Monday, 10 February 2014

Space Policy Framework Stays the Course

Astronauts David Saint-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen, Industry Minister James Moore, and CSA President Walter Natynczyk at February 7 announcement in Ottawa of Space Policy Framework. Industry Canada

It was hard to determine whether the Harper government wanted to spread the word about the new space policy framework it unveiled on Friday, or hide it.

Industry Minister James Moore announced the framework at a colourful event in the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, flanked by two Canadian astronauts in flight overalls, a class from a local elementary school, and a gaggle of officials headed by Walter Natynczyk, the new president of the Canadian Space Agency.

The policy framework was published in a colourful booklet and online in a website containing videos of Canadian space achievements. Within minutes of the announcement, the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada issued its own release praising the framework for "strengthening the competitiveness" of Canada's space industry. 

But the announcement took place just as the Sochi Winter Olympics opening ceremony was about to begin, and on a morning that saw other and higher profile announcements from the Harper government.

But most important was the content of the policy. The policy framework is notable for three things: It is long on generalities, short on specifics, and it follows very closely on policies that have been in place for decades.

The policy framework emphasizes the importance of Canada's space industry to our economy and points to the use of the private sector for space initiatives whenever possible, messages that are totally consistent with the Harper government's stated goals. 

The Canadian space program has long been oriented in this direction. After Canada's first satellite, Alouette 1, was built in house by government scientists, the Diefenbaker government moved in 1963 to ensure that future satellites and other Canadian space assets be built by private contractors. In the five decades since that time, Canada's space program has focused on developing Canada's space industry above all else, and contracting out the lion's share of that work has consistently been the order of the day under both Liberal and Conservative governments, even after the Canadian Space Agency was established in 1989.

The policy also stresses working together with other countries, which also is not new. Alouette, for example, was a part of a joint program with the United States, as was the Canadarm, and Canada has been a partner in the International Space Station since the beginning. Canada has also has a long history of cooperation with the European Space Agency and other space programs. 

The framework's goal of promoting Canadian innovation in areas such as space robotics follows on Canada's longstanding policy of developing expertise in "niche" areas such as communications satellite technology, remote imaging, and space robotics. 

Another goal of the framework involves "inspiring Canadians" with our space achievements. While the Canadarm and Canadarm2 have become such well-known symbols of Canadian excellence that Canadarm2 is now on our $5 bill, the CSA has often been criticized for the quality of its communications work.

The framework's call for "Canadian interests first" reflects the space program's economic goals, and also the security and sovereignty concerns whose new prominence can be called the signature change made by the Harper government in space policy.  

There are few concrete measures in the framework that haven't been announced before, aside from $17 million in new money for the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to Hubble, and even that is scarcely a surprise since the Canadian hardware for the new telescope has recently been built. Otherwise the framework, which was issued four days before a 2014 federal budget that will not likely contain relief from recent cutbacks to the Canadian space program, was silent on paying for any new initiatives. 

An announcement Moore made last December promising new committees to better coordinate multi-agency space efforts was contained in the framework, and this should assist Natynczyk in clearing up coordination problems that contributed to delays in the Radarsat Constellation program.

The presence of two Canadian astronauts, Jeremy Hansen and David Saint-Jacques, at Friday's announcement underlined the framework's provision that the Canadian astronaut program will continue into its fourth decade. With the U.S. space shuttle grounded, rides into space are few and far between, and hopefully this means that Hansen and Saint-Jacques will gain their first flight assignments in the not too distant future.

The new Space Policy Framework, while welcome, provides very little new for our $3.3 billion space industry and the 8,000 high-tech jobs tied to it. Its ultimate effect will depend on the actions and details not announced on Friday, some of which will become clearer in the 2014 federal budget and hopefully in a long term space plan.

The new space policy contains many reassuring words about the importance of Canada's space program and space industry, which suggests that the recent budget cutbacks may be coming to an end. But the words promise little more than a stand pat space program while the Harper government continues to put its highest economic priority on balancing its budget in 2015.

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