October 21, 2017

by on July 21, 2011
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Before This Decade is Out

s116e05364There is a void in space. On Thursday, the Space Shuttle will land in Florida and quietly roll into a museum. NASA will then begin a search not for new worlds, new technologies or new adventures, but for itself. For the first time in 50 years, the U.S. space program is without a mission or a mandate. And with the country’s intractable budget problems, NASA’s inertia will not easily be overcome. While it has long been accepted that future space exploration will require a joint international effort, it is now also clear that any such effort cannot rely on the U.S.’s laboring oar. Canada, having played an integral role in space since day one, is now ready and able to take the lead.

In 1959, 32 Canadian engineers, fresh from Canada’s controversial Avros Arrows project (a wonderful chapter in Canadian aviation history)  were recruited to join the U.S.’s fledgling Space Task Group. This group later became the Johnson Space Center and its Canadian contingent was primarily responsible for the Apollo Lunar Module. (Notwithstanding this oft-cited example of brain drain, Canada itself became the third country in space with its launch of the Alouette I satellite in 1962).

Since Apollo, Canada has further cemented its role as the sine qua non of U.S. space missions. It is hard to imagine the Space Shuttle having the kind of 30-year run it has had without the iconic Canadarm docked in its cargo bay.  Initially cast as a supporting actor, Canada’s robotic arm ended up stealing all of the scenes. With the installation of Canadarm 2 on the International Space Station, Canadian space technology will continue in its key role long after the Space Shuttle has left the stage.

Canada has also settled on a vision for its space program. At the recent Canadian Space Commerce Association Conference, industry leaders, citing the needs of up and coming space-farers China, Russia and India, were unanimous in calling for further development and expansion of Canada’s space robotic technology.  The Canadian Space Agency has answered that call. It has moved this year not only to improve its robotic arm technology, but also to aggressively develop robotic rovers, nano-satellites, cameras, launch technologies and propulsion systems. In so doing, the Space Agency intends for Canada to maintain its competitive advantage with respect to relevant space technologies and to ensure that Canada will be the go-to partner for any future international exploration missions.

And Canadians have accommodated. In 2010, global civil space expenditures peaked at $40 billion. Every nation with a space program has since severely restricted its future space budgets. The one exception is Canada. Its 2011 budget stands at close to $400 million. This is up from $300 million the year before. And current government commitments call for 10% annual increases in funding.

While $400 million seems like a drop in the bucket compared to NASA’s $18 billion budget, Canadian quality trumps American quantity. For example, an earmark in the current U.S. budget forces NASA to spend $3 billion building a heavy-lift rocket that NASA has gone on-record as saying is not part of its long-term strategy. Sadly, this reflects a pattern.  Recent congressional testimony revealed that over the past 20 years, NASA has spent $21 billion on projects that were ultimately cancelled.

As a result, the early, inspirational successes of the U.S. space program are a dim memory to beleaguered U.S. taxpayers. Canadians, meanwhile, are relatively free from the fiscal hurdles that have hobbled the U.S. and most other nations. Accordingly, the romance and promise of space are still able to capture the imagination of Canadians. And they have. With the exorbitant cost of space travel, this passion is key to any country’s success in space.
In May 1961, President Kennedy rallied the U.S. to take on the Russians and take up the cause of landing men on the moon. The resulting collaborative scientific undertaking resulted in more than just the Apollo mission. It began what has been a half-century of U.S. dominance in technology and innovation. That dominance is now up for grabs. During its own 50 years in space, Canada has taken many small steps toward claiming that dominance. Canada is now ready to take a giant leap.

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