Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Canada's "Next Top Astronauts" Not Diverse Enough, More Rover Funding & Private Sector Science

          By Henry Stewart

For the week of July 10th, 2017, here are a few of the stories we're tracking in the Commercial Space blog:

Perhaps they self-identify as visible minorities? New Canadian astronauts Joshua Kutryk and Jennifer Sidey visit the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) "rover room," essentially an indoor sandpit, during a a tour of the CSA headquarters in Saint-Hubert, QC on July 4th, 2017. Photo c/o Graham Hughes / Canadian Press.
  • When you define a space program by the excellence it encourages, the science it validates, the new technology it develops and the international partnerships it helps to cement, that's one thing. 
But if you define a space program in political terms and its astronauts as representative "role models" for the rest of the country to emulate, then it's no longer a space program. 
It's a social program. 
But with that said, it's important to note that the July 9th, 2017 Toronto Star editorial, "Canada’s space program has a diversity problem," does make two useful points.
First of all, Canada’s astronauts (fourteen in total, since the program began in 1983) are "exclusively white, and skewed male, problematic trends out-of-step with national demographics." 
Secondly, the Federal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has begun holding up Canada's astronauts and their accomplishments "as ambassadors for science and technology travelling the country encouraging young Canadians to pursue their education in STEM fields,” to a far greater extent than previous Federal governments.
As outlined in the July 1st, 2017 Canadian Press post, "Justin Trudeau unveils Canada’s newest astronauts at Canada 150 event," our current Prime Minister even took time out of his busy schedule to introduce "Canada's next top astronauts," Canadian Forces pilot Joshua Kutryk and University of Cambridge lecturer Jennifer Sidey, during a July 1st, 2017 Canada Day speech on Parliament Hill.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. Visiting schools and acting "inspirational" is certainly an easier gig than "boldly going" where no one has gone before. It's also cheaper than building rockets or begging rides on rockets built by other nations and doesn't really require much more than a terrestrial based travel agent for support. 
This could be a part of the reason why, as outlined in the June 22th, 2017, post, "Classic Trek Offers Advice to the Canadian Space Industry on Our Latest Postponed Space Plan," our latest Canadian space plan is being postponed. 
Be inspired by that.
A CSA infographic showing the official reasons why Canada continues to invest in rover technology. Among the unofficial reasons, at least as outlined in the June 4th, 2017 post, "Part 12: A History of the Canadian Space Program - Policies & Lessons Learned Coping with Modest Budgets," is an intentional CSA decision to "not branch out into entirely new technologies for which we have no heritage," which is kind of a weird decision for an innovative research and development organization to make, especially if it wants to remain an innovative research and development organization. But so long as the CSA has made rovers in the past, it's an easy decision to continue building them. Graphic c/o CSA.  

  • Although officially waiting for guidance from the Space Advisory Board (SAB), the latest Federal government initiative to provide guidance to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the CSA continues to develop rover technology in the hope that some other space agency will end up buying it.
As outlined in the July 7th, 2017 Federal government Buy and Sell procurement website post, "Development of enabling space technologies (9F063-170039/A)," Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC), on behalf of the CSA, is soliciting notices of proposed procurement (NPP) to develop and advance three "enabling priority technologies" for potential future international collaborations relating to unmanned rover development.
The three programs include: 
  • The development of an "autonomy software framework (ASF)" to facilitate unmanned exploration. Up to $800K CDN has been allocated for this project.  
  • The development of "Mobility & Environmental Rover Integrated Technology (MERIT)." Up to $1,350K CDN has been allocated to this project. 
  • A "scalable wheels & advanced rover motion (SWARM) program," to develop improved wheels for potential rovers. Up to $350K CDN has been allocated to this project.
The latest NPP supposedly builds on previous CSA work in this area, beginning in 2009, when the Federal Conservative government under then Prime Minister Stephen Harper allocated $110Mln CDN in funding to the CSA as part of its 2009 Economic Action Plan to cover rover development, a "next generation Canadarm," and other smaller projects.
However, as outlined  in the September 26th, 2016 post, "The REAL Reason Why Canada Won't Be Participating in the NASA Resolve Mission Anytime Soon, Probably!," the CSA has only been allocated funding for rover research and development, not for a final flight version. 
Out standing in their field. None of the Canadian rovers pictured here are actually flight ready and none of the designs have ever been sold to any national space agency or private corporation. But there's sure a lot of them and that's gotta count for something. For a complete listing of the CSA developed rovers shown in this photo, check out the October 28th, 2016 CSA post on "The Canadian Space Agency's Fleet of Rovers."

Given that the estimated cost of a flight ready CSA designed rover could easily be well north of several hundred million Canadian dollars, its unlikely that NASA or the European Space Agency (ESA), which are both funding indigenous rovers as part of their own exploration programs, would contribute to the completion of a Canadian built rover. 
Other space agencies, and even private contractors, such as the US based Google Lunar X-Prize team Moon Express (MoonEx), last profiled in the June 5th, 2017 post, "Only Seven Years after Bob Richards Left Canada, His Rover is Going to the Moon," are also building their own rovers and don't need any assistance from the CSA.
But sources in the CSA still believe the space agency could sell at least a few component parts for someones else's rover and therefore will continue on with the research.
Aim high!
The BoldlyGo Institute, a "non-governmental, non-profit," US based organization "founded to address highly compelling scientific questions through new approaches to developing space science missions," is seeking private funding for missions like Project Blue (above), a space telescope designed to directly image extrasolar planets in the Alpha Centauri system. Photo c/o BoldlyGo Institute.

  • Meanwhile, back in the land of "boldly going," private sector start-ups are raising funds to perform scientific experiments. 
As outlined in the July 10th, 2017 Space Review post, "Seeking private funding for space science," private space capabilities in this area are proliferating. 
The article provided an overview of the presentations made at the 2017 Dawn of Private Space Science conference, which was held at Columbia University from June 3rd - 4th, 2017. 
The event attempted to connect "key players in the private space industry, space policy, and science to encourage collaboration on scientific research objectives in space." 
For more, check out upcoming stories in the Commercial Space blog.
Henry Stewart is the pseudonym of a Toronto based aerospace writer.

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