Canadian Lunar Programs as a Stepping Stone Towards Future Niches and Big Programs

Animation of Canadarm3, Canada's contribution to the Lunar Gateway. Credit: Canadian Space Agency.

Ken Podwalski, the program manager for the Lunar Gateway at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) gave his potato salad talk at last weeks Canadian Space Summit. It surprisingly made sense, though Ken’s optimism might not be shared by all.

The potato salad talk

So what does potato salad have do to with Canada’s lunar programs? Here’s how Podwalski described it. “So, you get to go to a party. And you serve out the potato salad and everybody loves the potato salad. Everybody agrees. Ken you brought the absolute best potato salad. This was fantastic. So when the next party gets thrown. What do you think they ask you for? You know what, we should invite Ken, he’s gonna bring that potato salad. You’ve got to get in to the next party based on what your strengths are.”

So for Canada to get into the Lunar Gateway party, Podwalski reckons “our ticket in is to do things like Canadarm3.”

And while he concedes some will say, and they have said, “here we are again we’re doing another robotic arm,” it’s what comes next people need to focus on.

Podwalski puts it this way; “that’s our ticket into the party, it doesn’t mean we can’t bring the other items on the menu.”

Stepping stones

This is where the talk got interesting. This is where he focused his attention on the Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program (LEAP) and what it means.

“However, there was also a lunar exploration accelerator program. So that’s $150 million that are being that being put towards identifying specific missions and specific objectives that can be successfully put together, deployed, launched, and done by Canada in areas that are other than the robotics. Now, these could be direct to the lunar surface. These could be part of the gateway. These could be on other programs, it could be on Mars.”

And then we get to the crux of his thoughts on the LEAP program.

“Right, there’s enough latitude in there that, that it’s out there. That RFI went out and the idea here is, when you start filling up the jar and you put the big rocks in there and you look at things like Canadarm3 and doing James Webb etc. you want to be able to get all that aggregate material in there and do the small programs as well, that are going to turn into the future and take stepping stones towards building next big programs and get further niches developed in Canada.”

There’s no question the LEAP program is something new. I’m just not sure if everyone sees it the way Podwalski does. Perhaps they should. Perhaps it will be a stepping stone to something greater. The question is, will the government see it that way in in a few years time when the LEAP program funding runs out?

Thrown into the talk at this point, Podwalski says David Saint-Jacques mission shattered all the records set by Chris Hadfield with respect to engagement and tied this to the current Junior Astronaut program push.

Current robotic gateway concept thoughts

Podwalski then showed a video, available below, an animation of the Lunar Gateway from June. He said not to get too attached to it, as it will change.

He started to talk about the current thinking with respect to robotics for the Lunar Gateway, characterizing it as “phase zero development and concept development level.”

I’m now going to quote Podwalski extensively as he provides a greater level of detail than we’ve heard before:

So the large arm is going to feature the you know the familiar crane type what type of operations, not going to be nearly as large as Canadarm2, it’s probably gonna be about half the length but be more dexterous. The small arms roll is actually gonna be more about doing maintenance operations, including on the arm, also the possibility we talked about this, so it hasn’t been settled yet, but the idea of going inside the space to inside the outpost to inside a gateway and doing IVR operations, intra-vehicular operations, being able to move stuff from the inside to outside of the, of the gateway.

We talked about in our concept now having a platform for the tools that will need that platform is going to be give us an expanded utilization capability to be able to do more science on the outside of the vehicle. When you look at it in that way what you’re realizing is that the robotics are actually going to be the enabler for doing external utilization on the gateway that puts us in a key role in that program.

In terms of interfaces, we’re going to have base points from spread across the gateway itself where we can walk the arms to and from. We are going to have those, those same base points are going to provide four locations where we can put the tool caddy, we can operate from the tool caddy we can move the tool caddy forward with us. It’s a different concept in terms of the different concept from what we do with the MSS (Mobile Servicing System).

But the idea is to remain versatile and basically meet the needs of what the gateway is going to require. We’re also building interfaces for the payloads. So those payloads that are gonna be on the inside of the, of the gateway are going to what we’re aiming to do there is have common interfaces to make that as repeatable and simple as possible, such that when we bring in things like autonomy and AI, that we’re able to do those operations, not only from the ground but in an autonomous fashion where you’re on an uncrewed vehicle, and you may not have continuous communication with it, and you may have situations where you may actually have to have some decision making happened during that process.

Last part of that concept that I’ll mention is that one of the objectives that we’d like to do with this is we’d like to run robotics operations entirely from Canada. So with the original Canadarm operations were run by the US in the US. On the space station we actually shared that role and did it about half and half. And now with Gateway what we like to do is progress and actually put that capability, not only in Canada, but actually install that in Canadian industry.

Misson control Canada

That last paragraph really provides a glimpse into some of the thinking at the CSA. A Lunar Gateway robotic mission control that is run entirely in Canada.

Podwalski certainly gave the audience something to think about. Aside from speaking to those gathered at the Canadian Space Summit, his words should be heard by a greater audience. In part, that’s probably why he mentioned the Junior Astronaut program. Canada made a 24 year commitment to the Lunar Gateway. Those in the Junior Astronaut program will have a role to play in Canada’s future lunar programs.

Related: Terranauts: Bill Mackey an Original Canadian Space Station Flight Controller

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.