The past weeks have been transformative for the Canadian Space Agency. With the Prime Minister’s announcement of new funding to join the Lunar Gateway and the release of the Space Strategy, the government has shown it recognizes the importance of space. Canada is NASA’s first partner in the Lunar Gateway, an international laboratory and platform for science in a wide variety of disciplines. For Canada, the Lunar Gateway is part of a new initiative that includes the Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program (LEAP). LEAP will not only enable technology research and development by universities and small and medium-sized companies, it will also support science missions in lunar orbit, to the surface of the Moon, and for future deep space missions.
The new funding, spread out over 24 years (for Lunar Gateway) and 5 years (for LEAP) significantly augments the resources available for space exploration. Included in the budget released on March 19 were funds earmarked for space life science research with applications to medicine on Earth. Overall, I consider these budget allocations very promising for all of the communities that depend on and develop space infrastructure.
Like most scientists I meet, my research efforts are motivated by intense curiosity to understand how the world works, but science goals also play a key role in the development of new technologies. Scientists are ambitious and demanding, and mission opportunities are few and far between. As a result, science goals typically push engineering requirements far beyond the state of the art. As I hear repeatedly from industry, the exciting and challenging work of space science draws exceptional talent and keeps it in Canada.
A key tenet of the mandate of the Canadian Space Agency is “to advance the knowledge of space through science”, and the focused lunar programs are a window onto a wide landscape. The CSA continues to be committed to enabling a diverse array of space science activities, and the Space Strategy announced on March 6 is broader than these two lunar initiatives. As with any industrial community, a healthy scientific community is diverse, agile, and creative. We have a tremendous legacy of scientific excellence in the space arena in many fields. Canada is on Mars with the APSX instrument on the Curiosity rover, and we have contributed two key instruments to the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, a major upgrade from Hubble. The SCISAT mission (launched in 2003) continues to monitor important gases in our atmosphere, and Canadian instruments on the CASSIOPE and Swarm satellites track the impact from solar storms. Our science communities and their industrial partners are sought after by international partners because of this expertise, and potential next generation missions under development are being actively pursued by our scientists to enable their future research.
The Space Strategy also recognizes the importance of education and outreach, as does the March 19 budget through, for example, support for the STEM organisation “Let’s Talk Science.” This pillar of investment is essential. This month I visited an elementary school in London to talk to 160 grade 3 through 8 students about our astronaut program and David St-Jacques’ mission on the International Space Station. Within minutes of starting I was swamped with questions. They were so impressive and reflected the wide interests of the students: What happens if an astronaut gets sick? Are there animals in space? Which laws apply on the space station? Afterwards a grade 8 girl came up to ask me about becoming an astronomer. I heard later from teachers and parents that the students continued asking questions well after I had left. This kind of response happens all the time when we talk to students about space. We are not investing in space exploration only for the companies and scientists of today, but for the students now in elementary school who look forward to being the people who witness and make space exploration happen in 20 years. Their generation will also benefit from the innovation that happens along the way, as has ours from the technology developments that spin off from space science.
These new funds are an excellent first step towards reinvigourating a diverse space program, inspired by scientific curiosity and closely linked with Canada’s scientific community, that pushes technology and inspires the next generation. I’m looking forward to getting started to help make it happen.