Technology & Science

Steve MacLean named head of space agency

Astronaut Steve MacLean, who flew on two space shuttle missions to the International Space Station, will chart a new course as the head of Canadian Space Agency, Industry Minister Jim Prentice said Tuesday.

Astronaut Steve MacLean, who flew on two space shuttle missions to the International Space Station, will chart a new course as the head of Canadian Space Agency, Industry Minister Jim Prentice said Tuesday.

Prentice named MacLean, 53, to the position of president for the CSA while speaking to an audience at Cambridge, Ont.-based space hardware firm COM DEV International. Prentice hailed MacLean as a "modern hero" who is highly respected in academic and industrial circles.

"His appointment as president is evidence of the government's commitment to leverage Canada’s space science and technology to position Canada as a leading space-faring nation," said Prentice.

MacLean was one of the first six Canadians named to the astronaut corps in December 1983. He flew aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1992 as a payload specialist and in 2006 aboard Atlantis, where he operated the International Space Station's Canadarm 2. He has also served as the chief science adviser for the space station.

Iain Christie, the president of Ottawa-based Neptec, the company that builds the remote sensor NASA's space shuttles use to check for exterior damage, said the hiring was an "inspired choice."

"I'm delighted with the choice," he said from Cambridge, moments before he headed into a meeting with MacLean, Prentice and other space industry leaders. "Steve has been an inspiration, and this hiring shows the government has a genuine commitment to sorting out the challenges facing the industry."

MacLean, who has been heading the CSA's recruitment drive for new astronauts, will replace acting president Guy Bujold, who leaves the post to become president and CEO of Canarie Inc., a non-profit internet network provider.

Bujold took over the post on Jan. 1, 2008, after former satellite executive Laurier Boisvert left the position after just nine months. Prior to Boisvert, the position had been vacant since Marc Garneau left in November 2005 to run for office in the federal election.

Busy time at agency

In addition to the revolving door at the top of the CSA, Canada's space program itself has had a busy and occasionally turbulent time in the last year.

In January, Richmond, B.C.-based MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. announced it would be selling its space assets — including the recently launched Radarsat-2 satellite — to an American defence contractor, a move that ignited national outrage and prompted Prentice to make the unprecedented move to block the sale.

Two members of the astronaut corps, Dave Williams and Bjarni Tryggvason, also retired at the start of the year. MacLean has been in charge of a national recruitment drive for two astronaut positions that has attracted more than 5,000 applications.

The agency has also had successes in the last year. In addition to the launch of Radarsat-2, the agency also helped oversee the attachment of Dextre — a two-armed robot that can act as a "hand" for the Canadarm 2 — to the International Space Station. And NASA's Phoenix lander, equipped with a Canadian-built weather station, also successfully landed on Mars.

The agency also announced plans for the future, including the launch of NEOSSAT, a micro-satellite designed to study near-Earth orbit asteroids. Canada will also be sending two more astronauts to the International Space Station in 2009.

Despite the new initiatives, government critics and industry heads alike have argued the space program's real flaw was a lack of leadership.

Prentice said one of MacLean's first acts as president will be to begin consultations to determine a new, long-term space plan, but that his role will go far beyond consultations.

"I have given Steve a mandate to make sweeping changes at the CSA. As we stand at this crossroads, he will revitalize the agency. He will restore its ability to punch above its weight in an international quest. He will develop Canada’s capacity for a new era of prestige and achievement," he said in a statement.