The head of a leading space company is complaining that Canadian Space Agency operations are being hindered because of a lack of leadership.
Since Marc Garneau left in November 2005 for his first run at federal politics, the Montreal-based CSA has had four presidents. Three of them have acted as interim heads of the agency.
"I think the lack of leadership for space in Canada has had consequences on our ability to fulfil our ambitions," John Keating, the CEO of COM DEV International Ltd., told the Canadian Press.
"I think that we had stronger leadership many, many years ago," the head of the Cambridge, Ont., space hardware firm said in an interview.
"We had clarity of objectives, we had a comprehensive and very effective long-term space plan which led to the creation of the capability that exists in Canada today."
Space agency insiders, who don't want to be interviewed on the record, have also expressed frustration at the leadership vacuum and the handling of the situation by the Tory government.
Keating said over the last few years, Canada has started to drift away from the "vibrant, capable, talented space community" that once existed.
The top post at the CSA is being filled temporarily by Guy Bujold, who leaves in October to take over as president of Canarie, an Ottawa-based internet development company.
Bujold replaced Laurier Boisvert, who left in December 2007 after only nine months on the job.
Boisvert, a former president and CEO of Telesat Canada, was appointed to run the space agency in April 2007.
Two other officials from within the agency filled in temporarily between Garneau and Boisvert.
Keating said the next president should be passionate about the Canadian space sector.
"This individual should have a strong understanding of the benefits that it could bring to Canada and to the world and should have the capacity to communicate that effectively, both inside and outside of government."
Former astronaut touted as next agency head
Several names have been suggested by space industry representatives as possible candidates for the position.
Among them is former astronaut Dave Williams, who retired March 1. Since being selected as an astronaut in 1992, Williams flew on two space shuttle missions.
He has also worked with NASA in Houston, Texas, as director of the space and life sciences directorate.
Industry Minister Jim Prentice recently appointed Williams to an advisory committee on the Canadian Space Agency.
Prentice, who oversees the space agency, says he has a list of potential candidates for the position. But he wouldn't name names during a recent visit to the agency.
"There are individuals who have expressed an interest and we'll ensure those individuals are factored into the decision-making," Prentice said.
Big picture needs to be considered: Bjarni Tryggvason
Fellow astronaut Bjarni Tryggvason, who is retiring in June after almost 25 years as an astronaut, describes Williams as a "big thinker."
Tryggvason says there's clearly been difficulty getting the right leadership over the last few years, adding that government departments have found it difficult to work with the agency.
"We really need to get someone in there who is really going to look at the big picture," he said in an interview.
"[The agency] has to be driven by the needs of these other government departments; forestry, fisheries, oceans, energy, mines and resources."
Tryggvason, one of the original six Canadian astronauts, says the next big challenges for the CSA are environmental issues and climate change.
"There has to be better co-operation so we can actually address those issues in a co-ordinated fashion."
Other names mentioned for the job of CSA president are Claude Lajeunesse, the president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada and Dr. Karl Doetsch, the chairman of the board of Athena Global, a Quebec space consulting firm.
Doetsch has been acting CSA president in the past and has also served as president of the International Space University in France.
Advocacy urged for presidency
Iain Christie, the director of business development for Neptec Design Group, says the next president should be someone who can advocate to make space a priority within government.
Neptec, an Ottawa-based company, built the laser-camera system which allows astronauts to conduct detailed visual inspections of the space shuttle while in orbit.
Christie says what's needed is someone "to explain why greater government participation in the space sector is important in the national interest."
Prentice said his department has been working with the advisory committee, of which Williams is a member, to find a new space agency boss.
"The whole process of the selection of the permanent head of the Canadian Space Agency is something that I will welcome their advice on," he added.
NDP Industry critic Peggy Nash complained about the revolving door at the CSA and government underfunding.
"If the government wants to have a space industry, it must fund it, it must provide strategic direction and put the appropriate leadership and staffing in place to do that," she said in an interview.