Don’t Let Go Canada and Changes at the Canadian Space Agency Resulted in Government Funding Commitment

Canadian Space Agency president Sylvain Laporte. Credit: SpaceQ.

LAVAL, QUE. –  Canadian Space Agency (CSA) president Sylvain Laporte took the stage in Laval on Monday, June 17, 2019 at the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute (CASI) ASTRO 2019 conference with a very different message than a  year ago.

From Cabinet rejection to Cabinet approval

At the ASTRO 2018 conference in Quebec City last year, Laporte had to address much of the same audience and talk about the “elephant in the room”, that elephant being a government that had once again snubbed the space community at budget time. The space community is used to dealing with successive governments that don’t prioritize them, however the 2018 budget was supposed to be different. After all the consultations and a promise of new space strategy, nothing substantive was announced. Sure, pure science was a big winner, and yes there was some funding for LEO satellites for broadband, but no space strategy, no big projects. The space community was left to drift, again.

In talking about last years snub, Laporte said in his opening remarks this year that “it took, you know, a few days, maybe a week, but not much more, uh before we shook it off, and went back to work. And here we are today, uh, you know, $2 billion, uh, of new investments into the space program, some new programs and boy what a difference a year can make going forward.”

So what changed in a year and what can we learn from this year’s “success?” That was one of Laporte’s key themes in his speech this year.

Here are the key points he made;

  • We spoke with one voice, that was key in providing a level of confidence in our decision makers;
  • We have been very successful in taking space, and the perception of space, from being a lot of money for a few people to benefit, namely a few astronauts and a few engineers who had fun building the widgets. We suffered from that, and that was not too far back in our past. We had to change the perception;
  • Contrast that with where we are today, the investment we’ve gotten now, the investments which are based on the understanding that the space program is a showpiece for innovation in Canada. That’s a big step;

The first point appears to be the critical one. It’s something I’ve heard from others in leadership roles. That “one voice” Laporte is taking about took part in the form of the Don’t Let Go Canada campaign led by MDA. Not everyone was onboard with MDA’s effort at first. But it became clear early on that the campaign was gaining traction. Eventually 68 organizations joined the MDA led effort.

After Cabinet rejected Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Minister Bain’s plan leading up to the 2018 budget, it became clear the space community had to be more assertive, work closer together, even if some of the communities were worried they would be marginalized by the bigger companies. It’s a lesson learned. Working together is better than fighting each other and getting nothing, again.

Flexible strategy versus fixed plan

One of the other points Laporte made was that rather than have a Long Term Space Plan (LTSP) with fixed programs and budgets, the CSA was suggesting to the Minister a Space Strategy that was flexible.

An example he pointed to was the change in the Lunar Gateway program. Just weeks after Canada had announced it was formally signing on to the program the White House changed the plan, moving up landing of astronauts on the moon from 2028 to 2024. This meant a leaner Lunar Gateway program to start with, and meant the AI powered robotic system, Canadarm 3, wasn’t needed right away. Laporte said the flexibility of the new Canadian Space Strategy meant that he could make changes without having to resubmit changes to Cabinet like he would have with a fixed LTSP.

This appears to be the case as NASA has stated it now wants the Canadarm 3 as soon as possible. This even though they had previously stated that the Canadarm 3 wasn’t necessary for the early stages of the program. It will mean though that the CSA will have to move up its funding timeline to get the Canadarm ready no later than 2024 if that’s what’s eventually decided.

A source told SpaceQ that one of the other reasons Cabinet rejected the plan in 2017/18 was the price tag. Like the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper, the price tag of a LTSP was just too much.

So how did $2.05 billion in funding get Cabinet approval? Other than the community coming together with its “one voice”, the government doesn’t have to pay for the program right away.

It’s important to note that the majority of the funding is over 24 years, including $1.9 billion set aside for the Lunar Gateway program. Only $10 million is set aside for this fiscal year. A little less than half of the funding would come in the following four years of a second Liberal mandate should they get reelected. And this is an important point. Will a government other than the Liberals honour their commitment?

The good news is that the Treasury Board approved the $150 million in funding over five years for the Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program on June 19. Regardless of the election outcome, that funding has been approved for the CSA to spend.

Prove your worth

Another key point Laporte made was that whatever we do going forward we have to show the benefits to Canada. Specifically he said “decision makers see the space program as an innovation platform that is able to deliver on building the workforce of tomorrow. That is capable of delivering for youth for that inspiration for them to go above and beyond, that is capable of taking science to the next level, and when you wrap all of that up together, that is also capable of delivering on key societal and economic benefits.”

He made these other points in talking about the benefits to Canada and what the space program must do;

With respect to Youth, Diversity and Partnerships;

  • Can inspire youth a lot more than today than in the past;
    • Space is popular.
    • Hence the Junior Astronauts program.
  • Must create well paying jobs;
    • We must build more SME’s.
    • We must push space technologies into new applications.
    • We must ensuring participation of Canadian companies.

He also said the CSA role is evolving;

  • Accelerating business;
  • Modernizing investment;
  • InvestmentSpace was good event but was unsure at first about it;
  • Tripled investment in STDP since he’s been president;
    • Funding is more accessible and available for different ideas.

Lastly, he said the Canadian government heard and concurs that the space program is a strategic national asset.

Canadian Space Summit 2019

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.