New U.S. moon-landing timetable throws Canada's Lunar Gateway role into question

"Canada is going to the moon," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Feb. 28. But now NASA is tearing up its Lunar Gateway schedule to pivot to a new target ordered by the Trump administration.

Plan to put astronauts on moon again in 5 years shifts focus from space station

Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques, front, and U.S. astronaut Anne McClain take part in a spacewalk on April 8 as seen in a live feed from the Canadian Space Agency headquarters in St. Hubert, Que. A new U.S. timetable raises questions about the future of Canada's role in a lunar space station. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The Trump administration has thrown a monkey wrench into Canada's vaunted commitment to build a Canadarm3 for a space station orbiting the moon.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Feb. 28 that Canada was joining the NASA-led project known as the Lunar Gateway, by providing an advanced robotic arm to maintain the station remotely, even when it is unstaffed.

"Canada is going to the moon," Trudeau said at the Canadian Space Agency in the Montreal suburb of Longueuil, Que., committing $2 billion to the project.

The announcement made Canada the only country to officially join the American project, which could also earn Canadian astronauts tickets to the Lunar Gateway.

NASA had been pressing Canada for months to contribute its robotic-arm expertise, developed by MDA Corp. and honed on the space-shuttle missions and on the International Space Station.

But just weeks after Trudeau's announcement, NASA is tearing up its Lunar Gateway schedule to pivot to a new target ordered by the Trump administration.

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence asks a question on March 26 at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. Pence is calling for landing astronauts on the moon again within five years. (Eric Schultz/Associated Press)

U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence called on the agency to put Americans on the moon again by 2024 — about four years earlier than planned under the Lunar Gateway project — raising questions about the future of a lunar space station.

"The first woman and the next man on the moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets from American soil," Pence said in Huntsville, Ala., on March 26, throwing NASA's Gateway plans into disarray.

A spokesperson for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) noted that Canada's Lunar Gateway money, confirmed in the 2019 federal budget, is not yet committed as NASA proceeds with a "re-planning of their lunar campaign."

"NASA will share information with CSA and other partners as their plans are developed and made available," Marie-Andre Malouin told CBC News.

"The CSA sees this development as positive as it creates new momentum and a bold objective for the lunar program."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gets a look at the International Space Station's robotic control centre at CSA headquarters on Feb. 28 as his daughter, Ella-Grace, and robotic flight controller Jason Seagram look on. (Ryan Remiorz/TheCanadian Press)

The new, more urgent goal of getting astronauts to the lunar surface within five years is being welcomed by at least one Canadian expert who has raised doubts about a lunar orbiting station.

"The Lunar Gateway is a big mistake, not just for Canadians but for Americans as well," said Alex Ellery, associate professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Carleton University in Ottawa.

"Basically it slows down any prospect of us getting to the surface."

Ellery says the Canadarm3 project for the Lunar Gateway, which would likely be developed by MDA Corp., would absorb almost every federal dollar available for space exploration.

"This is not fostering a competitive, vibrant environment for space exploration in Canada, because everything has been funnelled to this one company," he said in an interview.

"There's not going to be much left over for anybody else. It will be crumbs."

Canada has world-leading expertise in mining, as well as in robotics, and is well positioned to contribute to operations on the lunar surface, rather than putting another robotic arm on another space station, Ellery said.

"We in Canada have pre-existing expertise in this area, and we're not doing anything about it. And this to me is a great tragedy."

Ellery applauded the Trump administration's 2024 target for getting back to the lunar surface. "To be honest, it's not necessary to have an orbiting space station to get people onto the moon permanently," he said, calling the Lunar Gateway a "diversion" and a "white elephant."

NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei and crewmate Scott Tingle work outside the International Space Station to perform maintenance on the Canadarm2 robotic arm on Jan. 23, 2018. Vande Hei snapped this space-selfie. (NASA)

A spokesperson for MDA Corp., Leslie Swartman, referred questions about the impact of the new American priority to the Canadian Space Agency.

"Over the last several years, we have been contracted by the CSA to undertake mission concept studies for future deep space exploration robotics, and we are currently under contract to provide the conceptual design of Canadarm3," Swartman said.

"However, the government has yet to procure the next phases in developing Canadarm3."

MDA has been promoting the Lunar Gateway project, underwriting a public-relations campaign, #dontletgocanada, and lobbying more than two dozen federal departments and institutions.

NASA pushed Canada to spend on Lunar Gateway

Internal CSA briefing notes obtained under access to information show NASA was warning Canada last fall that the agency would go elsewhere if the Liberal government didn't quickly put some money on the table for Lunar Gateway:

"As the U.S. administration has made steps to accelerate the pace of implementation for the Lunar Gateway, they have signalled through working level channels that a commitment by Canada in the fall of 2018 will be needed, and that they are actively exploring alternatives to Canadian robotics in order to meet their schedule should Canada not be able to commit," says a September 2018 document.


Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby