Why doesn't Canada have a rocket program?

At a time when there is heightened interest among governments and commercial interests, people involved say Canada is lagging and losing talent to other countries.

'The question is: How many students are leaving and not coming back?'

The Falcon Heavy, SpaceX's most powerful rocket, sits poised at launch pad 39A at Cape Canaveral. (SpaceX)

When an unmanned SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket roared to life Tuesday afternoon on its maiden voyage from launch pad 39A at Cape Canaveral — the same pad that sent Apollo 11 astronauts to the moon in 1969 — the mission manager was Andrew Rader, a Canadian.

While it's impressive to see a Canadian in one of the top spots in an ambitious private company that's already turned rocketry on its head by flying reusable rockets, it also throws into sharp relief the fact that his home country no longer has a rocket initiative of its own.

Andrew Rader, a graduate of Carleton University in Ottawa, holds one of the top spots at SpaceX. (Ho/Canadian Press)

Once among the world's leaders in rocket engineering, Canada has ceded space rocketry to unlikely rivals such as New Zealand and Romania. Participants suggest the situation is bad and not getting better.

The gap threatens Canada's ability to independently launch the satellites that are an increasingly important part of everyday life, such as those that monitor our atmosphere and changing climate. It is also forcing some of the country's most educated engineers to look for work outside Canada.

"My feeling is that, at the end of the day, our sovereignty could be at risk," said Afzal Suleman, a professor at the University of Victoria's department of mechanical engineering.

"With crucial technology, if we depend on foreign entities, we are basically dependent. Do we want to depend on [other countries] to have these capabilities?"

Even Canadian-serving satellites made by MDA — the company behind the famed Canadarm — have to launch on SpaceX rockets.

'We're falling behind'

Rader, 38, a graduate of Carleton University in Ottawa and a former research chair at the National Research Council of Canada, was shortlisted by the Canadian Space Agency in the astronaut selection process. He also has been shortlisted for the independent Mars One mission that plans to send select candidates on a one-way trip to the red planet.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Dragon spacecraft aboard launches from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. ( NASA)

He's part of a bold commitment by SpaceX to take humans to other worlds. This Falcon Heavy launch is the first step in getting there. It is the most powerful rocket in production, capable of launching humans to the moon or Mars.

We are falling behind. There's no doubt about it.—Afzal Suleman, University of Victoria

There are others like Rader who are getting their aerospace education in Canada and then leaving the country. They are going away at a time when there are increasing endeavours to launch to space, by both governments and private companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.

Aside from the big players who have joined the space race — Japan, India, China — countries such as Brazil, Romania, Ukraine, New Zealand and Australia are all developing their own rockets.

An Electron rocket carrying a small payload of about 150 kilograms lifts off from the Mahia Peninsula on New Zealand's North Island's east coast. The rocket successfully reached orbit carrying small commercial satellites. (Rocket Lab via Associated Press)

The closest Canada has come to competing is announcing it will build a launch facility in Canso, N.S. But even then, the rockets will be Ukrainian.

"We are falling behind," said Suleman. "There's no doubt about it."

Suleman was part of the federal government's Space Advisory Board, which was tasked in 2017 by the minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) with providing a new space strategy. It concluded that, while Canada once had a successful space program, the country was at risk of falling behind.

It's not that Canada isn't producing the talent. It's that the country doesn't have anything to offer graduates who have set their sights beyond Earth. There are roughly 17 university groups developing "sounding" rocket technology — rockets that launch without reaching orbit and then fall back to Earth after taking atmospheric measurements, among other things. These rockets go up to altitudes of 3,000 or even 9,000 metres.

Stuck in the past

Last year, students from the University of Victoria, University of British Columbia and University of Waterloo all took home first place in various challenges at the Spaceport America Cup, an international rocketry competition in New Mexico. McGill University, Waterloo University, Concordia University and Ryerson University either took home awards or received honourable mentions.

Students from the McGill Rocket Team prepare for the 2017 International Rocket Engineering Competition. (CRC/McGill Rocket Team)

Students involved in these competitions note that winning awards is an achievement, because it's painfully difficult to test these rockets in Canada. Instead, the students either have to see their rocket fly for the first time in competition, or go to another country for testing.

The issue, several students note, is that while the Canadian Association of Rocketry regulates high-powered rockets, they're unaccustomed to dealing with large-scale rockets, the altitude needed, and even the university-constructed motors. And a bigger challenge is finding somewhere from which they can launch.

The Canadian space policy framework is just so stuck in the past, and they're not willing to take risks.— Jeremy Wang, University of Toronto

It's not as though Canada hasn't had a history of rocketry. At the height of the Cold War, 4,500 people lived and worked in Fort Churchill, Man., launching sounding rockets — the same ones university students are having a hard time launching now.

In fact, one of the rockets that came out of that era — the Black Brant, first launched in 1959  — is still being used by NASA today.

The first Black Brant was launched on Sept. 5, 1959, from Fort Churchill, Man. Today, the latest generation of this family of rockets built by Bristol Aerospace is still being widely used around the world for space science research. (Bristol Aerospace/Canadian Space Agency)

"I think it's disappointing from a historical perspective there were a number of opportunities that Canada had to be a leader in rocketry, and the government kind of let go of that," Jeremy Wang, a member of the University of Toronto Aerospace Team told CBC News.

"Seeing that happen again and again is extremely disappointing."

These days, at Government of Canada's webpage "Canada's space sector," there isn't a single mention of rocketry.

"For me, it isn't necessarily that the lack of rocketry is the disappointment: it's more so the fact that the Canadian space policy framework is just so stuck in the past, and they're not willing to take risks and consider new ideas and new things that people in Canada are actually doing," Wang said.

How many not coming back?

If we have no launch capabilities ourselves, Suleman says, we have to accept that we will be losing some of our brightest minds to countries with greater ambitions.

"The question is: How many students are leaving and not coming back?" he says.

An aerial view of Fort Churchill, circa 1960. Once a hub of research, the base was closed down. (Churchill Research Range/Canadian Space Agency)

Sandro Papais, the technical director and team leader with the McGill Rocket Team, could be another bright mind the country loses.

"My idealistic goal is to work in the rocketry industry; design launch vehicles, potentially in Europe … because that's where most of the opportunities are," he says.

"What most people don't realize is that we are those people who end up starting these launch vehicle companies or that end up leading the charge."

Students of the McGill University Rocket Team prepare their rocket at the 2017 International Rocket Engineering Competition. (CRC/McGill Rocketry Team)

Other countries are taking note of Canadian talent.

At the height of the science fiction age in the 1940s and 1950s, the public was filled with hope that space travel would one day become part of everyday life. While the space race seemed to take a 50-year hiatus after the Apollo missions, some feel it's back and hotter than ever.

Canada may be sitting this one out, but experts feel it's not too late for the industry to thrive. Suleman notes that it isn't about throwing a lot of money at the problem, but rather developing a structured program over time.

"If there's a commercial advantage in doing these things, people will always come: the entrepreneurs and major investors," he says.

"We just have to make sure we start building slowly, rebuilding slowly. Because we were quite ahead of everyone in the past. Now we have to catch up."

LISTEN | The Current: Canada's lack of a rocket program leaves us grounded, say experts

About the Author

Nicole Mortillaro

Senior Reporter, Science

Nicole has an avid interest in all things science. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books.

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