Canada's space policy enters orbit of election campaign

Canada's space program has often been ignored by federal politicians, but in this campaign the Liberals and the NDP are stepping up with new funding and a renewed focus on research and development.

Parties commit to craft long-term strategies for Canada's space program, R&D

The Canadarm 2 reaches out to capture the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft and prepare it to be pulled into its port on the space station in April 2015. In June, the Harper government made a commitment to extend Canada's participation in the space station until 2024. (NASA/Associated Press)

Evidence of running water observed on Mars last month was followed by a detailed outline of NASA's plans for human exploration of the Red Planet, spurring excitement about the future of near-space exploration.

In recent weeks, talk of Canada's place in that future has made its way into the federal election campaign, with parties promising long-term space industry strategies for the first time in decades. 

With the final frontier in the picture, it's worth considering where Canada stands when it comes to the future of its space program.

Both the Liberals and the NDP have committed to rolling out long-term plans to promote growth in the space sector. The promises come at a time when industry experts say Canada has fallen behind in its commitments to space.

Need for a long-term strategy

"On the international scene, the perception is that Canada just isn't as committed to space as it has been, and that's definitely since the Harper government came into power," says Marc Boucher, executive director of the Canadian Space Commerce Association.

Last month, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair promised to invest $40 million over the course of four years in a technology development program at the Canadian Space Agency. The program would help Canadian companies commercialize new space technologies.

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It would also be aimed at creating jobs. The sector currently employs as many as 8,000 people and contributes $3.33 billion to the economy each year.

Meanwhile, former Canadian astronaut and Liberal incumbent Marc Garneau has said a Liberal government would boost funding for research and draft its own long-term plan.

The Conservative Party promised to release such a strategy in 2014, but never delivered. Instead, the government put out a 13-page space policy framework, which Boucher says fails to outline a specific plan for the next five or 10 years.

"Most countries issue an average of a five-year plan going forward. That is not something we have at this point, and it's usually something that's formed with government and all the stakeholders working together," Boucher says.
Marc Garneau, Canada's first astronaut, is pictured in 2000 leaving the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Garneau has said if the Liberal Party is elected it would make space a greater priority. (Chris O'Meara/Canadian Press)

The Canadian Space Commerce Association says it's received commitments from the NDP and Liberals for long-term space strategies, but received no comment from the Conservatives.

The Harper government did pledge an additional $17 million toward building the James Webb Telescope in 2014. The observatory is set to launch in 2018 as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

At the time, Garneau acknowledged the funding promise as a start, but added that the space agency had already lost $30 million from its budget the previous year.

"Fine words have to be backed up by actions, and that involves money as well," Garneau said.

Tories promise support

In the months leading up to the 2015 election, the Harper government made a string of investment promises for the space sector.

In April, the Conservatives committed to spending $243.5 million over 10 years on helping build the Thirty Metre Telescope, which will sit on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. That investment will give Canadian astronomers access to what is set to become the world's most powerful telescope. That's if it's built. Plans for the telescope are currently mired in conflict, with local residents and environmentalists accusing builders of threatening the ecosystem and infringing upon indigenous rights.

Canadian astronauts Jeremy Hansen (right) and David Saint-Jacques stand in the visitors gallery after being recognized in the House of Commons on June 2, 2015. These two joined the Canadian astronaut corps in 2009 and are the only current active members. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In June, the Canadian government announced its plan to support the International Space Station through 2024, officially joining the United States and Russia as a major partner aiding an extension of the global research project. That commitment sets two flight slots aside for Canadian astronauts to serve aboard the space station over the next decade.

The Conservatives also promised $10.5 million to MDA Corp., which would go toward technical support for the space station's Canadarm2 and Dextre, a two-armed robot that facilitates repairs outside the station.

Boucher says those promises sound significant, but are small potatoes compared with what the country has delivered in the past.

"Aside from the $10.5 million, a lot of things are really small pieces of funding that don't really contribute to moving Canada's space program forward," Boucher says. "As far as the business sector is concerned, we don't see it moving forward. In the past 10 years it's either been stalled or even moving backwards."

Investing in small businesses

If Canada wants to stay competitive with high-tech jobs in the space industry, Boucher says, the industry needs greater investment in research and development.

"What we need is innovation. We need to have small companies starting up," Boucher says. "Part of that happens through R&D, and we've been cutting back."
An artist's rendering depicts the proposed Thirty Metre Telescope on Hawaii's Mauna Kea. (TMT Observatory Corporation/Associated Press)

Tyler Reyno, the founder of Open Space Orbital Inc., a startup looking to develop Canada's first small satellite rocket launcher, says he's optimistic about the future of the country's space program.

"Right now, there's been so much investment in the natural resources industry, that it hasn't left a lot of support for the remaining high-tech industries, whether it's space or biomedical research," says Reyno. "But resources are finite. As we start to set our sights on other lucrative industries, other than fossil fuels, space presents a really strong choice for that."

Reyno's company is one of many currently working to secure funding, not just from the federal government, but also from private investors.

"I think we're getting there," says Reyno, who made headlines last year for grabbing one of the top spots offered by Mars One, a private company hoping to colonize Mars by 2025. "The government expects a certain level of development before it gets involved. We're currently in that phase."

As the government's own space policy framework states, "the lifeblood of the space industry is innovation."

But without the funding and focus on space as a priority, there will be little incentive for more small to mid-sized companies to enter the market. And with fewer Canadian projects underway, most of those companies will have to rely on export markets until the country's own space program finds more solid footing and a steady direction.