Supporters say space spending is justified despite the pandemic: Don Pittis

As we wait for SpaceX's launch on Saturday, supporters say public fascination with the first private-sector human space voyage is only one sign of the importance of “NewSpace," the emerging commercial spaceflight industry.

Saturday's private sector SpaceX launch a reminder of benefits of space research

After a weather delay, two U.S. astronauts will prepare again tomorrow to launch on the private sector rocket created by Elon Musk's SpaceX. But how to justify space spending in a time of pandemic? (Reuters)

This week's reports by the Canadian military of appalling conditions in long-term care homes during the pandemic illustrates a perennial challenge for those who insist that governments need to spend more on space research.

When people around the world are starving and many in the United States can't afford health care, how can governments possibly justify the necessary billions of dollars for rocketing a couple of human beings into orbit as Elon Musk's SpaceX Crew Dragon is preparing to do on Saturday?

It is the kind of question that Christine Tovee, a space engineer, aerospace administrator and still aspiring astronaut, knows very well.

"That is always a conversation I have," she said.

Tovee, who went from high school in Sudbury, Ont., to MIT, to the highest reaches of the European aerospace industry and now offers her 20 years of experience to Canada's Space Advisory Board, is convinced that it's not an either or situation.

An explosion of invention

Of course, if the enormous 4.4 per cent of the U.S. federal budget that went to the first space race to the moon had not been spent that way, it almost certainly would not have gone to the poor instead. And according to the precepts of Keynesian economics now being touted by supporters of Modern Monetary Theory, maybe a new space race this time with China could help restart the post-COVID-19 economy.

But Tovee is convinced that spending on space is a crucial part of Canada's strategic and economic preparation for the future. She says investment in space research has already paid back in spades and that failing to keep up with countries such as Britain and Australia in nurturing the growing, commercially driven field dubbed NewSpace will be bad for all Canadians.

As an adviser to business space startups at the Creative Destruction Lab, Tovee has seen an explosion of invention and entrepreneurship. And she says building technology for the demanding rigours of space flight leads to valuable scientific breakthroughs.

International Space Station crew member David Saint-Jacques of Canada gestures after donning space suits shortly before the launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, on Dec. 3, 2018. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

"I've run engineering teams, and one of the best things to do to get the best solutions out of people is to make the constraints so intense, I guess, that they have to change their way of thinking," she said.

With no air, no gravity and an impossible distance to the nearest hospital, preparing for space may be the most intense way of discovering new approaches.

Tovee says the real-world, as opposed to gaming, use of virtual reality was for a project she worked on that flew in a shuttle mission more than a decade ago. That science is now being used in remote medicine where doctors cannot make direct physical contact with patients.

"Even that technology that I worked on 20 years ago is now really finding its way into real-world, on-the-ground, on Earth challenges that are very relevant to COVID at the moment," Tovee said.

When Saskatchewan-born space pioneer Gordon Shepherd, 88, talks about an earlier era of Canadian space research, his most exciting memory was not Saturn launches or the moon landing but a visit to a French lab in 1961 when he spotted a technique that he suddenly realized he could adapt for his weather scanning satellite design.

The device he developed did not fly in space until 1991, a far cry from today's timelines when a company started by Musk in 2002 is about to launch humans less than 20 years later.

WATCH | SpaceX prepares to launch astronauts on historic spaceflight:

SpaceX prepares to launch astronauts on historic spaceflight

3 years ago
Duration 13:57
Two NASA astronauts are set to blast off aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the first privately built spacecraft to launch with a crew. We spoke with Canadian astronauts Jeremy Hansen and Chris Hadfield about the historic launch.

Useful not glamorous

Shepherd, an astrophysicist still associated with Toronto's York University space sciences program, is the author of Canada's Fifty Years in Space, a book he published more than a decade ago.

He likes to remind people that Canada was an early world leader in many of the less glamorous but practical uses of space technology, including remote sensing, weather prediction and communications that the country sold to others, and whether we know it or not, affect us every day of our lives.

That tradition continues today in Canadian companies such as Vancouver's geoanalytics specialists Urthecast and Montreal's GHGSat that monitors greenhouse gases from space to show industry compliance with regulations. But Shepherd regrets a long history of watching innovative Canadian firms being swallowed up by bigger fish elsewhere rather than being allowed to grow here.

Canada also continues to produce and sometimes export young space enthusiasts, said Rachel Ward-Maxwell, an astrophysicist, who after getting her doctorate ended up as the space and astronomy specialist at the Ontario Science Centre.

She says the latest SpaceX launch, currently rescheduled to Saturday after Wednesday's weather delay, will likely only add to the excitement demonstrated before the current COVID-19 lockdown by the science centre's young patrons.

The Canadarm 2 on the orbiting space station. Canada will be contributing its robotic manipulation technology to the new Lunar Gateway project. (Reuters)

Attracted to aerospace by science fiction

Ward-Maxwell says the sense of adventure of human space exploration often drives young people toward a career in the sciences, even if they never come close to a rocket themselves. Canadian astronauts and the world-leading Canadarm robotic technology that the country will contribute to the Lunar Gateway project to go back to the moon remind them they are part of the space effort.

She and Erin Gregory, space historian at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa, can each rattle off long lists of economic benefits of space, from research on bone loss to the creation of the micro-camera technology that allows us to take selfies.

Gregory points out that the size of the space economy is expected to triple over the next 20 years as the private sector takes a bigger role.

Except for Shepherd, the people interviewed for this story, like Musk himself, were attracted to aerospace by science fiction — something they say is common to many people in the business of space.

"I'm a huge Star Trek nerd," said Gregory.

Tovee says she was known in university as someone who could relate an entire Star Trek episode by seeing the first 10 seconds. For Ward-Maxwell, it was more Star Wars.

That interest even extends to Space Force, the science-fiction comedy launching on Netflix today that satirizes U.S. President Donald Trump's creation of a new branch of the military, even though it may not be the best inspiration for additional space funding.

"I have Space Force in my queue to watch," said Ward-Maxwell.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis


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