Monday, 2 March 2015

CSA's New President May Be The Only Change

The rotunda in the Canadian Space Agency headquarters in St. Hubert, Quebec. CSA Photo

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper pulled Walter Natynczyk from the presidency of the Canadian Space Agency last October to try to bring order to the troubled and politically sensitive Veterans Affairs Department, I predicted that interim CSA president Luc Brûlé would remain in place until after the next federal election.

I was proven wrong on Friday when Harper appointed longtime civil servant Sylvain Laporte to the top job at the CSA, effective March 9.

Laporte, educated in computer engineering at the Royal Military College, served in the air force and the Department of National Defence before working a number of years at the Canada Post Corporation, where he headed marketing efforts. In 2007 he moved on to Industry Canada, the department that includes the CSA. Since 2011, he has been Commissioner of Patents and Registrar of Trademarks at the Canadian Intellectual Property Office.

Like Natynczyk, a former chief of the defence staff, Laporte has a background in defence unrelated to the work of the CSA, which allows him to approach his new job with fresh eyes. But while Natynczyk was well known to the public and the politicians in Ottawa, Laporte is not so well known.

As Chuck Black notes in his Commercial Space Blog, Laporte's appointment suggests that CSA will put a greater emphasis on commercialization and marketing.

Natynczyk had barely two years at the helm of the space agency, and during that time the CSA began to be pulled out of the policy ditch with a space policy framework announced a year ago following the Emerson Report into Canada's aerospace sector.

The framework is still short of being a full policy, and changes in the U.S. space program mean that the leadership of the CSA and the government must soon make decisions about the future directions of Canada's space program.

In the meantime, the agency has struggled under the Harper government's budget cuts, and the lack of Canadian government business is forcing Canadian space contractors to look outside our borders for business.

Even though Laporte enters office ahead of a federal election that is due to take place in October but could happen sooner, any new directions the agency might take will await the counting of the votes.

Canada's space program has never been a factor in a federal election, and expectations that this year would be different have been dashed.

A year ago, hopes were expressed that the Liberal party would put a greater emphasis on space than has been the case in the past. One of the leading figures on the Liberal team going into the election is veteran MP Marc Garneau, Canada's first astronaut and also a former CSA president. But two other strong candidates with space program backgrounds failed to win Liberal nominations last fall.

The NDP has been quiet on space issues. And while a backbench Conservative MP from the North Bay area, Jay Aspin, announced the formation of a Parliamentary Space Caucus last November, nothing has been heard about this initiative since then.

While the Canadian space sector awaits the outcome of the election, Laporte will have time to learn the ropes of his new job. But like his predecessors, Laporte will probably have to deal with a government that is not interested in the work of his agency.

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