The future of Canada’s space program

(Kayleigh Valentine / The McGill Policy Association)

(Kayleigh Valentine / The McGill Policy Association)

China recently made headlines when its space agency became the first in history to land a rover on the dark side of the moon. This latest achievement by China is just one in a sequence of missions that aim to reach ambitious milestones in the coming years, including a brand-new space station set for completion in 2022. The U.S. also has plans for future advancements in space. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) agency will begin construction of a new space station set to orbit the moon by 2023. While these global superpowers have been two of the leading nations in space exploration throughout the twenty-first century, along with Russia, historically, Canada has also had its hand in space. But how is Canada currently participating in space exploration and where will it stand in the event of a reignited space race?

Canada boasts of an impressive history in space. In 1962, it became just the third nation to enter space with the launch of satellite Alouette-1. It was also the first nation to have its own domestic communications satellite in space, with the Anik-1 in 1972, and Canadian-made robot arms, dubbed Canadarm, were vital to 90 NASA missions and assembled three-quarters of the International Space Station, which is the size of five NHL hockey rinks. This year, an impressive project, the RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM), will launch three remote-sensing satellites to monitor all of Canada’s land and ocean territories and 95 per cent on the world’s surface and is scheduled for late February.

In Canada, the space sector contributed $2.3 billion to Canada’s GDP and supported 21,654 jobs. Yet despite its high involvement in space exploration, the country does not currently have a National Space Policy. In 2014, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) published a Space Policy Framework, with the intention of using it to create a National Space Policy, but this has yet to happen.  

The recent advancements made by the U.S. and China have prompted Canadians to question their own space program, especially after the U.S. announced its intentions to create a military “space force.” With concern growing that Russia and China may be attempting to tamper with U.S. satellites, fears that Canadian satellites may be vulnerable to cyber-attack or missile strike are growing as well. As such, Canadian military experts have suggested that Canada should consider creating its own “space force.” Others, such as the New Democratic Party (NDP), have opposed the idea of the militarization of space, which would violate the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. However, some experts have noted that Canada’s Air Force is already involved in space and Canada already has an operational military satellite, launched in 2013, called Sapphire. With the military currently engaged in space and the threat of attacks on satellites growing, it is likely that Canada’s next National Defense Policy will include a more clear outline of the Canadian military’s objectives in space.

Should Canada contribute to the emerging space race, it will surely have many partners. In the 2014 Space Policy Framework, the CSA states that one of the government’s priorities is to “position the private sector at the forefront of space activities.” It is true that nations are no longer the only participants in the space industry, as private companies such as Neptec, based in Kanata, Ontario, are contributing to space technology innovation, such as on Canadarm2. Another priority is to pursue “progress through partnerships” and “collaboration with international partners.” An example of one such partnership is the James Webb Space Telescope, which will replace the famous Hubble Space Telescope as a more advanced version and will be launched by the U.S. in 2021. As of 2015, Canada had contributed $162.6 million to the construction of the telescope, which will be the most powerful space telescope in history. Canada will most likely have to pursue similar partnerships with the U.S. if it aims to become involved in a new space race.