Technology & Science

B.C. spaceport campaign launched

The head of the Muhammad Institute for Space Science, dedicated to putting the Islamic world back at the forefront of scientific discovery, wants to build a space-launch facility in Canada.

The head of the Muhammad Institute for Space Science, dedicated to putting the Islamic world back at the forefront of scientific discovery, wants to build a space-launch facility in Canada.

Redouane Al Fakir's goal has been to return Muslims to the place of pride they held, centuries ago, as world leaders in astronomy.

But the Vancouver astrophysicist wants all Canadians to be involved in his project. His proposed commercial spaceport would be the first of its kind in this country — and Al Fakir says it's about time.

The way he sees it, if countries like India, China and Japan can launch satellites into space, why not Canada?

"It's becoming more and more untenable, in my opinion, that Canada has no launching capabilities," Al Fakir said in an interview.

So the 50-year-old father of two, an astronomer at the University of British Columbia, decided to do something about it.

Last month, Al Fakir used a public forum to kick off his plan for Space Launch Canada — a landmark facility he dreams of building off the coast of British Columbia.

Its goal would be to launch missions into Earth's orbit and to other solar-system destinations like the moon, Mars and beyond.

Al Fakir is looking at two coastal sites for the facility: Tofino and Prince Rupert, which are fairly secluded locations but are accessible by road — ideal conditions for a spaceport.

He says he's secured $250,000 in startup money from overseas and has begun an international fundraising drive to raise the estimated $100 million it would take to build the facility.

Qatar officials tapped

Al Fakir recently travelled to Doha, Qatar, to talk with officials close to the government about his plans. He says he's excited about the support he's received.

"I was happily surprised to discover that they were very enthusiastic about doing that kind of thing," he said.

Aside from Qatar, he hopes to work with other Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

"Of course, these countries are really one big entity culturally — and we kind of wanted to group our collaboration under the Islamic world with the Gulf states and other countries like Malaysia and Indonesia," he said.

Al Fakir also hopes to use the Muhammad institute's connections to get non-government investors for the project.

His non-profit institute, founded in 2008, is located on the campus of the University of British Columbia.

It cites on its website two chief goals:

  • "Giving the Islamic world community a top-level scientific space institution it can call its own."
  • "Contributing to the promotion of British Columbia as a world hub for space science and technology."

"The Muhammad Institute for Space Science is a framework for collaboration between Canada and the Islamic world at large, which includes not only the Muslim world community but also the many religious and ethnic minorities that are culturally part of the great Islamic civilization," says the group's website.

The fiscal mountain ahead is a considerable one.

$100M for 'basic' launch pad

Al Fakir says consultants have told him $100 million would cover the cost of a basic launch pad and the necessary infrastructure.

"That's without developing your own [launch] vehicle," he said.

Al Fakir says it would cost $500 million to complete the spaceport while also developing a Canadian rocket launcher.

Scientists, academics and players in the Canadian space industry have often lamented the absence of rocket-launching facilities in this country.

The issue came up repeatedly at the recent annual conference of the Canadian Space Society in Ottawa.

Al Scott, a scientist for an aerospace company, says he welcomes the proposed Space Launch Canada.

"I'd say it's doable and reasonable," he said in an interview.

"The feasibility, in my opinion, comes from the mix of the people that you have and how strong your financial support is.

"It's a challenge, but people have been doing this for several years now and if you get the right people, it can be done."

Al Fakir told The Canadian Press his target is to complete the spaceport project by 2015.

But Scott says that's a tall order.

"Five years is awfully tight, in my opinion," the scientist said.

"You could get your first prototype in that time scale, but I wouldn't fly it on the first mission."