Exactly 25 years after Canada's first astronaut captured this country's imagination by blasting into space, the country celebrates another extraterrestrial milestone this week with a unique spectacle planned by Canada's first space tourist.


Marc Garneau. the first Canadian in space, is now a Liberal MP and the party's science and technology critic. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))

Marc Garneau wound up on cereal boxes and had schools named for him after Oct. 5, 1984, when the young naval officer began an eight-day mission on the now-infamous space shuttle Challenger.

A quarter-century later, there have been no human visits to Mars or colonies on the moon. But Garneau says it's still been a pleasant surprise to see how far space travel has come.

As evidence he points to the ever-expanding International Space Station where, this week, a Canadian circus billionaire is preparing to stage a concert in 14 cities around the world from the comfort of his celestial conductor's chair.

Guy Laliberté is the country's first space tourist after having plunked down $35 million for round-trip airfare on a Russian spacecraft.

The first Canadian astronaut, now a 60-year-old Liberal member of Parliament, sees the trip as an example of progress. Garneau says he wouldn't have anticipated space tourism, or co-operation with the Russians, becoming a reality so soon.

"We've come a long way and I'm just very proud that I happened to be the very first to lead the charge," Garneau said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

"I'm really, really proud that 25 years later, Guy Laliberté represents the ninth Canadian in space."

Canadian investment small

Garneau says Canada can hold its head high, even though the Canadian Space Agency, with an annual budget of $300 million, doesn't have a lot of money compared with other space-faring nations.

The cost of space travel in large part explains why countries co-operate so much. But Garneau says he couldn't have foreseen the extent of that co-operation in 1984.

"The Cold War was still on," he said. "I would have never predicted that we would be working so intimately with the Russians — so that was a major surprise."

Since Garneau's first flight, eight professional Canadian astronauts have taken 15 flights into space, many of them enjoying several voyages into the cosmos. Garneau made three trips himself.

He says the initial plan was to have only three Canadian astronauts. NASA gave the green light to Garneau, Roberta Bondar (the first Canadian woman to reach space in 1992) and Steve MacLean, the current head of the Canadian Space Agency.

No Canadian space agency even existed at the time. It only came into existence in 1989, five years after Garneau's initial trip.

But Garneau, a Quebec City native, says the Americans gave Canada three more spots on their space shuttles as thanks for building the first robotic Canadarm, which is still in use today.

"There was no guarantee at the beginning that it (the Canadian space program) wasn't just going to stop after five years, after those three missions," Garneau notes.

Garneau says the country's future in space appeared to be assured only when Canada signed on in 1986 as one of the partners in the International Space Station.

But former Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean says there were problems with the construction of the space station — and that had Canadian politicians re-examining their commitment.

The closest call came amid a frenzy of cost-cutting by federal politicians as they struggled to eliminate a budget deficit in the early 1990s, around the same time the station was experiencing problems.

"Back in 1993, there were some serious delays in the space station program, and with those delays, Canada was incurring costs and I was part of the teams that looked at that," MacLean says.

"I think the proper questions were asked. A decision was taken to continue and we did."

Since Russian Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space in 1961, 500 men and women have travelled into the ether.

MacLean points out that Canadian technology was used to put together the space station, a giant orbiting lab now the size of two football fields.

Canadian technology key to space station

Along with supplying Canadarms for American space shuttles, there is also a large Canadarm on the space station and a two-armed robot called DEXTRE, which is used to perform routine maintenance.

"Without that technology, they could not put the station together the way we did," MacLean says.

But historian Chris Gainor complains that this country isn't accomplishing what it could.

"Canada has a bargain-basement space program," he says. "We've gotten good value for our money from the limited goals we've given for our space program."

The author of several books on Canada's role in space says the question is whether Canadians wanted the government to do more.

"We spend about $300 million a year on our space program and at first blush that sounds like a lot of money, but it's pretty small potatoes," Gainor said.

He noted that on a per-capita basis it's a fraction of what is spent by the Americans, Europeans, Russians and Japanese.

But Gainor stresses that Canadians have had good value for their money thanks to technological exports by Canadian aerospace firms.

Looking ahead to the next 25 years, both Garneau and MacLean say they hope Canada will be involved in future missions to the moon — and beyond.

Garneau, who also served as president of the Canadian Space Agency for four years, was elected to Parliament last year.

MacLean says Canadians may also see more flexible commercial space travel within the next quarter-century. He envisions travel so flexible that people use it to move faster between two points on Earth.

"Meaning you launch out of New York and an orbit-and-a-half later, which would be just over an hour-and-a-half later, you land in Australia," he said.

"I think that's something that could be done very close to the surface of the Earth that would be useful."

MacLean, who along with Garneau is one of Canada's six original astronauts, is keeping his fingers crossed.

"Perhaps by 2020 or 2025 we will return to the moon, and I certainly would like to see, before this generation dies, that a human lands on the surface of Mars."