The International Astronautical Congress is the pre-eminent international meeting of the year for the global space community. Global leaders from national space agencies, commercial companies, engineers, scientists, and student gather together to take the pulse of the community and to do business. This year, the 67th International Astronautical Congress was held in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Every year the International Astronautical Congress opens with a Head of Agencies plenary. This is a public opportunity for the community to hear from the leaders of the worlds space agencies as to what their national programs have been doing, what they will do in the future and answer a few questions from the public. For Canada’s Sylvain Laporte, it was his first opportunity as leader of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to participate in this plenary.
The format for the plenary is simple. The moderators ask each head of agency to outline what their respective agencies have accomplished this year along with what they have planned. With seven leaders in attendance this takes some time. Their remarks are then followed by a short question and answer session. There’s no doubt that the audience would like to have more questions asked, but with seven leaders responding to each question, there’s just not enough time in the hour and half session. This year only four questions came from the audience.
Sylvain Laporte opening remarks and answers to questions
Sylvain Laporte was the first speaker and he began by discussing a couple of collaborative space science missions.
He spoke of Canada’s participation in the just-launched OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission and the ongoing preparations for the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope which Canada has contributed two instruments. The James Webb Space Telescope is the successor to the highly successful Hubble Space Telescope and will allow Canadian astronomers to do cutting edge research on the most advanced space telescope ever built.
Next he spoke of the development of Canada’s own RADARSAT Constellation mission for earth observation which he said “we’re still looking at the launch being made in 2018”. He then touched on the Canadian budget and that Canada had committed to continue using the International Space Station until 2024.
Canada is also recruiting two new astronauts who will be selected by next summer and who will begin their basic astronaut training with NASA in August 2017.
In reality Laporte didn’t say mention any programs or future programs we didn’t already know about. While some leaders can be counted on to occasionally mention some new item of substance, most leaders play it safe.
However Laporte at the end of his opening remarks did say something worth expounding on.
“From a policy perspective, Canada has a new government, although it’s been a year, we still call them new, and we’re spending a considerable amount of time developing an innovation agenda, and as you can image, space is a major contributor to innovation and to science, so we are looking at playing a very big part of those new efforts.”
Canada: A Nation of Innovators
This is good news if you work in the space community. And the government does a website dedicated to Canada’s Innovation Agenda which went live June 22nd of this year where individuals can contribute their thoughts to the innovation agenda.
However, it’s unclear how an update to Canada’s space policy or a new long term space plan fit in with a new Innovation Agenda at this time.
What we do know is that the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (AIAC) has been consulting with the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) and the CSA on short and long term budgets. In deciding on budget priorities, in particular long term budgets, you are in essence developing the basis of what will be part an updated space policy and which will also set the direction for a long term space plan.
It is natural for the ISED to reach out to the AIAC as there is a long-standing relationship in place. However while the AIAC does represent many of Canada’s leading commercial space companies, it does not represent all stakeholders. And not all stakeholders have offices or representatives in Ottawa. SpaceRef contacted several small companies and a couple of leading universities who said that had not been contacted with regards to the budget or policy related to the space program.
It would seem that ISED would want to talk to some of the small companies in the space sector as a new innovation agenda will no doubt want to foster their growth and have new companies created. As well, for universities who are developing the future workforce, it would seem natural to contact those with space programs.
In the Q&A section of the plenary a couple of answers from Mr. Laporte stood out.
First, he talked about attending the OSIRIS-REx launch and how many people participated in the mission from multiple countries. He said “space brings people together” and you can’t minimize the human element in collaborating on these larger projects.
When answering a question on initiatives for young people Laporte commented that there were no employees under the age of 25 at the CSA when he took over. He said he had restarted the practice of hiring young engineers right out of university and that instead of placing them in a particular silo, the CSA had started a new two year program whereby they would rotate through he agency learning from each department before starting to work in a specific area.
When asked about about moving space programs forward and helping people on Earth he said the CSA was working on technology roadmaps and that they need to identify what needs to be invested in, then invest, but that is important to consult industry, academia, and colleagues globally on what needs to be done.
And lastly, when asked what technology is your space agency researching for use of resources in space, Laporte answered that Canada was working on drilling technology for In-SITU resource utilization.
While a new Innovation Agenda is being created by the government, and by Laporte’s own words, the space program will be “playing a very big part of those new efforts”, technology programs which some have been working towards, such as a moon rover or drilling on asteroids, will have to be patient as the government sets out a new path.
Mr. Laporte was engaged and looked comfortable in this global leader forum. Based on feedback from the community, it appears the CSA has a leader who wants to be there, has learned the nuances of and is stabilizing the agency, and is now working towards charting a course forward for the agency. All he needs now is a government that understands the importance of the space program, listens to stakeholders and provides the appropriate level of resources.
Full Heads of Agencies Plenary at the 67th International Astronautical Congress