Greg Weston: Canada's space agency spirals towards Code Red

Astronaut Chris Hadfield's mesmerizing reality show of floating around the International Space Station on his six-month voyage in orbit belies a Canadian space program that is losing its leader and spiralling towards its own Code Red.

CSA battered by funding cuts, criticism from government, and loss of leader

Astronaut Chris Hadfield’s mesmerizing reality show of floating around the International Space Station on his six-month voyage in orbit belies a Canadian space program that is losing its leader and spiralling towards its own Code Red.

Over the past year, the Canadian Space Agency has been battered by government budget cuts, buffeted by a critical review, and now even its president is ejecting right out of the place.

This week, the federal agency announced former Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean is suddenly leaving the helm at the end of this month to pursue a new career in quantum physics.

How acrimonious is the parting, no one is saying. But one of Canada’s first astronauts and arguably a national hero after 29 years in the space program, MacLean is leaving in total silence – not a public word to the media or anyone else.

According to his office, MacLean is "busy until he leaves."

The Harper government is expected to use the change in management to bring sweeping changes to the national space agency, Canada’s equivalent of NASA.

While no one yet seems to know exactly how that extreme makeover will ultimately reshape the Canadian agency, there is no question the space program has reached a critical point in its history spanning more than a half-century.

Sitting on the launch pad is not an option for the space agency.

Canada Space Agency president Steve MacLean has announced his resignation to pursue a career in quantum physics. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The meteoric rise of space industries in China, Brazil, India and other developing countries is challenging Canadian enterprise – and our national space agency – to a whole new dimension of competition.

At the same time, the end of the U.S. space-shuttle program has been a major loss to the Canadian robotics industry which grew in large measure around the fabled Canadarm and its remarkable technologies.

One Canadian company alone has lost a $25-million annual business servicing the Canadarm units on the now defunct U.S. space-shuttles.

Without the shuttle program, what will happen to the Canadian astronaut program?

After Hadfield, how many more Canadians, if any, will get to go to the space station?

Space agency faces funding cuts

Finally, the space agency is facing funding cuts, compounding a virtual budget freeze dating back almost a decade.

All of which is certain to impact the agency’s roughly 700 employees, including some scientists and engineers whose jobs are at risk of being farmed out to private industry.

It remains a matter of debate how all this will impact the companies and thousands of employees in a space industry expected to generate an estimated $3.4 billion of economic activity this year.

The Harper government hopes that revamping the space program will put more resources into helping private industry compete and less into sustaining bureaucracy.

But whatever the government’s intentions, Steve MacLean apparently had other plans, and is leaving.

His sudden departure as head of the space agency is only the latest chapter in a long saga of antipathy between the rocket scientists and government.

Industry and government insiders say there is certainly no love lost between MacLean and the Conservatives.

They say that several years ago, he presented the Harper cabinet with a strategic plan to guide the space agency going forward.

MacLean's plan shelved, budget cut

In response, the government shelved MacLean’s plan, cut his budget, and commissioned an independent review that ultimately slammed the agency for not having a plan.

Last year’s review of the space agency and the entire aerospace industry was conducted by a blue-ribbon panel headed by former Conservative cabinet minister David Emerson.

Its final report released last November was apparently the last straw for MacLean.

The last straw for the government seems to have been the space agency’s management – or mismanagement – of a huge satellite project that spun out of control before it was brought back to earth by a prime minister’s fury.

In 2010, Harper announced the federal government would contribute $495 million to the Radarsat Constellation project, a series of three super-tech observation satellites the PM said would be critical to the surveillance of Canada’s land and coastlines, particularly the Arctic.

The trio of satellites was to launch in 2015 to replace Radarsat-2, in orbit since 2008 and equipped with unique Canadian-made technologies that allow it to "see" clearly through clouds, fog, smoke and even at night.

Industry sources say the Canadian military was so impressed with the capabilities of Radarsat-2, it jumped into the design of the three new satellites.

And that’s where the problems started

The primary satellite manufacturer, MacDonald Dettwiler Associates (MDA), had quoted the $495 million price tag based on 2008 specifications.

By 2011, National Defence had added so many bells and whistles to the design that the cost of the project had flown through the stratosphere past $1 billion – and was still climbing when Harper blew a fuse.

For more than a year, the project was put on ice after the space agency, the defence department and others involved were all sent back to the drawing board.

The delays forced MacDonald Dettwiler and some other companies involved in the project to announce layoffs of engineers and other key personnel.

It wasn’t until earlier this month that the government finally gave official approval to the long-promised Radarsat Constellation project at a fixed price of $706 million, including more than $100 million to launch the satellites into orbit.

In the aftermath, blame for the massive snafu wasn’t entirely aimed at National Defence.

One of the main roles of the space agency is to co-ordinate, fund and oversee major projects such as Radarsat.

The government clearly was not impressed with the initial result.

Indeed, the Emerson review of the space agency was partly a result of the Radarsat debacle, and its recommendations took dead aim at it.

For instance, the panel recommended that the space agency should no longer be involved in contracting with private industry.

Emerson is quoted as saying: "If our recommendations were implemented, I don’t think the same problems with Radarsat would have happened."

All things considered, Chris Hadfield is probably thankful he is floating around the space station safely above the fray, albeit he comes home to a hero’s welcome of pink slips and a new boss.

Greg Weston is a self-described space nut who briefly worked in the industry during a hiatus from journalism in the 1990s.