Experts looking ahead to Canada's new space plan early next year

MONTREAL – Experts and industry representatives are giving a cautious nod of approval to Industry Minister James Moore’s announcement that details of Canada’s new space plan will be released in the new year.

Moore told an aerospace forum in Montreal on Monday the Harper government’s space policy has now been completed and that he will make it public in a few months.

Mac Evans, a former president of the Canadian Space Agency, welcomed the fact Ottawa will finally let Canadians know where it stands.

“It’s been a while since the government has had a statement on how it views space and where it thinks space plays a role in the economy and the social and economic development of the country,” he told The Canadian Press.

Evans was head of the agency between 1994 and 2001.

“Just the fact that the government has made a statement about space and the importance and relevance of space, I think that’s a very good first step.”

But former astronaut-tuned-Liberal MP Marc Garneau remains skeptical.

“After slashing its space budget by 10 per cent and doing almost nothing for eight years, forgive my skepticism, at the new-found government love for space,” the one-time head of the Canadian Space Agency tweeted.

The agency’s annual budget was set at $300 million in 1999. It now stands at $260 million.

Garneau dismissed Moore’s announcement as “mostly words and future promises, with very little substance.”

Moore’s statement was part of the government’s response to the recommendations of the Emerson report, which was tabled a year ago.

The report put together by former cabinet minister David Emerson criticized the Canadian space program, saying it had been floundering.

Moore told space industry executives the government will examine all opportunities to work with the private sector and Canada’s international partners to encourage innovation in the country’s space activities.

“This framework will provide the foundation for the next phase of our government’s space program,” he said.

“It will be based on the principles of partnership with other countries and the private sector, catering to our strengths and inspiring Canadians.”

A background paper says the plan will outline the government’s strategic goals for its space activities, which include jobs and growth, sovereignty, security and the advancement of knowledge.

The space agency’s first plan was approved in 1986, with the second 10-year plan getting the green light in June 1994. The government then approved a “Canadian Space Strategy” in February 2005 which replaced the long-term plan.

Steve MacLean, who quit as CSA president earlier this year, brought forward a long-term space plan in 2009 but the government never acted on it.

Dave Caddey of MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. of Richmond, B.C., better known as MDA, called Moore’s announcement an important first step.

“To me, one of the most important things was the minister committed to continuing the dialogue through the advisory group with industry,” said MDA’s executive vice-president.

Following up on the Emerson report’s recommendations, Moore announced various actions, including the establishment of a space advisory board composed of industry leaders and chaired by Walt Natynczyk, head of the Canadian Space Agency.

“It’s been a while I think since we’ve had a really good engagement between the government and industry on where do we want to go in space,” Caddey added.

Moore also said the government will double current support for its space technologies development program to $20 million annually by 2015-2016.

“This will bring the kind of predictability and stability of funding that you asked for,” he told his audience. “And (it) will help develop more groundbreaking space technologies that Canadian space companies are so recognized for.”

Iain Christie, executive vice-president of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada, said he wants to see the next federal budget before making any predictions about when the space industry will rev up again.

“We will know more about that when we see the budget — not just the federal budget — but also the space agency’s revision of their own internal spending estimates,” he said.