Space needs more Canada – but Canada needs a better approach to space

This op-ed appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on April 1st, 2019, and is reproduced in full below. It can be found here:

Cassandra Steer Updated: April 1, 2019

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to high school students at the Canadian Space Agency headquarters on Feb. 28, in St. Hubert, Que. Ryan Remiorz / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Recently, Canada announced a New Space Strategy, under the title “Exploration, Imagination, Innovation,” and the audience the government chose for the official launch was a group of kindergarten to grade six school children: our future astronauts and space engineers. A wonderful, creative move.

However, the attention given to the Junior Astronaut program may have been a distraction from the gaping holes in the strategy, which require more attention.

Space security is an important piece of the puzzle, and is largely ignored in the strategy. We are so dependent on space technologies for our daily activities — think TV, telecommunications, GPS, international banking — that we need to protect them from existing threats such as cyber attacks, and from future threats.

Space security is an important piece of the puzzle, and is largely ignored in the strategy.

Just last week, India announced proudly that it successfully tested a kinetic anti-satellite weapon by destroying one of its own satellites, and that it has thereby joined the élite club of China, Russia and the United States, which have demonstrated this capability in recent years.

Also, the UN Group of Governmental Experts has been meeting in Geneva to discuss the prevention of an arms race in outer space, discussions in which representatives from Canada have been taking part. The need for a co-ordinated, thoughtful policy that highlights Canada’s commitment to proactive deterrence is real, and it needs to be whole-of-government.

But there is a huge gaping hole in the strategy when it comes to the role Canada could play as a leader in developing international norms of responsible behaviour in space.

In 2018, the Department of National Defence released its policy document Strong, Secure, Engaged, in which it stated clearly and boldly that it wanted to work with other government departments to ensure Canada took a lead in developing international norms.

File photo of Alouette, Canada’s first satellite, being prepped for action. X / 3v0H@

The New Space Strategy fails to take this up, repeating briefly that there is a commitment to such norms, but offering no further steps. Such norms are necessary to protect the safety, security and sustainability of space long-term.

A whole-of-government approach is also necessary if we are to excel in the future of space commerce: satellites for better climate tracking, to support Canadian farmers, to improve search and rescue, space tourism, deep space observation, and partnering with the U.S. on the Lunar Gateway project to establish a space station on the moon. This is where the New Space Strategy places most of its focus, and it does so well.

However, the strategy misses an important opportunity for Canada to have a co-ordinated approach to space, and to truly take a lead internationally. Other nations still see Canada as a credible, peaceful international player, and we have been active in space since the beginning, being the third nation to launch a satellite at the beginning of the space age, after the Soviets and the U.S.

Where the strategy focuses on investing in future generations of space engineers and astronauts, and supporting Canadian companies to participate in the new commercial space race, it does a great job. But there seems to have been an important step missed: How can we have a national strategy (a “how to”) if we don’t yet have a national policy (a “what”)?

There is still work for the government here, to connect the dots between the Canadian Space Agency, Global Affairs Canada, DND, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, and other departments directly or indirectly involved in space, and to have a co-ordinated international presence. It’s time to become a mature space-faring nation, and that requires a National Space Policy to back up the intention of this New Space Strategy.