Monday, October 03, 2011

A Short Canadian Space History Lesson

It goes without question that the current status of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) leaves much to be desired. Budget cuts are expected in the near future (just as soon as the 2009 stimulus funding winds down), no further CSA astronaut trips have yet been announced to follow-up on Chris Hadfields upcoming stint in 2013 to command the International Space Station (ISS) and more and more CSA project managers seem needed at CSA headquarters in order to supervise fewer and fewer funded space projects.

Page 8 of the Thursday, August 31st, 1967 issue of the Vancouver Sun.

It's hard to believe that, within the memory of many alive today, the CSA was thought to be the answer to the continuing advancement of Canadian space science, the key to the further development of the Canadian space industry and the core of the Canadian space strategy planning process.

Unfortunately, that was then and this is now. 

These days, the focus of Canadian space activities seems to be on school trips (for example, the September 27th, 2011 CSA media advisory trumpeted Hadfields September 28th morning visit to JL Ilsley High School where he spoke with high school students along with his visit to the Halifax Discovery Centre where he spoke later in the day with grade 5-6 students) and entertainment events such as the 14th annual induction ceremony for Canada’s Walk of Fame (where Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar was inducted, along with actress Sandra Oh, stand-up comedian Russell Peters, rock legend Burton Cummings, tennis star Daniel Nestor and author Mordecai Richler according to the October 2nd, 2011 Postmedia News article "Roberta Bondar Sandra Oh inducted into Walk of Fame").

Canadian actress Sandra Oh shares top billing with astronaut Roberta Bondar at the 14th annual induction ceremony for Canada’s Walk of Fame. Bondar wore pants.

At least CSA president Steve MacLean was in Deippe, New Brunswick last week providing details of what he foresees as being Canada's space future, according to the September 23rd, 2011 New Brunswick Business Journal article "Satellite technology holds big potential: Space agency head."

Unfortunately, these sorts of initiatives seem few and far between when compared to the ongoing opportunities for promoting "entertainment" and encouraging "education."

The more typical CSA reactions to their declining fortunes seems mostly to revolve around issuing many requests for proposals (RFP's). The most recent RFP is for further study of the Polar Communication and Weather (PCW) satellite project, an already well studied (but until now, mostly unfunded) constellation of two satellites officially and optimistically scheduled for launch in 2017, according to the October 1st, 2011 Montreal Gazette article "Space agency eyes launch of two Arctic satellites."

Proposed PCW molniya orbit.
It is expected that this new study will be added to previous studies on the topic (such as the Department of National Defence (DND) September 2008 "Phase 0" study which "proved" that PCW "could provide broadband continuous 24/7 communications services throughout all of the Arctic and improve climate change monitoring and weather forecasting" according to the CSA webpage outlining the PCW mission and the July 2009 CSA contract to the Canadian industrial consortium led by BC based Macdonald Dettwiler (MDA) for a 12 month "Phase A Mission Analysis and Concept Definition study").

Total cost of the PCW project (including the studies) is expected to be $600 million CDN should the project ever receive enough money for something to actually get built.

Of course, once upon a time, things were different.

According to the August 31st, 1967, Vancouver Sun article titled "Space Agency for Canada Urged by Science Council" the Science Council of Canada (a Canadian government advisory board which existed from 1966 to 1993 and functioned to bring issues related to science policy to the attention of the Federal government) the creation of a Canadian space agency was once considered necessary for the:
  • Advancement of Canadian capability in the science and technology of the upper atmosphere and space;
  • Furthering development of Canadian Space industry;
  • Planning and implementation of an over-all space program for Canada.
Unfortunately for the Science Council, Canada had to wait another twenty years, but patient lobbying eventually paid off and in March 1989, the CSA was finally established by the Canadian Space Agency Act.

And it's hard not to argue that Canadians have been well served by our space agency, at least up until recently.

But it's also worth noting that the biggest recent Canadian successes in space (the Canadian astronaut corps, the Canadarm and the RADARSAT program) can each trace their gestation and early development back to the period long before the CSA's creation.

Perhaps the current expertise of the CSA relates more to administration than it does to innovation which would be a shame since what Canada really needs right now is to know is where our future Canadarms, RADARSAT programs and astronaut explorations are going to come from.

The CSA might need to spend some time thinking about this over the next little while, before the Ottawa budget cutting hatchet is released and the promise once imagined by the Science Council of Canada back in the 1960's is finally silenced.

1 comment:

  1. I think expecting the Canadian Space Agency to have a cohesive, major goal driven all inspiring space program is the wrong way to look at it. The past has taught us that Canada is just too small in funding terms for anything but specific small programs - such as the arctic weather communications satellite etc. The funding is way to thin to spread around and a focused approach is best.

    Remember that in the United States it was the private sector that "GAVE UP" on NASA and went it alone, private funding and all. NASA saw that these upstart companies were going to drive the new space programs over the next decade on, and they jumped on board. The old guard is still trying to hold onto "big space" but the battle is already over, they just won't accept it.

    By the same token Canadian industry must step up essentially on its own and put its stake in the ground in NEW space, whatever sub-sector that may be, and go it alone, international funding and all. If you've got a key new technology, way of doing something and it takes foreign VC capital to get you going, then go for it. Remember space is all around us. You can access it from anywhere on the planet including the location of your company.

    Small Canadian space enterprises must think, position and execute a global strategy (extra solar if you will). For every billionaire that started a space company in the US, 10 more started with 2 guys in a garage. Don't discount your opportunities and corporate attractiveness either because you are based in Canada or have issues with the CSA's space leadership.

    The CSCA (Canadian Space Commerce Association) needs to sound the horn (louder) and take the leadership role in commercial space in Canada. Don't waste time waiting for the CSA to stand up, they can't, they won't!

    Brian Feeney


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