Opportunities for Canada’s Space Program: The Importance of Space Policy

File photo: The How Canada Can Create a Sustainable National Space Infrastructure panel. From left to right: Kate Howells, Micheal Pley, David Kendall, Gordon Osinski and Lucy Stojak. Credit: Canadian Science Policy Centre.

The following post is a talk given by David Kendall of the Outer Space Institute on January 23, 2022 to the SEDS-Canada Ascension conference.

Many thanks for this kind introduction.

It is a great pleasure to be invited to give this talk at Ascension 2022 and I would like to start off by sincerely thanking the organizers for including me in the outstanding program that they have put together over these three days as well as the sponsors of this meeting – Sinclair Interplanetary by Rocket Lab, Stardust Technologies, Valispace and UTIAS.  I would also like to thank those who have tuned into this talk especially since Tanya Harrison is giving a parallel talk on Big data at a Planetary Scale: Earth and Mars, a fascinating topic from an outstanding speaker.

I am honoured to be a member of the SEDS-Canada Board of Advisors. The vibrant, innovative program that the SEDS-Canada Directors put together each year is, in my mind, vitally important not only for the students who are able to take advantage of the opportunities offered but also with respect to Canada’s future space program that will increasingly need those who have been able to get their hands dirty, so to speak, through real operational experience offered by SEDS-Canada through its several outstanding programs working with government and industry partners.  Many congratulations to you all who work so hard with no financial remuneration to ensure that Canada has a cadre of young professionals to lead the country in the future in this essential domain.

Given the theme of this year’s conference, my talk will focus on “opportunity” based on my personal experience and perspective.  Fundamentally, I am optimistic about the future of Canada’s space program and the opportunities for those now developing their careers in this domain, however, there are a few systemic issues that should be addressed in my opinion in order to ensure that the future is as optimal as possible and that the country can truly take advantage of the outstanding graduates coming through Canadian universities, strengthen the national program to make it more resilient and respond to the global opportunities offered.

As some background, as for most of you, my career started off in academia having obtained an MSc and PhD in physics from the University of Calgary studying aspects of the Earth’s middle and upper atmosphere using various spectroscopic devices in the infra-red part of the spectrum.   Interestingly, my doctoral work comprised, for the most part, in flying homemade Michelson interferometers operating in the far infrared into the stratosphere to study aspects of ozone depletion when the first warning of its depletion through chlorofluorocarbons was a hot topic. Consequently, I participated during the early days of Canada’s high-altitude balloon program flying my instruments on very large helium-filled balloons from Churchill, Manitoba, Yorkton, Saskatchewan and Gimli, Manitoba in the 1970s.  It is thus gratifying to me personally to see the success of SEDS’s CAN-SBX, Canadian Stratospheric Balloon Design Challenge, utilizing the CSA-funded Timmins Balloon Launch Facility, since I still consider undertaking research and engineering projects utilizing these systems to be particularly favourable for developing multiple skills related to instrument design and development and space activities in general.

After graduating with my doctoral degree, the opportunity arose to join the small company BOMEM, now part of ABB, in Quebec City where, as a research scientist, I had the opportunity to learn first-hand about the challenges faced by innovative, small Canadian space companies trying to survive and grow in a challenging environment where long-term funding is by no means assured.  It was an outstanding, stimulating and sometimes mildly apprehensive experience where job security was not a given and one was expected to wear many hats to ensure that there was a revenue stream to keep the enterprise solvent, something that, of course, I had not experienced in the cozy confines of a university during my graduate student days.

After four fascinating years with BOMEM, I accepted a position as a research scientist at the Space Division of the National Research Council of Canada based in Ottawa.   Almost all of my career henceforth was with the Government of Canada as the Space Division became transferred in 1989 to the newly created Canadian Space Agency.  Within the CSA, I moved through the ranks, becoming Director General of Space Science and then DG of Space Science and Technology for approximately the last 8 years of my career before retiring in 2015.

I tell this story because I feel that I have been extremely fortunate, more by luck than judgement, to have had the opportunity and to have experienced the culture, challenges and contrasts offered by what I call the three solitudes of academia, private sector and government.  It is evident to me that those who have not had the opportunity to experience first-hand the differences between and challenges inherent in these three solitudes can, too often, make assumptions that are not in the best interest of fostering an holistic program that is essential to achieve success.  Thus, I urge you, as you progress through your careers, to try and learn about the sectors where you currently have little experience or knowledge, including, if possible, spending time working within these sectors – you will find it extremely rewarding and, I guarantee, provide you with an invaluable and edifying experience and new understanding and appreciation of how all three sectors are essential for the success of Canada’s space program.

Another somewhat serendipitous opportunity that came my way about a decade after I had joined the Space Division of NRC was an invitation to participate as a faculty member of the International Space University’s 10-week Space Studies Program that was being held that year at York University in Toronto.  This experience literally changed my life and I became strongly involved in the early development of the University.  During that time, I had the pleasure of meeting and working with the ISU’s founders – Peter Diamandis, Todd Hawley and Bob Richards – who, of course, are also three of the individuals who founded the SEDS movement back in 1980.  Through the generosity and indulgence of my bosses at the CSA, I was able to teach, support and lead a number of initiatives within the organization throughout the 1990s including participating as a member of the Canadian Foundation for the ISU that was set up to solicit and provide scholarships to Canadian students to attend the annual SSP offerings around the world.  Unfortunately, after a period of more than a decade of being able to provide full scholarships to a dozen or so excellent Canadian students each year, the sponsor’s priorities changed, and the program had to be wound up.  Many Canadians still attend the ISU’s programs each year and, although generous partial scholarships are available, the cost is rather steep.  However, the ISU remains a unique experience for those who do attend since its 3I’s program of interdisciplinary, international and intercultural space studies opens one’s eyes to a different way of thinking about the global space enterprise.  Hopefully, a renewed Canadian scholarship program might arise in the future as Canada, through the CSA, revisits its student support offerings.

My career took somewhat of an unexpected turn as I was thinking about retiring in that I was nominated to serve as the Chairperson of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space – UN COPUOS – for two years between 2016 and 2018.  This did not come completely out the blue since during the latter part of my career at the CSA, I had become interested in how the global space enterprise works; in other words, how policies are developed and fostered with respect to decisions affecting space science, national space programs and international space endeavours in general.  This led to me first becoming a member of the Bureau of the Committee on Space Research – COSPAR, followed by being appointed a Vice President of the International Astronautical Federation – IAF, a Chair of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee – IADC, and, since 2008, a delegate and later Head of Delegation for Canada at COPUOS.

Exposure to these committees and organizations not only informs one about how national and international space programs work, but also how Canada ranks within what is truly an outstandingly successful global enterprise.   On the whole, Canada is considered a reliable, innovative and trustworthy second-tier nation in relation to space activities.  This is due to a number of past developments and successes due to outstanding leadership in the past by visionary decision makers  including being the third nation, after the Soviet Union and the United States of America, in building a successful satellite that was launched into space – Alouette 1 in 1962; a founding member of UN COPUOS; developing the world’s first national domestic communications satellite – Anik A1 in 1972; becoming the only non-European cooperative state of the European Space Agency in 1979; becoming a founding partner of the Cospas-Sarsat program in the same year; developing and delivering the iconic Canadarm-1 to NASA’s Space Shuttle program that was first flown in 1981; in 1985, becoming a full partner in the International Space Station program through the development of Canadarm-2 and Dextre; becoming a founding member, along with ESA and CNES, of the International Charter on “Space and Major Disasters” in 2000; and, most recently, becoming a charter member of the new NASA-led Artemis program and a supplier of a new 

autonomous robotic arm to the planned lunar Gateway space station.  These highlights do not include Canada’s leadership with respect to synthetic aperture radar and communication satellite technology, as well as an impressive number of innovative space science developments in optical, particle, geomagnetic and health sciences.

These developments have led to opportunities for Canada to be selected as a partner of choice for many new and innovative space missions and programs, opportunities that have allowed Canada to develop niche technologies and critical expertise that have spin-offs in other sectors.  As examples, one can note our essential contribution to the recently launched US$10 billion James Webb Space Telescope and, before that, our contribution of the MOPITT instrument to NASA’s Terra satellite that for the first time mapped, and after 22 years is still mapping, the global distribution of carbon monoxide in the lower atmosphere, as well as vital scientific instrument contributions to NASA’s Phoenix Mars mission, ESA’s SWARM space weather mission and NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission to a near-Earth asteroid; these being just a snapshot of approximately 200 space science investigations that Canadian space scientists have conducted over the past 60 years.

Even though Canadian scientists have been successful in developing and promoting new collaborations through cutting-edge scientific and engineering innovations, with some new opportunities still being pursued, except for a very limited number of developments, with space robotics and the RadarSat series being the exception, funding and support for follow-on activity of R&D in areas where Canada has established a lead have not been forthcoming.  Canada’s global rank in spending on space has been slowly falling; currently, according to a recent Euroconsult report that considered world government expenditures for space programs in 2021, Canada now ranks 12th globally at US$490 million with a significant gap between Canada and the top 10 countries where the annual government space expenditures start at approximately US$1.5 billion and rise rapidly.  Given the vital role that space activities play in the daily lives of Canadians, as well as the essential function that space derived data provide to the effective and efficient delivery of government services, coupled with the expertise that Canada has developed in space activities through its important past developments, it is surprising that Canada has not embraced and supported a more aggressive national space program.

This is not to suggest that Canada has not thought hard and long about its space program in the past and how funding that would provide the best “bang for the buck”, so to speak.  Starting in 1967 with Canada’s first space strategy, known as the “Chapman Report”, Canada has produced no less than five space-related strategies (1967, 1981, 2003, 2019, 2022), four space plans (1981, 1986, 1994, 1999) and a space framework (2014).  

The latest 2019 space strategy called; “Exploration, Imagination and Innovation”; develops a vision for Canada’s space program, with the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development noting that “Nearly every aspect of our daily lives is touched and made better by space innovation.  Canadian scientists and firms are reshaping the way space is being explored and utilized.  It has been estimated that the global space economy will triple in size over the next 20 years”.  “Today, the challenges we face on Earth, alongside the opportunities that the rapidly evolving space industry and advances in space science provide, demand that Canada again make strategic and visionary commitments to leverage space to maximize benefit for Canadians.  The Government is committed to helping unlock the full potential of the space sector and respond to the realities of the new and evolving space environment.  We will double down on our commitment to equip our youth to excel in the jobs of the future; to support scientific research, technology development and commercialization; and to enable firms to access investment and scale up”.  Heady words indeed!

Of itself, the strategy hits the right buttons, focussing on Ensuring Canada remains a leading space faring nation by joining the lunar Gateway mission; Inspire the next generation of Canadians to reach for the stars; Harness space to solve everyday challenges for Canadians; Position Canada’s commercial space sector to help grow the economy and create the jobs of the future; and, Ensure Canada’s leadership in acquiring and using space-based data to support science excellence, innovation and economic growth.

Strategies are, however, only one part of the process of delivering a program.  While they are essential to point the way and indicate priorities, they are not particularly useful without a plan on how the elements of the strategy are to be funded and delivered, hopefully with timelines and evaluations at specific points.  The only element of the 2019 strategy that came with specific funding attached related to the first element where the Government committed Can$2.05 billion over 24 years in relation to lunar exploration.  In addition, the Canadian Space Agency has launched both a satellite Earth observation AO program related to the fifth thrust of the strategy, on which I will elaborate in a minute, and a “Junior Astronaut” program that was proposed in the strategy. Furthermore, in relation to the second thrust of the strategy, the CSA have recently announced opportunities to support Canadian students to attend both the upcoming COSPAR Scientific Assembly in Greece in July as well as the International Astronautical Congress to be held in Paris in September.  If you have not already done so, I would urge you to look at the CSA website and apply since these are exciting opportunities to both present your work to peers as well as meet and learn from the global leaders who are shaping the future of space activities.

Interestingly, Canada released a new space-related strategy three days ago called “Resourceful, Resilient, Ready: Canada’s Strategy for Satellite Earth Observation”.  The document is a collaboration between the Canadian Space Agency, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and Natural Resources Canada, as well as several private sector and academic partners.  The announcement also included an additional $8 million in funding for the existing CSA-led smartEarth initiative as well as announcing 21 Canadian organizations that will share an initial $8 million in funding based on a January 2021 announcement of opportunity in relation to this program.  Clearly, this is a welcome announcement that establishes the importance of Canada’s satellite Earth observation program to deliver critical information related to climate change, enhance our collaborations with international partners, accelerate job creation and innovation, and, importantly, focus on skills development for students, including Earth observation opportunities.  Again, it is unfortunate that this strategy does not come with an accompanying plan of how the strategic elements are to be funded and delivered and, while $8 million is a welcome investment for small companies in today’s challenging fiscal environment, it does seem like pocket change compared to the previously announced investment in lunar exploration.

As most of you are aware, outer space is becoming “hot” again after a number of years where public interest in space activities waned considerably.  The extraordinary launch and deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope; the competition between Messrs. Bezos, Branson, and Musk to send ordinary folks into orbit or near Earth space; the plans of several nations to further explore and soon send humans back to the Moon, including the potential of a new “space race” between the US and China; the issues surrounding space debris, space mining, and space traffic management; the rapid implementation of constellations of many tens of thousands of satellites in low-Earth orbit offering the promise of truly global internet services; and the potential weaponizing of space highlighted by the recent Russian kinetic anti-satellite test have all hit the headlines recently.

This has been reflected in an upswing in activity in Canada including the possibility that 77 Canadian satellites might be launched this year and next according to a recent SpaceQ article.  This includes 15 Canadian cubesats sponsored by the CSA’s Canadian CubeSat Project, 10 satellites for Kepler Communications, 10 for GHGSat and 31 Lightspeed satellites for Telesat.  This is indeed a remarkable number and will, without question, provide new opportunities for students graduating with space experience from Canadian universities.  Of note, the latest State of the Canadian Space Sector report dated 30 March 2020 that details statistics gathered in 2018 noted that: “In 2018, 58% of Canadian space companies faced difficulties hiring personnel to the extent that positions went unfilled. The professions for which companies had the most difficulties finding employees were engineers, scientists and technicians, as well as marketing and sales personnel. Over the next five years, Canadian space companies will be looking for employees with sought-after skills related to software development, electrical engineering systems, mechanical engineering systems, as well as business development and commercialization”. 

In conclusion, outer space activities both globally and nationally are continuing to accelerate in funding, innovation, scope and importance.  This will provide significant opportunities for those who wish to contribute to the exciting programs now on offer or being rapidly developed.  The private sector is now preeminent and government programs will increasingly focus on supporting this sector to create jobs, innovation and intellectual property.  Canada has, over the past decade, seen its space program grow only marginally mainly due to tight budgets and a lack of priority in this area by the federal government.  However, thanks to the new Canadian space strategy of 2019, the recent accompanying EO strategy, new funding for exploration, a successful and expanding group of Canadian space SMEs and a new President of the Canadian Space Agency, a renewed optimism is emerging that should hopefully see new investments from both the public and private sector and thus fulfilling job opportunities for students who are currently studying in this field.   Two changes to the current government policy direction, however, would, in my opinion, make a very significant difference in the future success of Canada’s space program and opportunities for both the private and academic sectors: 1. plans detailing the funding, expectations, timelines and processes to deliver on the themes and objectives of the strategies would provide confidence to the private sector and academic institutions of the direction and commitment of the government to supporting the Canadian space program in the long-term; and, 2. ensuring that Canada’s space program becomes a priority of the government through the establishment of a transparent, whole of government approach and the creation a high-level advisory committee reporting to Cabinet and/or the Prime Minister that provides an independent focus through stakeholder consultations relating to areas in which Canada should concentrate, with the US President’s National Space Council being, perhaps, an interesting template.

I am personally very optimistic that opportunities to pursue an exciting and fulfilling career in space-related activities within Canadian private industry, academia or the federal government will grow, however, a little more focussed planning, funding and direction from the federal government would go a long way to ensure that this statement becomes reality.

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Dr. Kendall is the Faculty Emeritus of the International Space University. Dr. Kendall is also the past Chair of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (2016-2017). During his career he has held senior positions with the Canadian Space Agency including as the Director General of Space Science and Space Science and Technology.

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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