The message was clear at the Next Breakthrough Space Technologies for Canada industry event last Friday in Toronto, Ottawa we have a problem, and you’re it. If ever there was an industry that feels neglected it’s the commercial space industry.
The day long meeting hosted by the Canadian Space Commerce Association, for which this publication was a sponsor, brought together industry, government and academia.
You would think that an industry that received $110 million in stimulus and an additional $497 million for the Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM) would be grateful, and they are, albeit it grudgingly. The money the sector received was not out of love, but of necessity, political and security necessity.
The Harper Government as it likes to be called, as opposed to the Federal Government, introduced the Economic Action Plan in 2009 and promised to put “$60 billion over two years to help protect and create jobs and invest in future prosperity“. Of this it allocated 1/6 of 1% for the space sector to be managed by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Not a lot of money, but spread out of over three years it represented about a 10% yearly increase to the CSA budget. A budget which according to the National Post is supposed to increase by 8.7% this year but according to the governments 2010-2011 Plans and Priorities report was scheduled to decrease by 3.3% this year and another 21% next year. With budget day tomorrow we’ll finally know which numbers are right and what the government is planning. However expectations are low according to many attendees at the meeting.
The $497 million for the Radarsat Constellation Mission, of which $397 million was approved in last years budget, is necessary for Canada’s security as arctic sovereignty has become a very hot issue these last few years. With nations challenging Canada’s arctic sovereignty the government has been forced to spend more money in the arctic. The fabled Northwest Passage, much sought after as a trading route to Asia is increasingly becoming ice-free due to global warming according to many experts. The route and easier access to arctic resources means Canada must monitor the arctic much more closely or eventually see some serious challenge to its sovereignty.
So the stimulus money and the RCM funding have helped industry, but it’s a short term fix. Reality is that the space sector just doesn’t seem to be a high priority for the government or the Ottawa bureaucratic machine. It’s to the point now where even government agency officials admit the problem rests with Ottawa. Josh Dore, a Technology Development Manager at the Canadian Space Agency, said when talking about the agency’s Long Term Space Plan (LTSP) that it was “stuck in Ottawa”. And it has been for several years. With no LTSP on the horizon, industry sees the sector adrift.
But it’s not just the civil and commercial space programs that are adrift. The Department of National Defence was supposed to release it’s first new space policy document since 1998 by the end of January. However, it too is stuck in Ottawa waiting for government approval. And the Department of National Defence has big plans for space. It resurrected the Directorate Space Development (D Space D) and according to Major Marc Fricker of the Royal Military College, who presented on the military’s plans, it wants a small satellite rocket launcher of its own. Currently Canada has no rocket launch capability other than sounding rockets. The Department of National Defence wants to be able to launch nano-satellites into orbit.
Major Fricker opened his talk by saying imagine “a day without space“. The point being that space technologies pervade our daily existence and if somehow they disappeared we would be in big trouble. Most people don’t think about how the technologies work, just that they better work. Imagine if satellite communication stopped. Your mobile phone, television, radio would all be affected. Try buying something at the store or buying gas. The military sees an increasing need to protect Canadian space assets and wants the funding to do it.
Research and Development
There are also seems to be a disconnect between what the commercial sector sees is needed with respect to research and development (R&D) funding and what the government sees. CSA Vice-President Chummer Farina, a last minute addition to closing panel, when asked about R&D funding, said he feels the government is doing enough and that companies aren’t doing enough. However industry disagrees. In fact a blue ribbon panel is looking at the issue right now in Ottawa. And recently a report was leaked which came from four of Canada’s ten largest space companies in which they are critical of the federal governments implementation of research and development funding.
Marc Garneu, the former astronaut and president of the Canadian Space Agency, who is now the Liberal Party Industry, Science and Technology critic would seem to agree with some of industry’s position. A report produced by Marc Garneau called “A Productive Society Taskforce report on Science and Technology” states as part of its summary “Because of the long-term nature and uncertain results from scientific research, only Governments can fund “moderate” to “high” risk areas of scientific research which are essential to our future, but which the private sector cannot afford to fund in the early stages. The critical questions facing government are: in which areas and at what level?”
For new start-up Nv Camras of Montreal their issue wasn’t R&D funding but rather the lack of funding to help commercialize their product, this even after NASA came calling for their “breakthrough” technology.
A Sound Industry Policy
The one issue that came up time and again from all involved was the lack of policy direction from Ottawa. Steve Bochinger, president of Euroconsult North America summed it up at the final panel of the day saying simply that “we need a sound industry policy”.
With the Canadian Space Agency Long Term Space Plan and the Department of Defence National Space Strategy stuck in limbo in Ottawa it would seem the Harper Government and Ottawa bureaucracy are hampering the growth of the commercial space industry.