The Canadian Space Agency got a winning lottery ticket

5 Dec

This article by Harrison Ruess also appeared on Sun News Network.

Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to go on a spacewalk, on STS-100 in April 2001

Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to go on a spacewalk, on STS-100 in April 2001

In an announcement on Monday, December 2 that didn’t garner much fanfare, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) may have won the lottery – or at least been handed a potentially winning ticket.

In the announcement, Industry Minister James Moore laid out the government’s response to the findings of the Emerson Report, also known as the Review of Aerospace and Space Programs and Policies led by former minister David Emerson.

There are five key action items the Government of Canada will now undertake, including the release of a five-year plan for Canada’s space program to be released next year. Four of those action items, while excellent goals, are however written in – let’s call it – less than concrete language.

Words like “establishing a space advisory board” and “examining opportunities for the private sector to support the CSA’s activities” are great.

But these words don’t necessarily lead to significant, measurable results.

One of the action items however is different.

“The government will double its support of the Space Technologies Development Program.”

That’s right.

You read it here first.

And no, I’m not being sarcastic.

The Space Technologies Development Program (STDP) is run by the CSA with a mandate to, essentially, invent new technology.

Canadarm and Canadarm2 in space

Canadarm and Canadarm2 in space

The STDP works to find solutions to never-before-encountered problems, like “how do we use a robot to survey the underside of a Space Shuttle while it’s in orbit” kind of thing. It works to create projects that enable space missions to be successful. It also works to support industrial capacity through developing new products, processes and know-how.

The program currently receives a paltry $10 million annually. With Monday’s announcement, it will jump to $20 million by 2015; modest still, but at least respectable considering the potential payoffs.

The STDP program is important in different ways.

First is the impact that space technology has on each of our lives, every day.

Technologies like sun glasses that are scratch resistant and provide UV protection, water filters used by the Red Cross in disaster areas or on your camping trip, sports bras and workout clothes that ‘wick’ away moisture, cell phone cameras, and infrared thermometers that go in your ear to take your body’s temperature are all direct descendants of the space program.

The list of space technologies that have been adapted to benefit our lives does, very literally, fill books.

A significant Canadian contribution is the Canadarm that flew aboard NASA’s Space Shuttles for 30 years, and now the newer Canadarm2 that is a permanent fixture on the International Space Station.

Technology from that robotic arm – that we designed and built, right here in Canada – has now been applied to a miniature version that is capable of performing delicate surgery while inside MRI machines, as the doctor safely operates it remotely from outside.

Canadian astronauts

Canadian astronauts

Today, Canadarm’s baby cousin is saving lives.

And in space, the next generation of the Canadarm is something called DEXTRE – a robotic handyman that can potentially repair and refuel satellites, which could be big business in the years to come.

Which brings us to the economic impact of space development.

Space agencies, of course, have their own employees. The CSA also has contractors for some of its projects.

But private industry is where, ultimately, the majority of jobs – and wealth – is created from investment in the space program.

This is due to the nature of the projects being undertaken by space agencies. They’re not ordinary projects with ordinary goals.

The projects are novel.

The goals are, pardon the pun, out of this world.

Only this ground-breaking work can spur true innovation and invention.

Canadian robot DEXTRE

Canadian robot DEXTRE

As a space agency solves problems – in partnership with private industry – new technologies are developed. Once the technology is developed, the private sector is able to utilize that knowledge to create new products and new ways of doing things – all while employing Canadians.

And that drives our economy.

In Canada the aerospace and space sectors employee more than 170,000 people in well-paying jobs.

It contributes more than $27 billion to our economy.

But the CSA only received about $400 million in funding in 2012-13. That’s less than 0.2% of the federal budget.

And in a world where budgets are tight and spurring the economy is a priority, to say that the space sector provides a strong return on investment is an understatement.

Finally, space exploration has significant meaning for our national identity.

From technological achievements like the Canadarm to the landing pads that touched down on the Moon during the Apollo-era – yes, part of Neil Armstrong’s lunar lander was built in Canada – we have certainly left our mark.

The feet on NASA's lunar landers were built in Canada

The feet on NASA’s lunar landers were built in Canada

But ‘our mark’ isn’t just historical. It’s happening today, too.

Canadians built parts of rovers that are, as you read this, driving around on the surface of Mars. We launched satellites the help humanity to better understand how the weather works. We were one of the first nations to launch telecommunications satellites – and continue to be a global leader in this field.

And not to be overlooked, recently retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is arguably now the most famous astronaut since Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon in 1969.

We’re good at this stuff.

It drives our economy.

It inspires young and old alike.

And while this may seem like an a bit of an obscure announcement – doubling the funding of a program you’re probably never heard of – thanks to Mr. Moore, the CSA may now have the winning ticket – because who knows what the next invention that changes the world will be.

Though one thing is certain: today there is a better chance that it will be invented right here, at home.

Harrison Ruess on Twitter: @HarrisonRuess

The Emerson Report’s eight recommendations were:

Recommendation 1: The government explicitly recognize the importance of space technologies and capacity to national security, economic prosperity, and sustainable growth, and the Minister of Industry bring 10-year, 5-year, and annual government-wide priorities for the Canadian Space Program to Cabinet for discussion and approval each spring.

Recommendation 2: The government establish a Canadian Space Advisory Council, reporting to the Minister of Industry, with membership from industry, the research and academic communities, the provinces and territories, and federal departments and agencies.

Recommendation 3: A deputy minister-level Space Program Management Board be created to coordinate federal space activities, project-specific arrangements be put in place to ensure disciplined project management, and all agencies and departments with a role in the Canadian Space Program be required to report on how they are implementing priorities set by Cabinet.

Recommendation 4: The Canadian Space Agency’s core funding be stabilized, in real dollar terms, for a 10-year period; major space projects and initiatives be funded from multiple sources, both within and beyond the federal government; and increased international cooperation be pursued as a way of sharing the costs and rewards of major space projects and initiatives.

Recommendation 5: The scope of space projects, project timelines, and performance requirements be finalized as early as possible in the project definition phase.

Recommendation 6: Space asset and service procurement processes be competitive in nature and proposals be assessed on the basis of their price, responsiveness to scoped requirements, and industrial and technological value for the Canadian space sector.

Recommendation 7: Total funding for the Canadian Space Agency’s technology development programs be raised by $10 million per year for each of the next three years and be maintained at that level.

Recommendation 8: Where costs are modest and there is no risk to public safety, the government create conditions conducive to the expansion of space-related commercial activity.



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