What Does the New Canadian Space Strategy Really Mean?

ISED Minister Bains announcing Canada's new Space Strategy. Credit: Carlos F. Lange via Twitter @CFLange.

In the past week the Liberal government has admittedly stepped up and committed Canada to a new space strategy, and backed it up with over $2 billion in new funding. Is it really as big a commitment as it seems? Yes and no, the explanation is as follows.

Related: Read the highlights of the new space strategy in our article a New Canadian Space Strategy Released
Related: Read the highlights of the new space strategy in our article a New Canadian Space Strategy Released.

To quote Minister Bains in his opening message of the new Space Strategy for Canada, “the Government of Canada recognizes the importance of space as a strategic national asset, and since 2016 has committed to new investments worth over $2.6 billion to ensure the vitality of Canada’s space sector and that Canadians can benefit from advances in space-based technology.”

That $2.6 billion is a real number. On the surface it seems like a lot of money. So let’s look closer at the breakdown of where this funding is going, and importantly, when the funding will be made available.

Note, the funding totals do not include money from programs such as the Space Technology Development Program which pre-existed the current government. It also does not include the Canadian Space Agency base funding or other existing programs.

Total new funding since the Liberal government came to power in October 2015: $2.66 billion. 

  • 2016 funding announcement;
    • $379 million for Canada’s continuation in the International Space Station until 2024.
  • 2017 funding announcements;
    • $80.9 million for the Quantum Encryption and Science Satellite (QEYSSat) mission, the Canadian CubeSat Project and a sub-surface ice sounder for a future NASA led Mars orbiter.
  • 2018 funding announcements;
    • $100 million from the Strategic Innovation Fund connecting Canadians including through Low Earth Orbit (LEO) communications using the planned Telesat LEO constellation of satellites and other service providers.
    • $53.2 million from the Strategic Innovation Fund going to Advantech Satellite Networks ($11.5M), Creative Destruction Labs ($25M – a portion related to the accelerator space stream), Northstar ($9.5M), and exactEarth ($7.2M)
  • 2019 funding announcements;
    • $1.9 billion over 24 years is is going to build the next-generation artificial intelligence (AI) deep-space robotic system.
    • $150 million over 5 years for the new Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program (LEAP).

Several things jump out at me in looking at these investments.

The moon as the central focus of the new space strategy and investments

The government is committing $2.05 billion towards its moon strategy. There is a big asterisk here however. Of that money, and the biggest investment in a Canadian initiative since the RADARSAT Constellation Mission, $1.9 billion will be spent over 24 years. That’s a long time to spread that funding over. If spread out evenly over 24 years that works out to an average of $79.2 million per year.

In its praise of the new Space Strategy, the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada astutely qualified that praise with this statement; “While some elements of the strategy have already been announced, other activities included in the document require further details regarding funding and timelines that will determine how and when they will be executed.”

Ah yes, the details.

At this point we have no further details. Why is the funding over 24 years? Will any of this funding be in this years Canadian Space Agency budget? These are important points.

The government is also heading into an election to held no later than this fall. Would a different government support this program if the funding hasn’t started yet?

Answers to some of the questions surrounding funding and timelines should be forthcoming when the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) budget is made public later this month or in early April. The CSA budget usually includes a three-year chart of expected expenditure totals.

The other $150 million in funding program is going to the new Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program (LEAP). Details haven’t been made public yet, but it’s likely that funding will be included in this years CSA budget and will be spent over the next five years.

This is an important program which when combined with the Space Technology Development Program (STDP) could provide a boost to space technology innovations. If the $150 million from the LEAP program is spread out out evenly over five years, this means an average of $30 million could be allocated each year. The STDP is currently averaging $20 million per year. Between the two, that could mean an average of $50 million a year being spent on new technology ideas. This is progress for Canada’s space program.

Beyond the moon funding

Aside from the substantial funding for the moon initiative, Canada has committed to the International Space Station until 2024. Canada is also using the Strategic Innovation Funding (SIF), which is separate from the Canadian Space Agency funding, to support innovative new technologies or services from space companies. There could be more investments coming from the SIF program.

While Mars is still a goal for Canada and NASA, our commitment there is very small with only the the sub-surface radar getting some initial funding.

The only new satellite getting funding is the Quantum Encryption and Science Satellite (QEYSSat) demonstration mission.

Critical to Canada meetings its objectives in the new Space Strategy will be future investments in Earth observation instruments and satellites.

Unfortunately for now, the astronomy community is left out with respect to new funding. They will though, have access to NASA’s next flagship space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope when it is launched.

Committing to robotics, AI, and health

Central to the moon initiative is the investments in robotics, AI and health. This is where it gets interesting. Investments in these areas could have some significant spin-offs.

We’re entering an era where robotics and AI are truly going from what see in science fiction to reality. The potential is there.

Canadian companies working in these areas could see some interesting terrestrial spin-offs that would benefit the medical field, mining, deep ocean exploration and more.

Interestingly enough, the benefits to terrestrial mining and deep ocean exploration could then be used for space mining and diving beneath the oceans, of say Europa, in the future. These investments could come full-circle.

When it comes to space medicine its about astronaut health but also doing unique research in space that helps humans, here on Earth.

The Space Strategy has a specific point on this topic:

Improving remote medicine and health care: By leveraging Canada’s health and medical research expertise, and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, Canada will advance autonomous medical systems to support astronaut health in space and health outcomes at home. Through the Lunar Gateway project and via new efforts on Earth, Canada will explore questions key to improving health care and quality of life for Canadians. Keeping astronauts healthy in deep space has many direct applications in health care today, especially for remote communities: monitoring vital signs, preventing illnesses, performing diagnostics and delivering medical care over great distances. Canada will work with health partners and northern communities to make sure that the advanced knowledge and technologies gained from the space program translate into concrete benefits for all Canadians.

While it was good to see nutrition mentioned in the strategy, the government needs to do more in funding research for growing food in greenhouses for remote communities. The University of Guelph for instance has been for years working on this issue. However, taking it from the research stage to a product isn’t happening. Their work might benefit Europe before Canada as they are being funded in part by the Europeans.

Here’s what the Space Strategy says on this topic;

Enhancing access to nutritious food: Growing nutritious food effectively in remote regions with harsh environments could allow us to mature the technology to do the same on the Moon and in deep space. The Government will work with provincial and territorial partners to explore how to help improve the accessibility of food across Canada, including the North, with the aim of, one day, taking these lessons learned to help astronauts grow food off Earth

Modernizing the regulatory framework 

This is really a critical issue that will help Canadian business and could lead to investments in Canada from foreign investors.

Here’s what the Space Strategy says on this topic;

Create a modern regulatory framework: Building on announcements in the 2018 Fall Economic Statement regarding the creation of simpler, clearer and more modern regulatory systems, the Government will review Canada’s regulatory framework for space-related activities to ensure they provide timely responses for industry, maintain strategic oversight for national security and enable commercial growth. This work will examine whether the regulatory system is keeping pace with emerging technologies and new business models in the space sector, and whether it is enabling innovative space companies to prosper in Canada.

There are two examples that stand out.

The first is the case of Planet Labs in getting a license to operate its ground station in Inuvik. It took three years. It should have taken six months. That’s ridiculous.

Then there’s the issue of launching payloads from Canadian soil. The current regulations are outdated making it a slow process to get approved as new rules have to be written.

Yes, some people are working on this issue. But more are needed. With the Space Strategy, the government is saying it’s heard industry and will do something about it.

As an example, Maritime Launch Services (MLS) are planning to build a spaceport in Nova Scotia. They could be ready to launch in two to three years if the project gets the green light in the coming months from Nova Scotia Environment.

The beauty of a company like MLS is that their business case isn’t relying on government funding. They just need approval to move forward and for the regulatory frameworks to be updated. The government can then choose to use the available service if they so desire, and if you build it, they will come.

What’s more, if Canada has a spaceport, other launch companies will want to use it. This is just an example , but a relevant one. Moon Express has an existing relationship with US based Rocket Labs. I can see the scenario where Rocket Lab could launch from the MLS facility. The payload, a Moon Express Canada lander carrying a Canadian rover built by a Canadian company that will head to the moon. That’s a win win for everyone.

But there’s more to this story. Not only will a Canadian spaceport allow Canadian payloads to launch from Canada, and hey the Department of National Defence will like that too, but the impact on the local economy could be substantial.

Companies who want to use MLS facilities will open offices nearby, other companies wanting to build innovative space technologies for the satellite industry as an example, will also want to be close by. Other service industries not related to space will want to service the growing space community.

I remember after the US Shuttle program came to end what was happening on the Florida Space Coast. Some people were worried, but others, seeing what the future could be, said, why don’t we use the Kennedy Space Center facilities for commercial purposes. I was there when the planned research space park was just a sign next to a road. Today, the Florida Space Coast is thriving again. In fact, the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station will have more launch interest than they will be able to handle in the coming years. Hence, why small satellite launch companies are already looking for other launch facilities across the US and globe.

Canada can benefit from having the ability to launch payloads. All it needs to do at this point is update existing regulations, create new ones where needed, and watch MLS try to execute its business plan.

Inspiring future generations

One of the key points of the new Space Strategy is to “Inspire the Next Generation of Canadians to reach for the stars.” This is a far cry from when the previous government, when in a short-sighted move, cancelled the Canadian Space Agency’s education program.

Part of the plan includes funding for STEM but also a new Junior Astronauts program among other initiatives.

Students pose with (left to right) Alan Nursall, President and CEO, TELUS World of Science, astronaut Jeremy Hansen, ISED Minister Bains, and Canadian Space Agency president Sylvain Laporte
Students pose with (left to right) Alan Nursall, President and CEO, TELUS World of Science, astronaut Jeremy Hansen, ISED Minister Bains, and Canadian Space Agency president Sylvain Laporte. Credit: TELUS World of Science via Twitter @TWoSEdm.

Here in part is what the Space Strategy says on this topic;

Launch a national contest to recruit Canada’s “junior astronauts”: The Junior Astronauts initiative will reach young Canadians right across the country and help make the exciting opportunities of a career in space and STEM a reality through a diverse array of content and activities. The initiative will teach youth what it will take to be an astronaut through activities focused on scientific understanding, physical fitness, teamwork and communication. Top participants from across Canada will be invited to the CSA’s headquarters in St. Hubert, Quebec, to train with real astronauts and learn about the scientific, physical and leadership qualities they will need to develop for a future mission to the Moon.

The final analysis

The new Space Strategy is not what space policy experts might term as a traditional Long Term Space Plan (LTSP). Perhaps we could call it a modern day space plan. It doesn’t have enough financial details to qualify as a traditional LTSP.

It is though a very important space policy document. It signals to Canada’s primary partner the US, we’re still with you, and if the Space Strategy continues to be executed and funded, it signals globally, that Canada has not given up on its space leadership.

About Marc Boucher

Marc Boucher
Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactice Inc. Boucher has 20 years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 27 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.