool to secure our place in the emerging space industry, which by some estimates will be valued at over $3 trillion(1) by 2045.

In the context of this crisis of talent retention, there is good reason to support the #DontLetGoCanada movement. The movement is born of the space industry, created by several players in the Canadian market including MDA, a subsidiary of Maxar Technologies, whose claim to fame is the development of the Canadarm. Beyond the social media and public opinion campaign, the movement is pushing for two main policy items: increasing the Canadian Space Agency’s budget allocation, and a commitment to developing the next generation of the Canadarm for the planned Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway. These two decisions from the federal government would go a long way to stimulating the Canadian space economy. Government procurement from civilian and military agencies is the main force sustaining the blossoming space technology ecosystem in the United States. A new Canadarm project, along with a general increase in public-private partnerships, could mean thousands of high-quality jobs created, and millions reinvested in space technology research and development. The industry and related stakeholders need only leverage public opinion, which is firmly supportive of Canadian space efforts, according to a recent Ipsos poll commissioned by the Don’t Let Go Movement. Complacency in government and in advocacy efforts should be the only reasons why the Canadian government has fallen from 8th to 18th in space spending relative to GDP.

However, our Aerospace Policy division is also taking a critical look at the movement, its policy proposal, and its impact on the Canadian space industry. #DontLetGoCanada may prove to be a sizeable force for change in the Canadian government’s stance on the space industry, but it is vital to ensure the interest of the Canadian industry and Canadian citizens is prioritized. Upon closer look, it is clear that MDA, and its parent company Maxar Technologies, are the main interest behind the movement. It has been its earliest and most vocal supporter, and its focus on the new Canadarm project harkens to the company’s heyday as the developer of the original robotic system. In fact, MDA submitted a brief to the 2019 Pre-Budget Consultations with a message mirroring the Don’t Let Go policy proposal, and eerily similar wording. While MDA once stood as a symbol for Canadian grown innovation, today it is a subsidiary of Maxar Technology, a space operations conglomerate headquartered in the United States. Unfortunately, this makes it unclear whether the most prominent supporter of the movement has its interests aligned with those of the Canadian industry, and of the hundreds of Canadian student space engineers around the country.

With this potential conflict of interest notwithstanding, the #DontLetGoCanada campaign is doing important groundwork in public opinion research and policy advocacy. Our design team is in strong support of the campaign’s core policy proposals in addition to its outreach efforts. Specifically, we laud the efforts to raise awareness for our space efforts, and echo the campaign’s calls to secure additional funding towards contributions to international space efforts. In addition to this, we are most concerned with ensuring that any additional funding to the Canadian Space Agency is used effectively to stimulate Canadian employment, research, and innovation. Canadian innovators and entrepreneurs need the support Canadian innovators and entrepreneurs need the support of the government to its fullest extent to maximize the future return of the booming space industry to Canadian communities. In this spirit, we hope the #DontLetGoCanada serves as a wakeup call for Canadian leaders. Rather than stand alone, the Don’t Let Go movement should serve as a catalyst for a grassroots movement in support of Canadian space efforts. It will be up to our generation to ensure Canada marks its place in humanity’s push to the stars.

By: Samuel Looper for the University of Toronto Aerospace Team, Aerospace Policy Division

  1. The space industry will be worth nearly $3 trillion in 30 years, Bank of America predicts. CNBC

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About Samuel Looper

Samuel Looper
Samuel Looper is the Director of Space Policy for the University of Toronto Aerospace Team.