Everyone’s space innovations are cooler than ours

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As news of upcoming space ventures and innovations floods in from other countries, Canada has finally reassessed the future of its space program. The gap between Canada’s space program and other countries’ provides a sobering look at Canadian space innovation. If the Canadian government approves more funding, Canada could look past its resource-based economy and embrace leading-edge innovation in space-based technologies — Canada just needs to begin thinking of space in terms of profit instead of research.

Canada can be proud of its 50-year history in space, highlighted by the mascots for Canadian robotics, Canadarm and Canadarm 2. Canada was the third country to launch a satellite into space and the first country to put a 
communications satellite in orbit. 

However, over the last few years the Canadian space industry has been on a rollercoaster ride. On one hand, media-savvy astronaut Chris Hadfield became the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station two weeks ago. But on the other hand, Steve MacLean stepped down as CSA president last month, seven months before his mandate was over. Before that, the Canadian Space Agency’s budget fell by 14 per cent in 2012.

After receiving $397 million in 2010 for the Radarsat Constellation program, the CSA’s budget dropped from $424.6 million in 2011 to $363.4 million in 2012, with the 2012 federal budget calling for decreased spending of $29.5 million by 2015. The government took a step back in its 2013 budget and did not provide a budget for the CSA. The Economic Action Plan merely said the government is considering the advice laid out in an Aerospace Review released last November and intends to provide further information on the budget later this year.

The review accused the Canadian space industry of lacking a sufficient “clarity of purpose” and of failing to adapt to “new global realities.”

What Canada doesn’t seem to understand is that the global market for space travel is becoming competitive, and the Canadian space industry can’t seem to keep up.

New space-based business initiatives have been announced in the last four months. The Golden Spike Company, headed by a team of former NASA executives, plans to provide a trip for two to the moon for $1.4 billion. The not-for-profit Mars One intends to send applicants to Mars by 2023 to film a reality television show about colonizing the red planet and recently released the list of qualifications. Deep Space Industries unveiled their plans to send small, affordable FireFly spacecraft to find valuable asteroids by 2014, followed by larger DragonFlies that will mine the asteroids and bring back valuable resources. Deep Space Industries made headlines again last month after claiming that asteroid 2012 DA14, which passed near Earth on Feb. 15, was worth $195 billion. London-based architecture firm Foster and Partners announced plans to print habitats in 3D on the moon from lunar soil. And billionaire Dennis Tito, the first private space tourist who funded his own trip into space in 2001, wants to send a couple on a round trip to Mars.

Late to the game, Christian Paradis, Canadian minister of industry responsible for the CSA, announced the successful launch of a new Canadian space telescope and a $15.8-million contract for a laser altimeter to scan and build 3D models of asteroids. The telescope — the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite — is designed to detect and track small objects passing near Earth, which are too small for ground-based telescopes to detect. The altimeter will be used on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission in 2016 to retrieve a sample of material from an asteroid. However, the projected date of NASA and CSA’s asteroid sampling comes two years after Deep Space Industries intends to begin mining operations. While new companies are eyeing space as a profitable investment with possible returns taking as little as two years, Canada is still approaching space as an expensive research endeavour.

The contrast between the Canadian space industry and other international corporations highlights the Council of Canadian Academies 2009 results about how Canadian businesses aren’t innovating as much as businesses in other countries. The study found that on average Canadian businesses are not leaders in technological innovation but are followers in global market trends and have low productivity growth and consistently lower research and development spending than other countries who belong to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Swarms of asteroid-mining satellites and reality TV aren’t required for a space program to be competitive — most industries now rely on space-based technologies in some capacity. But as the CCA study points out, Canada’s continued focus on a natural resource economy is detrimental to future innovation, promoting an upstream mentality that distances Canadian companies from those who foster innovation.

The priorities of Canada’s Economic Action Plan are responsible resource development, perimeter security, ship building and developing Canada’s north. The CSA’s Radarsat Constellation Mission, which has now reached a cost of over $1 billion since it began in 2005 and won’t launch until 2018, seems to be designed with exactly those priorities in mind. The three-satellite system will provide coverage of Canada’s land and ocean, specifically maritime surveillance, disaster management and monitoring of Canada’s ecosystems. The project replaces an existing two-satellite Radarsat system and promotes a status-quo approach to innovation, improving existing systems rather than searching for profits in new markets.

Canada is taking what’s worked and making it more efficient, while foreign businesses take risks for greater profits. There is an opportunity for Canada to change gears and begin approaching space in a different way. If the opportunity is missed, Canada will fall behind.