Canada and U.S. Space Cooperation Remains Strong but Funding Drives Programs

Laura Dawson, Director of the Wilson Center's Canada Institute moderating a panel with Canadian Space Agency president Sylvain Laporte and past president Mac Evans. Credit: Wilson Center.

On September 7 the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute in Washington organized a one day event titled “Over the Horizon: A New Era for Canada-U.S. Space Cooperation?” As with many events like this, discussions behind the scenes is where a lot of the action was. Though, there was one clear fact that no one could surmount.

A long collaboration

It could be argued that no two nations have had a longer sustained collaboration in space then Canada and the U.S.

William “Mac” Evans, Canada’s longest tenured past president of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and a current director at both UrtheCast and exactEarth, opened up the Canadian portion of the morning’s talks by discussing the history of Canada’s relationship with the U.S. in space.

Evans talked about the early days of the relationship when during the 1957 International Geophysical Year (IGY), the U.S. collaborated with Canada at the new Churchill Rocket Research Range in Manitoba. During the IGY, which started on July 1, 1957,  45% of U.S. the rockets launched in 1957 we’re at Churchill. This cooperation precedes Sputnik Evans said. He went on to details many of the highlights, reasons and outcomes for both countries.

Prior to Evans speaking, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine also talked about the long relationship, though he didn’t go into the detail that Evans did, but did mention that Canada and the U.S. have 46 agreements in place. And to be fair, Mac Evans has been in the business a long time and been significantly involved in that cooperative history.

The one common element in the narrative that was discussed, is Canada’s smaller, but important role in many U.S. programs.

From the early days of cooperation we had the Alouette and ISIS programs where Canada built the satellites, the U.S. launched them, and the countries shared the data. Then as the U.S. embarked on larger programs including the more recent programs like the International Space Station and the James Webb Space Telescope, Canada contributed key components and built up indispensable capabilities.

Commercial space and governments role

Another interesting topic of discussion was governments role in space as companies and investors rapidly move forward in some segments with a lesser need of government support.

Laura Dawson, Director of the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute put that question, Why is government still important in space? to Evans who articulated succinctly Canada’s perspective by saying “well I think government, as Sylvain (Laporte) has said, play a critical role in deciding what it is we want to do and where we want to go and how we want to do these things. One of the tenants of the Canadian space program has always been that we will do space activities to meet the needs of the nation, however you define those, but we will do it in a way where we, we contribute to the development of an international competitive space industry. And so this cooperation that Sylvain talks about is fundamental to the way the Canadian space program has operated in the past, and I assume will operate in the future. So government takes a lead in Canada, anyways, and deciding what it is we want to do with space. And then the function of the Canadian Space Agency and other organizations in Canada is to ensure that the way in which we follow that direction brings the economic and social benefits that the government expect to receive from their investment.”

Earlier in his opening remarks Bridenstine also touched on the topic of commercial space and the governments role. He couched it in context of Canada after sitting down the day before with Laporte and others.

“We had a great conversation yesterday about the Gateway. The President is, he put out space policy directive one, he says we’re going to the moon we’re gonna go differently than we’ve ever gone before we’re gonna go sustainably, which means we’ve got to have reusability. Launch vehicles, we now understand, launch vehicles when they’re reused cost goes down access goes up. We need every aspect of the architecture between the Earth and the moon to be reusable, to include tugs that go from Earth orbit to lunar orbit. And, and we need a space station if you will, think of a reusable service module in orbit around the moon, a reusable command module in orbit around the moon we call it the Gateway.  We need to be there for a long period of time, it needs to be able to capable of hosting humans, but also it needs to be able to work uncrewed, and of course how is it going to work uncrewed well we need to take advantage of some of the great capabilities that Canada has developed. The people are familiar with the Canadarm on the International Space Station and on the Space Shuttles, well we can hopefully maybe one day have an agreement where we can have a Canadarm, no kidding, on Gateway, not only on the outside, but on the inside, and have it more robust than ever before, so that it can in fact, help manage the space station when it is uncrewed. Which means we’re gonna have to include pieces of artificial intelligence and embedded in the Gateway. These are all kind of things that we’re thinking about in the future to make our access to the moon sustainable for the long term. We don’t want flags and footprints on the surface of the Moon and then come home and never go back. What we want to do is establish a continual opportunity to go back and forth utilize the resources of the Moon and to do it in a way that is sustainable. So with Canada by our side we’re going to be able to achieve those very impressive capabilities and I look forward to a very robust future.”

Deep space gateway in Cislunar space
Deep space gateway in Cislunar space. Credit: NASA.

Funding drives programs

Once a policy decision has been made it must be followed up by sustained funding to see the program fulfilled.

During this event one of the topics for future cooperation as Bridenstine alluded to is NASA’s Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway program. It is clear NASA wants Canada to collaborate. Canada for its part, wants to collaborate.

And prior to Wilson Center event Gilles Leclerc, Director General, Space Exploration at the Canadian Space Agency tweeted that the Canadian contribution to the NASA led Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a robotic arm, would be delivered to NASA by the CSA in 2024-25.

The tweet was in response to another tweet by Space Policy Online editor Marcia Smith who was following the NASA Advisory Council Human Exploration & Operations Committee meeting. Speaking was Jason Crusan, NASA’s director of the Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) Division. Crusan was talking about the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway and had just presented a slide on the modules.

What’s of note about the tweet by Leclerc and the Gateway modules, is that at this point it’s just wishful thinking. That is unless Leclerc knows for a fact that the Liberal government is going to provide funding to NASA’s Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway. That’s just not the case at this point.

At the moment, what is clear is that the Liberal government has yet to commit funds to that program, let alone any other major new space program. In fact, the government has repeatedly disappointed the space community. The only exception might be Telesat who would be the beneficiary of a part of $100M over five years announced in the last budget for LEO satellites and next generation rural broadband.

For all the talk of cooperation with the U.S. and Canada’s ongoing and future role, the one entity that needs buy-in, is the government. Until the space community hears otherwise, the Canadian government hasn’t announced it’s bought into to the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway program or any other new significant program.

During a one-one interview with the Wilson Center’s moderator John Milewski, CSA president Sylvain Laporte responded to the question, what is the current support of the Canadian government? by saying “the support is is incredible, in fact I work for Minister Baines, who is the Minister for for Innovation Science and Economic Development, and Minister Baines likes to to open any kind of space discussion by saying that it’s his preferred file, uh he’s given us a tremendous amount of support. He gets a lot of pressure from his two girls that also love space and makes sure that dad keeps his eye on how the space file is doing in Canada. So he jokes a lot about that, but from a more serious perspective he’s been a great ally to the space program, so we’re getting a lot of support.”

It’s a practiced response. The government and the minister have been vocally supportive of Canada’s space program. And Laporte has said he has the funds to implement Canada’s space program. However, the governments level of support in real dollars for Canada’s space program has been steadily declining. Factor in the cost of inflation and the picture gets worse. And there are no funds allocated to build anything for the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway program.

Canadian Space Agency Departmental spending trend graph
Canadian Space Agency Departmental spending trend graph from 2017-18 Departmental Plan. Credit: CSA.

A new Canadian coalition

It has reached such a critical point that a new coalition publicly emerged last week, a very rare event in Canadian space history, to take their cause directly to the public. The coalition called Don’t Let Go Canada is currently backed by 21 organizations.

In a press release issued this morning, Mike Greenley, Group President of MDA, and one of the coalition partners said “many Canadians don’t realize how much of a leader Canada is in space today, and how big a role space plays in making their daily lives better. This campaign is about making sure Canadians understand that our country is at a decision point. It’s time to secure Canada’s place in space. We believe that the current Government, with its focus on innovation and positioning Canada for future competitiveness, has the vision and wisdom to do it.”

Aerospace Industry Association of Canada President & CEO Jim Quick, also another coalition partner said “space has the potential to be an economic, technological and industrial powerhouse that, can deliver significant and sustainable benefits for Canada well into the future. We hope this campaign will help stimulate the urgent and decisive action needed to retain Canadian space competitiveness and participation in the international space community in both the short and in the long term.”

Quick added “that other countries are positioning themselves to take advantage of the emerging space economy, and that Canada risks being left behind without a funded space strategy and a deliberate decision to be a leading spacefaring nation once again. “The current space-related global market opportunity is commonly estimated to be $500 billion Canadian, which analysts forecast will grow to be a multi-trillion-dollar market in coming decades.”

The central theme of the event was framed as a question – Over the Horizon: A New Era for Canada-U.S. Space Cooperation? The answer to that question is twofold. Clearly Canada and U.S. cooperation has been mutually beneficial and both sides want it to continue. However, the major programs the two nations will want to work together going forward will also require a financial commitment on both sides.

For Canada’s part, it has already lost out on participating in NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) because the government didn’t commit in a timely fashion. Will Canada commit to the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway and continue the history of cooperation with the U.S.?

Over the Horizon: A New Era for Canada-U.S. Space Cooperation? public videos

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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 18 years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 25 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.