Space

The selling of space

A program stays aloft in an era of budget cuts

MARK NICHOLS May 27 1996
Space

The selling of space

A program stays aloft in an era of budget cuts

MARK NICHOLS May 27 1996

The selling of space

Space

A program stays aloft in an era of budget cuts

Sweating out the countdown for his second flight into space, Marc Garneau admitted that he felt like a kid again. “It’s the excitement of Christmas Eve when I was seven years old,” said the Canadian astronaut who first went into space on the shuttle Challenger in 1984 (15 months before Challenger exploded, killing all seven aboard). This week, Garneau,

47, was due to make a repeat journey into space on the shuttle Endeavour, on a mission devoted partly to preparing for the start of construction late next year of the orbiting space station Alpha. Besides its six human crew members, the shuttle was scheduled to carry other living creatures, which shared none of Garneau’s excitement. Housed in an onboard aquarium were thousands of embryonic starfish, blue mussels and baby sea urchins. Scientists hope that a series of experiments involving the animals, which Garneau will supervise in space, will shed light on human medical problems ranging from osteoporosis to birth defects. In the gravity-free conditions of space, said Garneau, “you can do things that are just not possible on Earth.”

In an era of government spending cutbacks, space program supporters, more than ever, are emphasizing the practical benefits of costly ventures beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Of course, the National

Aeronautics and Space Administration—a media darling in its Sixties heyday—has always put a premium on public relations, and it has continued its hard-sell approach as its glow and its funding have faded. NASA has billed its latest mission as the opening of “the commercial space frontier.” Endeavour, which was due to blast off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on May 19, was loaded with equipment for experiments in such fields as biotechnology and the development of new electronic materials. Four of the main experiments were designed by Canadian scientists, and much of the equipment for them

was built by Canadian firms. “Marc Garneau is going to be doing some neat stuff up there,” said Karl Doetsch, a vice-president of the Canadian Space Agency. “These experiments could help us go farther and faster in developing new technologies on Earth.”

During Endeavour’s 10 days in space, crew members planned to test a satellitebased global positioning system to see whether it can be used to maintain space station Alpha at a fixed angle in relation to the Earth when it begins operating in 2002. And using the Canadian-built Canadarm remote manipulator, Garneau

will help to deploy and retrieve an American Spartan satellite to test a 92-foot-long inflatable antenna. The purpose of the exercise: to see if such lightweight structures could be used on Alpha.

Much of Garneau’s time aloft will be spent in the shuttle’s Spacehab science module, where he will watch over a series of exotically named Canadian experiments, including NANO-GAS—a device for form-

ing sophisticated crystals in microgravity conditions—and the Commercial Float Zone Furnace, another system for developing space-age materials that could be used in such diverse areas as communications and laser surgery. And then there is the Canadian-designed Space Aquarium. One experiment is aimed at determining how embryonic starfish develop in weightless conditions—a process that could shed light on how birth defects arise in humans. Other experiments were designed by schoolkids, winners of a pre-launch promotional contest run by the CSA. Among them was a team at Saskatoon’s College Park School, which proposed putting food coloring into water to see how weightlessness affects diffusion. “It’s exciting,” said team member James Cooper, 12, “because things work differently in space.”

The CSA’s press agentry is hardly surprising: both NASA and its smaller Canadian counterpart have taken budget hits in recent years, with the U.S. agency’s annual funding declining by eight per cent since 1991 to its current level of $18.9 billion a year; during the past two years, the CSA’s budget tumbled by 28 per cent to $298 million in the current fiscal year. Is the investment in space paying off? Canadian scientists and entrepreneurs < insist it is. “If we were not inS volved in space,” says Daniel Labrie, a physicist at Halifax’s Dalhousie University who

helped design some of the Endeavour experiments aimed at developing high-tech materials, “we would be losing a unique scientific opportunity.”

Of course, space has another, more mystical allure. “It’s such a wonderful place,” said Garneau. “It has a magical quality. When you see Earth against the backdrop of infinite space, you can’t help wonder about mankind’s destiny.” For Garneau and his fellow enthusiasts, the destiny of the space program should be in no such doubt.

MARK NICHOLS