Agency’s long-term plan years overdue
Without firm guidance to chart the country’s next course in space, industry and researchers are uncertain on where to focus, writes TOM SPEARS.
There is no up, down, left or right in space — an absence of clear direction that also applies these days to any Canadians whose business lies in space.
So, then, where is Canada headed in space? In the 1980s and 1990s the Canadian Space Agency wrote three successive Long-term Space Plans to chart our course.
Those steered us through the glory years of building Canadarms and other robotics, the launching of two Radarsat satellites and helping to build the International Space Station.
Since Canada is a smaller player than NASA or other giants, these plans concentrated on doing a few things and doing them really, really well.
But there’s been no new plan since before the millennium. University researchers are uncertain where to focus; companies that build satellites and robots wonder what to design. Mars rovers? Telecom satellites?
Now Canada’s space agency is quietly beginning to plan, just as the federal industry minister promised four years ago.
The problem today: With federal budgets shrinking, and expensive commitments like the International Space Station, it’s tough to boldly go very far.
Back in 2008, industry minister Jim Prentice promised fast action on a long-term plan. He assigned the CSA’S president, veteran astronaut Steve Maclean, to write a draft as soon as possible.
These were heady days for space. Prentice gave a barn-burner of a speech predicting that Canadians would go into space the way the Elizabethans explored unknown oceans and continents.
“We are on the threshold of enormous opportunity — if we have the vision and the will to seize it,” he said at the space agency’s headquarters in Montreal.
“How did the Elizabethans do that? They were a tiny nation, on an island on the periphery of Europe. Other nations — more wealthy, more powerful and more at the centre of the action — had raced ahead to explore and develop the vast areas that were blank spaces on the maps of the day,” he said.
The parallel with Canada was plain.
Maclean did produce a 10-year draft plan after long, productive talks with Canada’s space “communities” — universities and industry.
And then it all stopped. No plan ever became public.
“It’s been a bit of a mystery to us what happened,” says Iain Christie, CEO of Ottawa’s Neptec Design Group. Industry members saw drafts of the long-term plan, liked it, but believe it stalled at the cabinet level.
He argues planning is vital: “Space is a long-term business. Things take a long time to get done because they’re high-tech, because they’re complicated. If you don’t plan ahead ... then you’re always blowing from one priority to another. You don’t make a lot of progress.
“Even in our daily lives we plan ahead so why would we not plan ahead something as important for the country as a space plan?”
The space agency refused to discuss the matter this week.
The private sector is uncharacteristically criticizing the federal lack of direction. Canadian companies have a good working relationship with the space agency, and if problems occur they tend not to criticize their biggest customer.
Yet there was Macdonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) putting out a press release March 30 warning of “uncertainty” in federal support for a major project. Radarsat Constellation is a package of at least three satellites that will observe Earth from space, and MDA, the prime contractor, thinks there’s not enough cash to build them.
It warned investors that “the (federal) budget does not include the funds required to continue the Radarsat Constellation Mission (RCM) as currently envisioned. At this time MDA is uncertain on the way forward on Phase D of RCM and expects to work
❚ with its customer to seek clarification over the coming weeks. Given the level of uncertainty, the Company is accelerating its steps to restructure its workforce related to this event.”
Phase D means building the first satellite.
And restructuring MDA’S workforce indicates the New Elizabethans have just lost some shipbuilders.
However, a new CSA planning “consultation” is now under way.
“The story is just unfolding as we speak with the space agency,” said Mike Dixon of the University of Guelph, an expert in life support on spacecraft.
The CSA is contacting outside experts in a series of teleconferences. One discussion has taken place. While the CSA won’t discuss this publicly, Dixon says over the next month it will discuss a draft proposal for space with these experts.
Industry wants to see a “signature technologies” list, a catalogue of the space agency’s top choices as technologies it wants to develop, he said.
“There are nuts and bolts of different projects that we’re committed to, but in terms of growing the business in space exploration in Canada, that’s still a tough call right now” because of the economic difficulties.
“Nobody wants to hear my story that space exploration is probably the most significant economic engine that we could aspire to in Canada. (But) a measly $300-million annual budget (the approximate CSA budget) isn’t going to cut it.”
“The opportunity to develop new initiatives is obviously extremely limited in the near future, simply because of budgetary constraints.”
At the University of Alberta, meteorite expert Chris Herd also worries that CSA budget cutting will hurt space exploration and cause a brain drain from Canada.
But he says the space agency’s new “consultation document” is meant to be flexible, providing direction for whatever level of spending is available.
“I am glad that they’re doing this,” he said. “It still keeps Canada in the game in certain areas, and I have to say from what I’ve seen so far ... it’s quite well written.
“It says what our strengths are and where we can be involved, and that’s ultimately the point.”
Many university researchers who worked closely with the space agency in the past — such as a major group at York University — have not heard of any new planning.
Nor has Neptec’s Christie. “If that’s being resurrected, then that’s good news,” he said. scanada’s past successes all came from long-range planning, he said.
“It allowed to us to allocate the money and resources over the long term and make sure that we actually got things done.”
Asked to name an area where a lack of federal planning holds his company back, he replied: “Everything. We can’t do anything because we don’t have a long-term commitment.
“Look at Radarsat Constellation mission. We don’t know how we’re going to finish that project because the government has never allocated enough money to actually get it done.
“My guess is that by the time we’re done, it will have cost more to build Radarsat Constellation this way than it would have to actually plan the proper development” over a long term.
Similarly, the recently extended commitment to the space station has no apparent future funding, Christie argued.
Ron Holdway, vice-president of Com Dev, says the lack of planning “is a problem for us. Industry, without any visibility of what’s coming next year, finds it impossible to align its research and development programs and workforce,” he said. His company is a manufacturer of space hardware with 1,100 employees in three countries.
He says universities are struggling to train grad students without knowing where the need lies.
Some day, when Canada decides to explore new areas of space science, “we will find we’ve run out of principal investigators to lead those activities,” he said.
The Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute met in Quebec this week. Space agency officials were there but revealed no new plans.
“I’d be absolutely ecstatic if we could get a plan, if everybody in the space industry knew what money was going to be spent and where,” Christie said. “If we had a plan, we could try to understand how this government thinks it’s going to reconcile the kind of money it’s providing with the kind of things that need to be done.”
“To tell them (space agency staff ) they have to do more and then not explain where they’re supposed to get the money is not a recipe for actually achieving anything. It’s a recipe for making a lot of people’s lives miserable.”
The space agency did make one announcement in recent days. It gave an award to its retired president, Mac Evans.
His big achievement, according to the press release: He led the development of all the Long-term Space Plans.