In the October issue of Canadian Geographic, four Canadian space experts — Melissa Battler, Wayne Ellis, Chris Gainor and Bryan Versteeg* — gathered to discuss what’s next for the country’s space program and industry. Their wide-ranging conversation tackled the state of the Canadian Space Agency, human space exploration, the next frontier for Canada in space and more. Not all of the questions and answers made it into the magazine, however, so here are a few more of the panelists’ insights.
*While he was a full and valued participant in the discussion, Bryan Versteeg chose not to respond to the questions that appear here. You can see his answers to other questions in the October issue of Canadian Geographic. Ed.
Melissa Battler is the senior academic program designer at the University of Western Ontario’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration, where she earned a PhD studying the mineralogy of Canadian Arctic cold springs and the detection of spring deposits on Mars.
Wayne Ellis is the president of the Canadian Space Society. He has more than 20 years of military experience and more than seven years of experience as an aerospace consultant. He has an MSc in space science from the Royal Military College, in Kingston, Ont.
Chris Gainor is a writer and historian of technology who has written four books and numerous articles on the history of space exploration and aeronautics in Canada and elsewhere. He is second vice-president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
Bryan Versteeg is a conceptual designer for space exploration and advanced technologies, a co-founder of the space-resources company Deep Space Industries and a manufacturing-technology startup called Freespace Composites. He is also the head concept designer for the Mars One mission, which aims to have the first human settlement established on the red planet by 2025.
There was concern voiced from some quarters over the militarization of space following former Gen. Walter Natynczyk’s appointment as president of the Canadian Space Agency in 2013. Are those valid concerns? What’s the relationship like between the military and those who work more on the pure science or exploration side of the space industry?
Wayne Ellis: What Gen. Natynczyk brings to the Canadian Space Agency is a high level of leadership. It might be a step down for him in size and budget compared to the Canadian Forces, but he’s taken the reins of an organization that has had a troubled past and trying to find its way forward. He has the expertise to do that. That said, you can map a number of the current military space capabilities that Canada has to things that Natynczyk had been part of or had supported while he was still in the forces. So he’s no stranger to space and what it can do on the security side, but he’s very aware that being a military guy and talking about space security can be a bit muddled, and make people draw the wrong conclusion. I don’t think it really matters who’s in the president’s office and talking about space security, because the answer is still the same: Canada has to first address the essential services and needs of Canadians, and doing so involves space security. Then it can look at developing new technology, working with partners and developing space commerce opportunities for Canadian companies, and continuing exploration.
Chris Gainor: Our space program had its roots in the military. Department of National Defence scientists built the Alouette-style satellite back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. For a long time after that period, the military was kind of absent from space, but it has come back in the last few years, coinciding with the time that Gen. Natynczyk was prominent in the military, with things like Sapphire and NEOSSat [Sapphire is Canada’s first operational military satellite, while NEOSSat is a space telescope that detects and tracks asteroids and satellites; both were launched in February 2013. Ed.] and increased use of RADARSAT. So there is a relationship there, but it started off with scientific research. I see Gen. Natynczyk as a pair of fresh eyes looking at the agency. He’s not an insider, so he might be able to make some changes. And he also knows his way around Ottawa and has relationships with the people who have power there, which is very helpful. There is the militarization issue, but I think it’s more germane in the context of decisions around whether Canada would get involved in ballistic missile defence, and I don’t view Gen. Natynczyk’s appointment as a concern in that sense.
What are the prospects for Canada having a significant role in the next NASA or another space agency’s mission?
Melissa Battler: Well, we do have involvement with a lot of the ongoing missions, including some of the major ones. For example, we have a former student who works at mission control for the Mars Curiosity rover. That kind of work is going to continue and get stronger, because we’re building a pipeline in Canada and here at the Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration for training the next generation of explorers.
Chris Gainor: The huge issue hanging over Canada’s human space program is which direction the United States is going to go. We have two parallel programs going on over there; there’s NASA’s space launch system, and then there’s the private efforts, including SpaceX, Orbital, and the spacecraft that are servicing the International Space Station, which will hopefully soon be able to carry people, not just cargo. The Chinese are certainly an interesting possibility, but continuing tensions over various political and economic issues between the United States and China and Canada and China makes that future murky. There’s also the European Space Agency, which the Canadian Space Agency is a cooperating member of. They’ve developed a great capability, and while they haven’t taken the jump of creating a spacecraft that could send astronauts into space, they wouldn’t have to do very much. Then there’s India, which is also developing major capability, and we have links with them, too. How it’s all going to play out in the next few years is hard to figure out because it’s so complicated, politically and fiscally.
Wayne Ellis: Canada does have an opportunity to position itself to help the global governance for safe conduct in space. The danger when we talk about China or Russia, of course, is the issue of entanglement with things that are happening on Earth. Our relationship with the Russians and the International Space Station is a good example. Up until now, that relationship has been relatively isolated from the Russia-Ukraine conflict, but that may change. Look at what happened with M3MSat [Canada’s Maritime Monitoring and Messaging Micro-Satellite was scheduled to be launched in June on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft; the launch was cancelled after the Russia-Ukraine conflict began. Ed.]. Now, people are already talking about whether the Russians are going to renew their partnership on the International Space Station, or go down different routes on their own or with other partners. Depending on the situation, these kinds of relationships represent ties that could either help or hinder our space program in the future.