- The recent injection of $2.05-billion into Canada’s space sector over the next 24 years, combined with Canada’s Space Strategy, has repositioned Canada to once again be competitive in the space economy.
- Now that there are new funding opportunities, small start-ups should focus on partnering first – with academia, industry stakeholders, larger players – and developing their product in a collaborative way.
- Canada must focus on retaining the top international space talent our academic institutions produce. The innovation potential those individuals represent and the IP they produce must remain in Canada to drive forward the Canadian space industry.
Canadian government needs to provide a vision and framework through which the space industry can deliver. It needs to ensure that the space policy framework creates an environment which presents a level playing field for all companies, and stimulates true key industrial capabilities for Canada; intellectual property which resides here, and jobs and profits that remain in Canada. We have proven time and again that Canada has the talent and the desire to innovate in space, so let’s retain that talent.
How would you currently rank Canada’s competitiveness in the space economy?
Canada’s competitiveness in space just changed. Prime Minister Trudeau committed Canada to the Lunar Orbiting Platform-Gateway with an injection of $2.05-billion into Canada’s space sector over the next 24 years. During that same period of time, Canada’s Space Strategy – Exploration, Imagination, Innovation, was published to provide a much-needed official policy vision. This strategy will inform industry leaders of the government’s priorities so they can position themselves to support them. It also puts a framework in place for funding requests to the treasury. The Space Strategy focuses on several main areas, most notably participation in the Lunar Gateway Mission, which will leverage Canada’s expertise in space robotics technology and will provide continuity for the Canadian astronaut program.Other main pillars include a focus on security and sovereignty, educating and inspiring Canadian youth, improving remote medicine and health care, and enhancing food production in harsh environments. These are incredible and necessary milestones, because prior to that, we were losing ground to other countries in this very important segment of the economy.
“The Space Strategy focuses on several main areas, most notably participation in the Lunar Gateway Mission, which will leverage Canada’s expertise in space robotics technology and will provide continuity for the Canadian astronaut program.”
The announcement also includes a $150-million allocation to the Canada Space Agency (CSA) over the next five years for an accelerator program called LEAP to spur projects by Canadian companies to develop technologies related to the Lunar Gateway. This should allow smaller Canadian companies to benefit from investment and stimulate innovation.
If you go back to when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) succeeded in putting a man on the moon, that was a key moment in time where you are either there and pushing forward with it or you are left behind. Had we not become an active player in Lunar Gateway with a solid space strategy in place, Canada would have missed this defining opportunity.
What are we doing well in the space sector, and what are the gaps that we should be addressing?
Canada’s innovation superclusters have developed some great work with artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. AI is a huge enabler in space, not only in manufacturing but also on the exploration side, because as we talk about going on deeper space missions, we might not always have a crew to complete them. Instead, there will be semi- and fully-autonomous operations, and an element of AI is a propeller of that.
Canada is already a global leader in health research and we can bring some of that ground-breaking work done on the ground into the space domain and vice-versa. We can do a lot of research in space that will have benefits on the Earth.Astronauts are not just going up into orbit for six months anymore; they are going to be in space for some extended periods of time and could require medical attention and check-ups. The R&D we are doing will help us prepare for this eventuality
“Canada is already a global leader in health research and we can bring some of that ground-breaking work done on the ground into the space domain and vice-versa. We can do a lot of research in space that will have benefits on the Earth.”
AGDA and a partner organization of space medical experts have recently been awarded a contract with the Canadian Space Agency to conduct research and medical training for long duration space missions so that the medical officer and members of the mission crew can maintain a state of medical readiness.
There is a bit of latency when a space unit communicates with the International Space Station, but once you get into Lunar Gateway, and certainly on the way to Mars, we are looking at delays of many minutes. A lot can happen in a medical emergency in 20 minutes. Astronauts on these long missions need to be trained medically and need to have resources and tools in their craft that will be completely different than what exists today. That is definitely an area in which there will be a lot of development, giving Canada an opportunity to show leadership.
Having strengths in robotics is also important because it remains expensive to send rockets to space. Everyone talks about how much cheaper it is, which is true, but it’s still not like flying in an aircraft. It remains a major mission to get humans off of this planet, and that’s why there will continue to be a place for robotics. Space is a very good proving ground for core robotic capabilities and systems used in nuclear power plants or medical robotics. If you think of Canadarm and the fine precision the Canadian manipulator system was able to complete up in space, those learnings translate really well to robotics used for surgical procedures because the precision element and the human safety factors are all very similar.
“We designed Canadarm and Canadarm 2 — the unit that is depicted on the back of the Canadian five-dollar bill — and that has become crucial to operations aboard the International Space Station.”
On the manufacturing side, Canada is not as strong. The manufacturing space sector is held predominantly by large multinationals because of the lack of a strategic statement by the Canadian government in the past where there had been a shift of assets flowing away from Canada. It is really good to see a new policy there because we do have strong manufacturing capabilities that we should aim to replicate. We designed Canadarm and Canadarm 2 — the unit that is depicted on the back of the Canadian five-dollar bill — and that has become crucial to operations aboard the International Space Station.There is no reason that we could not once again become a player in the space manufacturing sector. In fact, the centrepiece of Canada’s involvement in Lunar Gateway will be supplying a robotic arm that Prime Minister Trudeau called “Canadarm 3”.
As the relative cost of space investment decreases, enabling more private and public actors to enter into the space economy, what impact will that have on the regulatory framework of operating within the space economy? Can Canada play a leadership role in defining these rules?
There are many areas in which Canada can play a leadership role in developing the regulatory framework for space. The government needs to provide a vision and framework through which the industry can deliver. As a privately held Canadian company, it is becoming increasingly difficult to compete with large multinationals. The Canadian government needs to ensure that the space policy framework creates an environment which presents a level playing field for all companies, and stimulates true key industrial capabilities for Canada; intellectual property which resides here, and jobs and profits that remain in Canada. We have proven time and again that Canada has the talent and the desire to innovate in space, so let’s retain that talent. If you look at Canadarm, which is an MDA asset with MDA now being part of Maxar, a U.S.-based aerospace firm, it would be a crying shame if Canada invested all that money to then have our talent and investment erode over time. It needs to remain in Canada.
What would your advice be to a Canadian entrepreneur considering the possibilities in the space economy?
My advice is to not be so insular but to think of the big picture and to look around you and partner. Many small start-ups operate independently. Instead, you should find good partners. Partner with academia, partner with industry stakeholders, partner with the larger players and look to the government because there is now a lot of funding coming out. As a start-up, you are going to have some gaps and you are going to have some inabilities, such as funding.Start-ups often do not have the faintest idea of how to even begin to go about putting a bid together. They have the scientific knowledge but not necessarily the technical and business knowledge, so they need to broaden their circle.
“Partner with academia, partner with industry stakeholders, partner with the larger players and look to the government because there is now a lot of funding coming out.”
Traditionally, in the space economy, companies have been known to compete against each other for a small amount of funds. But just because your business interests are similar to another company’s, it does not mean you have to compete — a partnership is a way for everyone to win, especially for the small players. A lot of them can leverage their activities effectively. Space is a very technical, complex domain and you can be good at a small piece of it. Why not use expertise from someone else who is good at another small piece of it and together you can make some impactful progress? In fact, recently there was an announcement about the Student Work-Integrated Learning Program (SWILP), which provides further investment into small start-ups or other companies to hire interns and co-op students.
So, take advantage of that range of government funding opportunities to develop your capabilities or products. The Starburst and the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) are great business accelerators to connect with as a first step.
Are our academic institutions up to the task of generating that next wave of talent needed to win in the space economy?
Absolutely. The Canadian academic system is one of the pipelines to the US and other consumers of space scientists. I think our academia is more than up to it and Canada has brilliant minds coming out of its schools.
We have a robust co-op program across the company but especially in the space division. We have had some incredibly talented individuals that have gone through our program. Canada generates leading bright minds to the point that they have been pulled away to Germany or San Francisco. It is a real loss to Canada when we lose our top space talent. Those individuals are at the genesis of our innovation; when they leave, that potential is lost to us. That is our supply chain, that is our source of expertise, so the ability to retain and nurture these individuals is key.
“It is a real loss to Canada when we lose our top space talent. Those individuals are at the genesis of our innovation […] That is our supply chain, that is our source of expertise, so the ability to retain and nurture these individuals is key.”
Canadian students are clamouring to be involved in space. When you go to space industry conferences, every student that you see there is passionate about space and they really want to be involved. Up until recently, they would say, “I really want to do it but the only thing I think I can do is go get a job at SpaceX.”
By the same token, having projects that are exciting like Lunar Gateway now gives us that fertile ground in which we can nurture that talent and keep it on Canadian ground and in Canadian space operations.