Next steps into the final frontier

Western plays host to the 2012 Canadian Space Summit, Bridging Communities: Unifying the Canadian Space Sector, Nov. 14-16. This summit will address relevant issues in Canada’s current and future space program and the major roles that could be played by various participants and advocates, private sector companies, provincial and federal government organizations and academia.

Among the highlights, Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt will present the 9th annual Planetary Science Distinguished Public Lecture. Schmitt and crewmate Eugene Cernan were the last astronauts to set foot on the Moon.

In advance of the event, Western News reporter Adela Talbot spoke with Western professors Gordon Osinski, Peter Brown and Phil Stooke about Canada’s – and the world’s – next steps into the final frontier.

Where does the Canadian space program stand today?

Stooke: (Laughs) In limbo. Like everybody else, it’s very uncertain at the moment. Money is tight. It’s not quite clear where things are going.

Osinski: The budget cuts in government have definitely affected the Canadian Space Agency, but we do have people working on the Mars Science Laboratory Mission and OSIRIS-Rex has a Canadian contribution that will fly later on this decade. But definitely beyond that, things are up in the air.

Brown: But Canadian space industry, companies like MDA (MacDonald Dettwiler Space and Advanced Robotics Ltd.) and Com Dev, are still doing well, but commercially. There’s a lot of space activity for satellite communications, remote sensing, lots of that. But with pure exploration, there’s some ambiguity right now and that’s reflected from what’s happening south of the border. There’s still ambiguity there and it translates up here.

What expertise remains that’s purely Canadian? What does the world turn to Canada for?

Osinski: Robotics is still definitely a Canadian signature. Last week, they unveiled what they call ‘the next generation Canadarm’ and this was out of the stimulus package money. And it was MDA, again, but the system is for on-orbit servicing and MDA space missions – or the U.S. equivalent. There’s a new contract with the U.S. defense to do that type of thing – robotics capturing spacecraft in orbit. So at least commercially, they’re still coming to Canada for robotics.

Brown: RADARSAT – it’s a synthetic aperture radar commercial remote sensing. We’re pretty much unique in the world for that. That’s a big Canadian heavyweight.

In terms of space science – impact cratering and impact geology are something where Canada has been, and still is, pretty well placed. It’s not to say were the only place that does it, but there’s a lot of that and it’s a biggie.

Osinski: It’s not really a big contribution, but scientists from all over the world still come to Canada for the geography and geology – these analog sites. I’m working on a proposal now with a group from NASA who wants to come up to the Arctic to work on a new impact crater.

What do we need to accomplish in the next generation to continue being considered relevant?

Osinski: There needs to be a long-term space plan, which hasn’t existed for a number of years now, close to a decade. So there’s been a lot of stalemate and quagmire on the government level. There (have been) various acting presidents of the space agency, very different industry ministers and it’s resulted in the Canadian Space Agency not having a current ratified long-term space plan. Without that, it’s hard to predict the future and the space agency needs to get through these budget cuts, hopefully emerge stronger, and have more of a budget in the future.

Brown: I think, overall, Canada needs to decide, as a country, where our strengths lie and not try and compete cross the board, but to say ‘Here’s a few things’ – robotics comes to mind – and press that advantage, and try to take that to an international scale. We need more of that and less spreading ourselves over everything we want to accomplish.

Can humans still be considered explorers even though we’ve turned the journeys over to machines?

Osinski: We’re going to have a panel discussion on that Friday the 16th.

Brown: There is definitely an area where robotic exploration makes sense, but there is definitely a niche for human exploration. I don’t think it’s an either/or; I think it’s both, albeit one’s more expensive than the other. There’s no doubt about that. But, there are certain things humans can do that robotics can’t.

Why are we, as humans, not just Canadians, not further along in space than we currently are?

Stooke: I think money has to be considered a major factor in that. It’s no surprise the whole world is going through a difficult time at the moment and we have to hope that we will get through that and there will be more money. Then there are the other factors that drive space exploration – the desire for knowledge, spurring new technologies and so on, demonstrating our technological prowess to the world – all those kinds of things will take effect again when there’s more money. We have to go through a lean time right now and we have to get past that.