By Tom Spears, OTTAWA CITIZEN | November 16, 2013

Industry and university experts say what they’d like to see in a 10-year vision from Canadian Space Agency president Walter Natynczyk. The Canadian Space Agency’s new boss is working on a 10-year plan for an agency that has set no priorities since the 1990s. Industry and university space experts have been pleading for years for a plan telling them where the biggest source of space funding wants to go.

On Friday, some of them said what they want CSA president Walter Natynczyk to do.

 

  • Tell hardware builders what to build:

Companies such as Com Dev, Neptec Design Group, ABB and the biggest player, MacDonald Dettwiler, can build space cameras, lasers, telescopes, satellite instruments and even Mars rovers.

Canada can’t do it all, though. Someone needs to tell the builders what their biggest customer — the Canadian Space Agency — will pay for. For a decade, there’s been no such plan.

Does it want to go to Mars? Study Earth from space? Develop space-based communications? Industry needs to know.

“There’s is immense value in having such a plan, knowing our government’s intents,” said Jacques Giroux of ABB, which builds remote sensing instruments for satellites in Quebec City. “In the space business, things take time to materialize.”

  •  Wave the home team’s flag:
    “That’s an easy one,” says Chris Herd at the University of Alberta. He and other Canadians are participating in U.S.-based proposals for instruments on the Mars 2020 mission, which would land and bring Mars rocks back to Earth.

“If any of these proposals are successful, then we would have Canadians actually working on the Mars 2020 mission, assuming that Canadian-based funding is provided for their support (for travel and graduate students),” he writes. “But simply getting a letter from the CSA saying ‘we support these applications and we will be happy to explore mechanisms for funding in the future’ seems almost impossible.”

Funding commitment, he says, is critical.

  • Think about life support:
    Mike Dixon is a University of Guelph professor who specializes in how living plants can sustain astronauts on long trips — maybe to Mars.

“I am hoping to re-engage the CSA in the research and technology developments related to the field of biological life support for space exploration (in which Canada currently leads the world),” he writes from Paris, where he’s meeting with the European Space Agency. “We have the latest generation of relevant infrastructure at the U of Guelph and the technology transfer and commercialization opportunities available to our industry sponsors are many and varied. Indeed the ‘economic engine’ potential of this field for Canada is enormous.”

  • Patch Canada’s international reputation:
    Canada used to be a go-to country to build things (Canadarms, space “vision systems”, instrumentation on the Mars Phoenix probe) but now we dither and can’t commit, and other countries know it. So we need commitment and dollars, says Alain Berinstain, formerly the CSA’s director of planetary exploration and space astronomy. He left the CSA this year citing the federal government’s “ideological disrespect for the role of science and scientists,” and wants to run as a Liberal.

In the space business, “We (Canada) are still a member of the club. It’s more a matter of trust,” he said. “If all we do year after year is talk about ‘maybe collaborating in a space mission if we get funding from the government,’ that’s code for ‘you can’t rely on us.’“Being able to commit to projects instead of staying forever in research phases — that has to be there.”

  • Decide what’s different this time:
    Steve MacLean put enormous effort into writing a long-term plan in 2008. The federal cabinet turned it down without saying why. Little has changed in the space business since then, so will it be different this time around? Some insiders say MacLean’s work was so extensive that most of it could be re-submitted today.

 

  • Spend:
    The agency’s “A-base” budget has stayed flat since 1999. And something else happened, a problem known to actuaries already: Canadian hardware is living longer than anyone expected. The original Radarsat, other satellites and our support for the International Space Station are all lasting past the design life. Continuing to support them costs money that was never budgeted to last this long. That takes away money for new projects. For instance, Canada had committed to support the space station until 2015, but extended that to 2020. As well, the engineers needed to support the old aren’t the same people who will design future technology. Again, training and keeping people with the new skills requires separate funding from supporting the existing ones.

 

  • Plan for an era of mining asteroids and the moon:
    No past space plan has contemplated it, but many eyes are on mining space rocks, and even a private company (Planetary Resources) is involved. Alberta’s Chris Herd suggests, however, that Canada has too few people skilled in studying space rocks, such as our “treasure trove” of meteorites.

“The CSA needs to step up and really start funding research and training in these areas. They need to stop making the excuse that it’s only NSERC’s purview, and take some ownership of this critical part of the space exploration landscape in Canada.”

  • Remember what Emerson said:
    Last November, former Conservative cabinet minister David Emerson announced that Canada’s space program has “foundered” in the past decade, with a lack of clear priorities, uneven performance and unpredictable funding.

“This cannot continue,” Emerson said when he released his report. “Canada’s national interests demand that we make effective use of space to unlock wealth, secure our coastlines and borders, protect our population and environment and deliver services.”

  • And finally, boldly go …
    What if Canada did what no one else does?

At the University of New Brunswick, John Spray thinks we could carve out a role in robotics, repairing and refueling satellites, and dragging dead ones out of harm’s way.

“Canada has a very good pedigree in space robotics,” he said. We could “invest in being the garage you phoned when your car breaks down in space, and go and service the satellite or push it out” to where it doesn’t cause crashes, or make it splash down on Earth.

“We could take a leadership role,” he says.

“This would not be cheap,” but he says creating these skilled jobs would ripple through the economy.

“I think it should be bold. It might be a good time to do this.”

tspears@ottawacitizen.com

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