Optimism Meets Falling off a Cliff at the Canadian Space Society Space Summit

CSA president Sylvain Laporte at the Canadian Space Society Space Summit 2017. Credit: SpaceQ.

Depending on who you talked to at the Canadian Space Society annual Space Summit you might come away thinking optimistically about the future of Canada’s space sector or that we’re on precipice about to fall off the cliff.

Why such diverse opinions?

It really comes down to where you sit in the space ecosystem. Long established companies spoke of “falling off a cliff”, while young inexperienced New Space companies and future entrepreneurs, saw opportunity, and hence were optimistic.

Which of these two views is right? That’s an easy question to answer. They’re both right.

The Established Large Players

Essentially large established companies are looking to the government for new infrastructure programs to help them maintain their workforce and bring in additional revenue.

Without new programs, revenue will be hit and workforce reductions may begin.

The good news is that the government understands this. It also understands that space should be declared a national strategic asset. It also understands that the space portfolio, civil and military, has been neglected and needs an infusion of new money.

The question is, will they announce something significant in the next budget?

And before I answer that question, there are couple of things to consider.

If past history of government support towards the space sector, Liberal and Conservative, is any indication, well, don’t hold your breath for a lot of new money.

There’s also that new Space Strategy to consider. What’s in it? Will it be a precursor to a Long Term Space Plan?

Even without know what’s in the new Space Strategy, all indications are that the next budget will include some new funding for the civil space program. That is, unless some dire economic news derails the budget process.

There’s also the next election to consider. While the next budget should include new money available before the election in October 2019, some large program items, if any, may be budgeted beyond the current mandate of the government. Which of course means funding may be contingent on whether the current Liberal government gets re-elected. A Conservative or NDP government might not be inclined to continue funding for Liberal initiatives.

It’s clear when you listen to MDA, Magellan and Honeywell representatives, especially Honeywell, that we’re close to falling off a cliff.

Honeywell, formerly COM DEV, has already seen a massive drop in its workforce. We reported in early September of layoffs amounting for 49% of their Cambridge facility workforce. Some of those layoffs are attributed to the type of work Honeywell does. Satellite component orders that Honeywell provides have tanked as companies reconsider their large Geostationary satellite purchase strategies.

Will MDA be next?

They certainly won’t see the same amount of workforce reduction, but it is possible that some of their workforce may have to be let go. Some of the RADARSAT Constellation Mission workforce will soon be without work. While the company can move some personnel around, not all of them can transition to other projects. And it’s not just the loss of jobs, it’s the loss of highly skilled experienced workers in specific areas that can’t easily be replaced once they are gone.

The good news for MDA is that as a division of the larger Maxar Technologies company they should see more work for other areas within the company.

New Space, New Opportunities

When SpaceQ recently talked to some New Space companies during and before the Summit, you get the sense that there’s optimism in their outlook. Part of that can be attributed to the owners of these companies being young and inexperienced in the Canadian marketplace. But there’s more. There’s a sense that there are more opportunities, and that venture funding might be soon be more readily available in Canada.

It also helps that the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) “has adapted.” That’s a message CSA president Sylvain Laporte telegraphed in his speech at the Summit.

Laporte said they had listened to the community and that they were in the process of “modernizing our processes.”

He cited the Space Technology Development Program where New Space companies felt threatened by large established companies. The solution? Make some funds available only to small businesses. The results according to Laporte is funding being allocated to these new companies, including some not normally associated with the space sector.

This is an important development. Before Laporte, this isn’t a change that would have happened.

Laporte wouldn’t mention any of the companies who had been selected as the contracts have not been signed or announced yet. The list of companies awarded contracts should be announced in the not too distance future. SpaceQ though has learned about one of those companies that will be awarded a contract and we can only say it is in a technology area which just a few years ago wouldn’t have been funded.

Although not really a new development, one CSA official told SpaceQ that they are looking to really increase Public – Private Partnerships going forward.

We’re Training Another Country’s Workforce

This one of those ongoing issues that just won’t go away.

Space Advisory Board (SAB) member Gordon Osinski who is an Assistant Professor and Director of Western University’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration, reiterated during his talk a finding from the SAB report that we’re still training students who are leaving Canada to work in the U.S. and elsewhere.

This isn’t a new phenomena. However, it seems to disproportionately affect the space sector.

There is some positive news. The CSA “has reinitiated” a program that allows students to be part of competition to attend large international conferences. The students must submit papers which will be selected for presentation at these conferences. As an example, the CSA brought about dozen students to Australia for the annual International Astronautical Congress. The CSA sees this as an opportunity for students to develop needed skills to succeed and to choose a career in the space sector and hopefully stay in Canada.

Staying in Canada though depends on whether there are jobs. That’s an area the government is trying to work on though their Innovation agenda. It will be some time yet before we see what the results are of this effort.

Contact Your Member of Parliament

Heading into the next budget cycle space industry and advocacy associations are working on a plan to get all of their collective members out in force to contact their local Members of Parliament to talk to them about the space program and its need for new funding.

That program should be rolling out soon. It’s the first time in my recent memory that such a broad effort has been undertaken.

Military Space is Getting a Boost

While we still don’t know what specific programs are going to get in the way of funding, we do know that the Department of National Defense’s Space Division is getting a serious boost in personnel.

In his speech at the summit, newly appointed and promoted Brigadier-General Kevin G. Whale, Director General & Component Commander – Space, said over the next five years he will be tripling his staff, adding 120 new positions.

For more on the Military space program and Brigadier-General Whale’s speech please read our previous story from the Summit on this topic; Innovation of Defence Excellence Needs Start-ups.

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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