Tag Archives: Politics

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.



Letter to the Editor – a brief case for space

4 Oct

Curiosity Rover on Mars

Curiosity Rover on Mars

On October 1, 2013 the National Post ran an editorial by Jesse Kline titled “What happens if they shut down the government and no one cares?

It was an interesting article, except for one line that says spending money on NASA (and Mars specifically) is “wasted”. Naturally I responded.

The National Post did not run my letter, I suspect, because they don’t particularly care about NASA funding one way or the other.

It also seems that no one else picked up on that NASA funding line in the story either, based on a scroll through of all the comments that followed it.

Conveniently I have a blog and can run my own letter, which follows below.

This is a brief case for space.

Re: “Jesse Kline: What happens if they shut down the government and no one cares?”

Mr. Kline wrote on Tuesday, October 1, 2013 a compelling article about the various government services that will and will not be impacted by the US Government shutdown and whether American citizens will be bothered by this.

And while I do agree in large measure with Mr. Kline’s arguments – in particular the view that the US Government has become far too large – there is one line that I cannot disagree with more strongly. The line shows that Mr. Kline fails to understand the impact that space science and exploration has on our lives every day:

“Due to the gov’t shutdown, all public NASA activities/events are cancelled or postponed until further notice,” read a tweet sent by the U.S. space agency. Can the world survive without fresh pictures of space popping up on Twitter feeds, or government programs that waste millions of dollars sending robots to Mars? We’re about to find out.

The answer is simply “no”.

The quality of life that many people – including apparently Mr. Kline – take for granted is based on technology developed for or by NASA (and other space agencies) over the past 60 years.

Indeed, the number of ways that space technology touches our lives every day is a number too big to count. And I’m not talking about the obvious examples such as small computers and GPS/communication/weather/Earth-observation satellites (many of which Mr. Kline probably used to file and distribute this story).

I’m talking about the less obvious examples, but still traceable directly to the space program: scratch resistant lenses and UV protection in glasses which NASA developed in the 60s for the visors in spacesuit helmets; athletic shoe insoles which were developed to assist astronauts walking on the Moon; the prevalence of cordless tools, again thanks to Moon walks; your underwear – or any underwear that “whisks” away moisture – is derived from astronaut clothing; water filtration and recycling systems that are used in disaster areas and developing countries to provide safe drinking water were designed for spacecraft with limited water available; cell phone cameras are the result of NASA requiring small, lightweight, hi-resolution cameras for probes; panoramic photo-stitching software on your phone or PC is the direct result of the “wasted millions” on rovers headed for Mars; the Canadarm robotic arm which has been transformed into a medical tool used to perform delicate surgery and save lives; and finally body temperature thermometers that go in your ear, rather than your mouth – or somewhere even worse. Plus many, many more.

Though the last example – thermometers – is perhaps the most illustrative example of how space research impacts life here on Earth. The scientists who developed the technology didn’t care about measuring anyone’s body temperature. Rather, they were working on a way to detect the surface temperature of distant stars using infrared light. Once the technology was developed though, it occurred to other scientists that the technology could be adapted to other applications – such as thermometers that go into our ears and measure our body temperature in a few seconds.

Above and beyond the direct application of new technologies, there is the economic benefit of investing in space – keeping in mind that space agencies are not funded well. In the US, NASA’s entire annual budget accounts for about 0.6% of the federal budget. In Canada, the Canadian Space Agency accounts for less than 0.2% of our federal budget. Nevertheless, there are entire industries – employing thousands of private sector skilled workers – based on the innovation that results from investment in space.

The end result is a clear picture showing how much benefit humanity derives from such a small investment in space agencies. And it might sound counter-intuitive, but it’s important to remember that the best way to improve life down here on Earth is through investment up there in space.


Harrison Ruess,
Toronto, Ontario
Twitter: @ZamboniPilot

Canadarm being used to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990

Canadarm being used to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990

Government shutdown hits NASA

1 Oct

This isn’t a political debate. It’s simply a bunch of adults behaving like four-year-olds who don’t care what the implications of their actions are.

And of course it hits all government services – including NASA – who has connections and responsibilities far beyond American borders.

To that end, I tweeted this today:

And of course my friend and York Universe colleague Jesse came up with the most apt response possible:

There is a serious problem in the US…and it’s not Obamacare, it’s not the economy, it’s not debt ceilings (though those are all significant issues). The most serious problem facing American politics today is indeed the American Politicians themselves. They are far more concerned with optics and grandstanding than they are with delivering any sort of results for the people they supposedly represent.

Wake up America. Turf ’em.

Quit ‘yer whining!

8 Jun

I’ve made a few comments about the Quebec student protests here and there on Facebook or to my friends, but I haven’t said much about it here.

Until right now. Jacques Villeneuve has inspired me with his comments yesterday about the protests:

“It’s time for people to wake up and stop loafing about. It’s lasted long enough,” Villeneuve told reporters at a cocktail benefit that kicked off the four-day Grand Prix festivities.

“We heard them. We listened. They should stop. It’s costing the city a fortune. It makes no sense.”

As for their parents, Villeneuve said: “I think these people grew up without ever hearing their parents ever tell them, ’No.’ So that’s what you see in the streets now. People spending their time complaining. It’s becoming a little bit ridiculous. They spoke, we heard, and now it’s time to go back to school.”

He said that in a democracy, people can vote to turf governments, and speak their mind between elections to make themselves heard — but they have to know when to give it a rest.

“That’s what democracy is. We vote for people — and if you’re not happy, then you vote for other people the next time around. And if you’re not happy you complain, they listen, and that’s it,” he said.

“Same with your parents: ’Daddy, mommy, I don’t like this.’ Well, go back to bed now.” Villeneuve said he was raised to believe in hard work, and not imagine money will fall from the sky.

(source: National Post)

Bang on.

When a democratically elected government makes a decision you don’t like (or do like for that matter), because we are lucky enough to live in a free country, you have absolutely every right to let them know. You also have every right to make some noise so that other people, if they agree with you, can also tell the government that – in your opinion – they have taken the wrong decision.

Maybe the government will agree and change their course, or maybe they won’t.

As I think about this today, I think back to a Political Science class I took in first (or it might have been second?) year while I was at the University of Guelph. One day the professor asked what is the best political system?

There were a number of suggestions put forward, mainly revolving around systems where corporations didn’t have any rights, systems where the government ran the economy because they knew best, and so on. Being at a reasonably left-wing university in a political science class, none of these answers were surprising to me. Most of the suggestions amounted to some version of socialism, though in fairness not all.

After listening to all the ideas, I raised my hand and put forward a rather crazy suggestion: Democracy was the best system.

You should have seen the looks on people’s faces.

I shit you not, you would have thought I just drowned a cute animal in front of everybody. They were flabbergasted.

Their reactions made sense though in the context of how they thought/viewed the world: They were totalitarians. They believed that they knew best about how the country should operate. How the economy should function. How each individual person should live their lives and what they needed to be happy. Democracy would stand in the way of them “fixing” things.

I of course do not feel this way about it. I believe that they best person to run your life is you. The best person to run my life is me. And hence I believe in the best political system that allows for this to happen – a free democracy.

If you want to drink fair trade coffee and only eat organic lettuce, in a free democracy you can do that. If you want to drive a Hummer and drink Starbucks, you can do that too.

And best of all when elections come around you get your vote, just like everyone else, as to who your representative will be.

The big problem with this for some people though – and this is where Mr. Villeneuve is precisely right – is when you don’t win in a free election, you have to accept this. You have to accept that you didn’t get your way. You have to accept that people didn’t agree that your way/your opinion was the best one. You have to accept that, as Jacques put it, you have been told “No.”

Then in a few years, there will be another election. You can make your arguments for the policies that you believe in. You try to convince people that you are right, and the causes you believe in are the most important. Perhaps people will agree, perhaps they won’t.

But when they don’t – and trust me, they’re disagree far more than they agree – you do not have the right to run around crying about it – and disrupting everyone’s lives – endlessly. It can be a humbling experience to be told “no”, but it’s an important lesson in life.

Go back to school, lesson learned.