Canada’s Civil Space Sector in a Tough Spot but Commercial Sector Sees Opportunity

Perspectives on the Future of Canada's Space Sector panel. From left to right: Moderator Jacques Giroux from ABB, Sylvain Laporte, Canadian Space Agency, Mike Greenley, MDA, Ewan Reid, Mission Control Space Services and Kaley Walker, University of Toronto. Credit: CASI/SpaceQ.

The CASI ASTRO 18 conference began by addressing a key topic much of the Canadian space community thinks about, the future of Canada’s space sector. 

It may have been the first panel discussion on this hot topic, but it certainly wasn’t the last, as more in depth discussion would follow.

The opening panel titled “Perspectives on the Future of Canada’s Space Sector” included representatives from civil space, that being Canadian Space Agency (CSA) president Sylvain Laporte, industry leader MDA with president Mike Greenley, new space startup Mission Control Space Services president and CEO, Ewan Reid, and from academia professor Kaley Walker of the University of Toronto. Curiously absent from the discussion was a representative from the Department of National Defense (DND) who are taking a larger role in Canada’s space sector. There was a separate panel on DND, but having their voice in this panel would have been useful.

Each panelists made introductory remarks which was followed by moderated questions from Jacques Giroux of ABB.

Canada has a space program?

Sylvain Laporte began the discussion recounting a discussion he had on his flight to the conference. Some of the people he spoke with didn’t know that Canada had a space agency and thought humans were on Mars, thanks Andy Weir, and that we were walking around Mars breathing the air without the need of a spacesuit. Admittedly there are some people who won’t be aware of Canada’s exploits, and others who have a false entertainment inspired perspective on our current space activities. But it does point to the fact that for some, and possibly many Canadians, they have no idea what Canada is doing with its space program.

And that’s a problem.

It’s a problem in that key politicians have repeatedly in the last couple of years told the space community they need to be more vocal with Canadians, so that they in turn can be more vocal with their members of parliament, who then pay more attention. Which is odd, as it these very same politicians who should already understand the value of the space program. And it’s almost like the government is saying that the space community should do a national advertising campaign to raise awareness so the public demand more from their government!

A dynamic environment, the moon is closer than you think

Laporte said he wanted to convey in his introduction “that these are very exciting times to be working in the space field, in a number of areas, and when I look at all of the areas of responsibility where the agency is involved, I don’t think that uh none of them are not under a lot of change right now, uh so it’s a very dynamic environment, very glad to be part of all the discussions that are happening, not just in Canada, but worldwide. So this is not a Canadian agency or Canadian phenomena, this level of very high dynamic, it is an international phenomenon, and because it’s international the momentum there is likely to stay for a long long time.”

Laporte said the further exploration of the moon and Mars is becoming more “tangible” as a result of the nomination and confirmation of Jim Bridenstine as NASA’s new administrator with decisions happening rapidly and the project moving faster. Canada wants to contribute to the effort as it evolves.

Another important change Laporte remarked on, was the coming Low Earth Orbit (LEO) communication satellite constellations which for people who don’t live in major urban environments will “welcome these new technologies.” Telesat is an example of a Canadian company that will be offering these services.

Laporte also spoke about the Canadian CubeSat Project noting they gave each team “just enough funding to get them committed, but not enough that they can only rely on the government money, because we do want to bring in the entrepreneurs in them, we do want to give them the opportunity to go out there and to market what they’re working on and to look at raising some additional funds and having conversations with the various administrative, various business people out in their home town. So, this idea of an entrepreneurial scientist is very strong with us and we need to develop those skills in those engineers and those scientists, so part of this exercise, or part of this program that we launched, is also looking at refining those skills in them.”

Enough money to be committed but …

They laughed hard, including Laporte, and that’s good, but the message was clear.

In opening his remarks Mike Greenley made a joke playing on Laporte’s previous comment about the CubeSate Satellite Project having enough money to be committed, but note quite enough to get the project done. Greenley played on that when talking about MDA’s business in Canada saying “we have just enough money, how did you say it, out of the Canadian government to be committed, but not enough to run a business. So we will continue to be entrepreneurial and seek exports worldwide, from here in Canada.”

Later in the conference it was noted that 95% of ABB’s revenue from its Canadian operations space segment was due to exports. This was noted in a positive way, but in reality it speaks to the truth of the magnitude of Canada’s domestic problem. The reason the export revenue as a percentage is so high is that the Canadian government isn’t much of a customer. New science missions that could use instruments developed by ABB just aren’t being funded.

That is a point that was specifically made by Kaley Walker who was representing academia on the panel. She mentioned the groundbreaking SCISAT satellite used for atmospheric science research as an example. It was launched 15 years ago and was the last significant dedicated Canadian science satellite funded by the government. She said, with respect to the type of science SCISAT is producing, that there isn’t a gap with respect to missions and updated instruments, it’s a chasm. No other satellite has some of the same capabilities as SCISAT. When it’s gone, that’s it.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom. Greenley and Reid both talked about new opportunities and business models, though mostly export oriented. Greenley said space ambitions from new countries not traditionally involved in space is encouraging and provides new opportunities.

MDA and Maxar, its parent company, are part of the shift from geosynchronous orbit (GEO) to LEO, and cited the OneWeb LEO constellation as example where MDA had to develop new manufacturing practices at its Montreal plant to build 1800 antennas for OneWeb.

Greenley also talked about on-orbit servicing and the new opportunities emerging in this nascent sector.

In discussing the investment community Greenley noted the amount invested in the last two years is equal to the amount spent in the previous 15 years. However, that investment was overwhelming made outside of Canada. During the questions portion of the panel SpaceQ asked about the prospects of future investment in new space companies coming from the Canadian investment community were. Greenley said that yes, most of the money has been international and not invested in Canada, but that some Europe entities were now going to look at the Canadian and Asian markets to invest in. Reid said that “we’re not quite there yet” with investment in new space companies from the Canadian investment community, though he feels it’s coming.

Reid started his comments by saying it was good to see people here who got for an early start, “I think that’s a sign that despite uh maybe a bit lack of lack of political support for space in this country right now there’s still a lot of excitement with the community at large”. He followed that by saying that while the CSA is “in a pretty tough spot” he’s excited because Laporte is excited with the opportunities that are coming up.

Creative Destruction Lab space stream and Launchpad soft launch

Reid, speaking of new space company opportunities said he had heard that the Creative Destruction Lab based in Toronto, which was founded by Ajay Agrawal of the Rotman School of Management, is planning a space stream and hoping to attract 25 startups to Canada. The application process is ongoing with a deadline of August 12th.

Greenley took the opportunity of the conference to mention for the first time a new initiative at MDA, something he’s calling the MDA Launchpad. Details are scarce at this time, with a formal roll-out later this summer. But in a nutshell, the Launchpad initiative would see a full time senior leader responsible for interfacing with small to medium companies looking to collaborate with MDA. These companies would be able to pitch their ideas and MDA would be aware of their capabilities to suggest collaborations. The senior leader would be someone with knowledge of everything MDA is doing or wanting to do. Reid chimed in that he was happy to hear about the Launchpad initiative.

As the first panel concluded the tone of the conference was set.

About Marc Boucher

Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactive LLC. Boucher has 20+ years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 30 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

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