All Talk – No Action: Making the Case for Space in Canada

Alouette 1 ready to ship for launch. Credit: Harry Kowalik.

Ironically, on the eve of its anniversary this week, hearing that Canada was the third nation in space again causes me to want eat my own liver – not because the feat is not notable or something not to be proud of, but because often it is brought forward under the wrong context. We should not be asking “why Canada cannot keep doing these great things?” (it can), but rather “what were the conditions at those times to make them happen?”.

Further, it is often brought up in front of the wrong crowd, which I like to call the Canadian space ‘choir’ – space industry, academia, government and all other enthusiasts who already know what Canada has done, and are fairly well-versed in what it can do. Unfortunately, much like the Defence industry, space development is largely born out of the needs of the public sector, with the private sector and academia coming in to assist, and this further stimulates commercialization and R&D activity.

For Defence, they eventually got their defence policy – Strong, Secure, Engaged – their way forward, their ‘here is what the government of Canada, who speaks for the people, want you to do – so go do it! (maybe not that emphatically)’. The effect? All those programs and projects that were in the mill – marking time, getting briefed-to-death – now had something to point to, or at least something to which they could try to justify their existence.

But space does not have that. At one time it did. I personally experienced the effect of a policy in motion, and not just a policy, and not just a space policy, but a military space policy. Back in 1987, the effects of the Cold War, Star Wars and a first Canadian (military) in space were essential elements to propel the gears of government, and thus the Department of National Defence (DND), to outline a vision and a mission to develop more space expertise in the Canadian Forces. That military space policy resulted in, among other things, the first space science undergraduate program at the Royal Military College of Canada to which yours truly signed up in 1989 and have been enjoying the fruits ever since. It also resulted in Sapphire, DND’s first-ever military satellite, M3MSat, NEOSSAT, RCM, Polar Epsilon, etc, etc.

The point, of course, is that someone at the right level, with the right authority, with the right vision, and with the stroke of a pen put that bit of space development in motion. I would be willing to bet that that official with signing authority did not have a broad knowledge of space (apart from Canada being the third nation in space, yada, yada, yada). And so, the real point, of course, is what conditions were right then to make the decision to propel space forward that we cannot seem re-create now here in Canada?

Even the beginnings of the venerated, often quoted, Chapman Report, had roots in the strategic military context – the era of the 50’s and 60’s. From World War 2 and onwards, scientists, and in particular defence scientists, were learning more and more about our atmosphere, and then a little bit beyond it, and a little bit more, and the question was what was the value of this region and what did that mean for Canada (so at least two questions)?

Based on the evaluation of Canada’s position in the world at the time, and its potential, the Chapman report sketched out a logical vision of what Canada needed from space, and identified the main goals of satellite communication, remote sensing, and a space agency, among other things (interesting that while the report advocated for the development of small launchers, it did not advocate for Canada to mine asteroids nor build space robots – but then the report was a report and not a manifesto).

The point, of course, is that Canada acted upon the Chapman report way back then and we, as Canadians, enjoyed and are enjoying all the benefits of that vision even today. But a vision in the 60’s can only see so far, and so now that we have dead-reckoned to this waypoint or landmark in our (space-time) journey, we need to survey the landscape, make a decision, and lift a boot.

Apparently there had been a space strategy compiled and put forward by the then Canadian Space Agency (CSA) President Steve MacLean (2009) – where is it now? Who looked at it then, and what were their comments, perceptions, thoughts? What were the barriers to investment?

Apparently, in May, there was a space strategy that would be released very soon. Now it is October, and still nothing.

The 2nd iteration of the Space Advisory Board criss-crossed the country holding various forums, meetings; speaking at several conferences; gathering, consolidating, synthesizing extensive input from the Choir – to what end? While Budget 2017 was helpful to Defence, it was the equivalent of ‘Ghosting by Government’ for the Space Sector (in truth, several space programs tied to Defence should see some kind of ‘lovin’).

There may be those that feel the latest lobbying effort “Don’t Let Go Canada” Coalition is yet another space-marketing-cum-shrill attempt to grab the attention of those who matter when it comes to investing in space technology. And I am sure it will have some effect. But, in the end, it really needs to make an impact on the key decision-makers, and particularly on those who understand ‘vision’ and ‘return on investment’.

Canada’s space industry has been dominated by export business because it had to be, utilizing the meagre government investments to turn out commercial capabilities to sell abroad. Both the government and industry often cite this, so it must be a benefit, right? If so, why not invest more to get more of that benefit? The space economy is projected to be some $1 Trillion by the 2040s. Right now, our piece of this future pie is miniscule, but we have the potential to grab a larger slice – and still meet all the regular needs of Canadians.

This is not a hard message to articulate, nor should it be difficult to understand, but is anyone really listening?

Contributed by: Wayne Ellis is a space and defence consultant with AppSpace Solutions of Winnipeg, and is a past president of the Canadian Space Society.

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