The Current

Failure to launch: Canada's lack of a rocket program leaves us grounded, say experts

The latest launch from SpaceX has highlighted Canada's lack of a rocket launch program. If the world is ready to look to the stars again, are we about to be left behind?
The launch of the Falcon Heavy at Cape Canaveral on Tuesday. Canada's lack of a launch program means the country has to "beg and borrow," and is driving talent away. (Submitted by Don Hladiuk)

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The world could be blasting off into a new era of space exploration, but Canada's lack of a rocket launch program could leave us kicking our heels on Earth.

Elon Musk's SpaceX organization launched the Falcon Heavy on Tuesday, sending a Telsa roadster into space — with a dummy called Starman in the driving seat.

As well as a successful launch, Musk is declaring a successful landing, after two of the rocket's boosters were brought safely back to earth, intact.

Those boosters can now be refurbished and re-used, representing a huge reduction in cost. That's a key part of Musk's plans to reach Mars (by making it more economically viable to get heavy payloads into orbit).

But while a Canadian, Andrew Rader, was the mission manager of SpaceX's success, Canada itself does not currently have a rocket launch initiative.

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While the country is investing in robotics and other aspects of space exploration, Chuck Black believes that the lack of a rocket launch program leaves Canada without the control that other countries insist on.

Black, the publisher of the Commercial Space Media Company, said that the decision to not pursue launch capability dates back to 2010.

It was then that the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) decided to focus its federal budget on contributions to the International Space Station, and the launch, planned this year, of RADARSAT Constellation — a system that will improve satellite coverage across Canada.

The result, he said, is that Canada now relies on other countries for rocket launches.

"We beg, borrow, steal, or buy from others," he said. "Lately Americans, we've also gone up on Indian rockets, we've gone up on Russian rockets."

Black, a former director and treasurer of the Canadian Space Commerce Association, said it leaves Canadian launches open to a range of issues.

"The cost of flights to specified orbits are higher than they need to be," he said.

There are long waits, and "uncertainty in launch dates," he said, "mostly because someone else is doing all the work, we have to wait for when their stuff is available."

"And orbit selection is controlled by host launches, not by Canadian needs," he said, "Canada has to fit into the launch provider's requirements."

This leaves launches at the mercy of international politics.

In the early 2000s, there were delays to the launch of RADARSAT-2, because of American fears that the satellite would compete with their own Landsat system.

A Canadian defence satellite that was due to launch from Russia in 2014 was delayed for more than a year, after the country's conflict with Ukraine broke out.

For Black, there is a risk of slow but very real decline in Canada's international standing in the field.

"I think that over time we will be forced to become a parts contractor, a subcontractor, a component manufacturer for other space programs," he said.

"I also think that our Canadian students, our engineers, our scientists more and more will have to travel to the United States or have to travel to Europe."

Canada is losing talent

That talent is definitely available, according to Jeremy Wang, an advisor and former member of the University of Toronto aerospace team.

Canadian student teams, he said, consistently win the top spots at intercollegiate rocket engineering competitions.

Prospects at graduation are less than stellar, however.

"I think the traditional idea and the traditional path for a lot of us is to think about how can we serve a government, how can we serve our country," he said.

Looking to countries like the U.S., he said, you can achieve those desires with opportunities at NASA.

"Here, we're looking more to private industry, but there is no private rocket industry here."

Canada was a leader in the industry in the 1950s, he said, but policies in later decades changed that.

The talent that is being trained in Canada is having to look abroad as a result. Wang sees this movement among his own peers.

"I would say probably anywhere between a third to a half have taken on internship roles outside of the country," he said, "And that's not a surprising trend at all."

"There's certainly no shortage of Canadians who realize that when it comes to cutting-edge defence aerospace opportunities, it may be easier to head elsewhere."

The Current approached Navdeep Bains, the minister of innovation, science and economic development, for comment.

The office of the minister supplied a statement, which included:

Budget 2017 provided over $80 million over five years, starting in 2017-18 to the Canadian Space Agency. This funding will support new projects that will utilize Canadian innovations in space and is part of the announced $379 million to extend Canada's participation in the International Space Station mission to 2024.

Transport Canada is monitoring the evolution of this industry and would work with other agencies, such as the Canadian Space Agency and NAV CANADA, as required. Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada continues to work with Transport Canada on measures to support Canadian innovation and rocketry in Canada.  As well, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) also supports post-secondary institutions across Canada by offering first-hand experience with real space missions to the next generation of highly qualified professions. The CSA continues to support university students on research projects that offer hands-on opportunities in areas like rocketry. These offer invaluable experience for students with a strong interest in space science and technology development."

Listen to the full audio — which includes a conversation with Jason Davis about why SpaceX's latest launch matters — near the top of this page.

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This segment was produced by The Current's Alison Masemann, John Chipman and Ines Colabrese.