The record number of delays of the planned launch of the space shuttle Columbia in Florida took place at a time when criticism of the troubled shuttle program and its ultimate goal —a permanent orbiting space station—reached a new height. In the current issue of Scientific American magazine, space scientist James Van Allen, discoverer in 1958 of the radiation belts that surround the Earth, blamed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) program for “the progressive loss of U.S. leadership in space science.” Added Van Allen: “NASA made a wildly overoptimistic estimate of the cost-effectiveness of the shuttle. I see no reason to be any more confident about NASA’s economic forecasts for the space station.” Supporting that position in an editorial last week, The New York Times called the space station “an $8billion white elephant.”
But no doubts were apparent among Canadian officials currently negotiating an estimated $600-million investment in the space station. The details of the project will be announced in February, and so far it has elicited near-universal enthusiasm among Canadian scientists, politicians and editorialists. Said Peter Munsche, executive director of the Toronto-based Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIAR): “That the space station is going ahead is not in question. Given that, Canada is getting a bargain.” Indeed, Munsche said that opposition to the project in the United States has made Canada’s involvement even more enticing by strengthening its ability to negotiate a prime piece of space station business. He added, “In the United States there is a big budget reduction. Now they need us even more for our financial contribution.”
A great deal of the enthusiasm for the project is a result of the importance of the component that Canada has chosen to build—the Integrated Servicing and Test Facility (ISTF), which will be used for refuelling, re-
pairing and assembling satellites and other spacecraft. The CIAR reported that the technology needed to develop the project will be essential in keeping Canada’s industries internationally competitive; indeed, others have estimated that the revenues realized from earth-based and space applications could be as high as $5 billion by the year 2000. Essentially, the ISTF builds on the technology of the successful Canadarm, which Spar Aerospace Ltd. of Toronto developed for the space shuttles. Spar spokesman Christopher Trump told Maclean's that the advanced robotic systems developed for the Canadarm have already produced
significant spinoff benefits in mining and the repair of nuclear reactors.
The job of building the ISTF is considered so attractive that the Americans are still considering doing it themselves, according to Karl Doetsch, a member of the National Research Council team that is currently debating the final details of the Canadian plans with NASA. He added that neither the European Space Agency nor the Japanese government, which plan to spend $2.5 billion and $1.5 billion respectively on the construction of zero-gravity laboratories in the space station, has managed to secure positions as integral or potentially lucrative as Canada’s. For his part,
Munsche said that the CIAR advised the government that if it were not successful in securing the rights to build the ISTF, it should stay out of the space station altogether.
Canada’s estimated investment of $60 million per year over the next decade will account for about 40 per cent of the government’s total spending on space research. Liberal science critic David Berger says he is concerned that enthusiasm for the space station may cut into other worthwhile research projects. Added Berger: “We support the space station in principle, but it would be foolish to fund that project if it means not acting positively on other
major areas of scientific activity.” But Berger’s concern is not widely shared. Said Dr. Stuart Smith, chairman of the Science Council of Canada: “It doesn’t matter whether the space station is mediocre. The fact is that we don’t have anything better to focus our high-tech industries on right now.” Clearly, the promoters of the current project are more interested in commerce than pure science. While U.S. scientists debate the validity of the station, the Canadians have their eyes firmly fixed on the bottom line. And what they see there is a bargain simply too good to pass up.
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