Tuesday, 11 March 2014

The Canadian Space Agency at 25

The headquarters of the Canadian Space Agency, Saint-Hubert, Quebec. Chris Gainor photo

March 1 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the creation of the Canadian Space Agency, a milestone that has gone almost unnoticed.

One reason for this lack of profile may be that the space agency was created in 1989, long after Canada had begun to make its name in space with satellites, the Canadarm and even its first astronaut. Another reason may have been the release in February of the Harper government's long-awaited Space Policy Framework at a moderately high profile event in Ottawa.

The CSA's birthday does call for some reflection, particularly as the agency undergoes change under its new president, Walter Natynczyk, and the new Canadian Space Policy Framework.

Canada's space program got under way in late 1958 when the Canadian government and the U.S. space agency NASA agreed to work together on exploration of the Earth's ionosphere. The result was the creation of Canada's first satellite, Alouette l, and its launch into orbit atop a U.S. launch vehicle in September 1962. Alouette was built by scientists who worked for Canada's Department of National Defence.

During the 1960s, Canada built three successors for Alouette, and then shifted into the field of communications satellites, which remains a focus of Canadian space efforts to the present day. More agencies got involved in Canadian space efforts, including the National Research Council of Canada, Telesat Canada, a Crown Corporation created for Canadian communications satellites,  and the Department of Communications.

Although several government reports and the Canadian aerospace industry called for creation of a Canadian space agency, the Trudeau government instead created an interdepartmental committee to direct Canada's space program. The unwieldy structure existed for nearly 20 years, even as Canada's space program continued to grow with the start of the Canadarm program in the 1970s and the Canadian Astronaut Program and the RADARSAT program in the 1980s.

Finally, in 1986, Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative  government promised a space agency, but controversy quickly followed. Most Canadian space programs were headquartered in Ottawa, but Montreal quickly mounted an aggressive effort to have the new agency located in that city. This question, along with growing concern over the costs of Canada's contribution to what became the International Space Station, put the promise on the back burner as an election approached in 1988.

On March 1, 1989, a little more than three months after the Mulroney government emerged victorious in that election, the government announced the creation of the CSA effective that day under the presidency of Dr. Larkin Kerwin, who up to then had headed the NRC. The government also announced that the new agency would be based in the Montreal area.

The location of the CSA headquarters in Montreal was controversial because many anglophone employees based in Ottawa did not wish to move, and because many people feared that an agency located outside Ottawa would have difficulty making itself heard in the nation's capital. But legislation formalizing the creation of CSA was passed later in 1989, and soon the new headquarters was under construction at a former military airport in the south shore suburb of Saint-Hubert, distant even from downtown Montreal.

While Canada's space program has achieved many things under the direction of the CSA, including the creation of the Mobile Servicing System for the ISS, many Canadian astronaut flights, the launch of two RADARSAT satellites, new scientific satellites, continuance of Canadian leadership in communications satellite technologies, and involvement in multinational research efforts on Mars and beyond, it has done so with flat budgets, a lack of long term planning, and an often low profile. These problems led to calls for new coordinating bodies to assist CSA, both in a recent review of Canada's aerospace industry and in the Space Policy Framework. 

The CSA has sometimes enjoyed strong leadership under people like Mac Evans, who led the agency from 1994 to 2001. Former astronaut Stephen MacLean resigned as president last year after failing to get his plans approved, and the Harper government turned to the recently retired Chief of the Defence Staff of the Canadian Forces, Gen. Walter Natynczyk, to take over the CSA. Natynczyk has had a taste of success with the new Space Policy Framework, but it remains to be seen whether he can maintain the momentum as the Harper government continues to call for austerity and NASA remains mired in the battle between the Obama administration and Congress over the future of the U.S. human space program.

The CSA has not met the hopes of its supporters, and some blame its location in Montreal for this problem. Certainly the fact that the status of Quebec has fallen off Ottawa's policy radar in recent years hasn't helped (although next month's provincial election there may change that) .

But it is also true that space has rarely been a big policy issue in Ottawa because Canada spends relatively little money on space - even on a per capita basis, our space program costs only a fraction of the U.S. space program. With limited government involvement, Canada has enjoyed a high rate of return on its investment in space in terms of international profile, jobs and export revenues. Canada's space program has rarely been the subject of controversy or partisan division, which may paradoxically lower its profile in Ottawa.

For the present, many observers continue to hope that Natynczyk, with his experience in Ottawa as head of Canada's military, will strengthen the CSA during his time as president. Given the agency's relatively low profile, a change of government may not affect its fortunes.


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