Buying Canada’s place in space

TOM FENNELL May 9 1988

Buying Canada’s place in space

TOM FENNELL May 9 1988

Buying Canada’s place in space



For most people, exploring the universe evokes images of sleek spacecraft and brave astronauts. But as Canada prepares to launch its most ambitious space project yet, the correct image may be that of what Spar Aerospace Ltd. vice-president Christopher Trump calls “tow and servicetruck” operators in deep space. Although Trump says that his analogy does not capture the whole challenge behind Spar’s quest to build the Mobile Servicing System (MSS) for the $39-billion U.S. space station, it does describe Canada’s immediate assignment in space: to supply robotic arms for servicing spacecraft and for building the manned laboratory. Last month Industry Minister Robert de Cotret announced that the government would spend $1.2 billion to fund development of the MSS system over the next 17 years, and last week Spar, the project’s prime contractor, celebrated with an impromptu party.

But the mood among U.S. scientists working on the massive space complex is far from celebratory. Congressional hearings examining the budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will begin next month. The project faces deep budget cuts that could seriously undermine Canada’s plans. And then last week the first international conference to discuss the major financing problems surrounding the space station, also set for Washington, D.C., next month, was indefinitely postponed.

Said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington: “There is a high level of uncertainty about the future of the space station.”

On the other hand, executives with Canadian firms participating in the project say that they are ecstatic about the government announcement, for

two reasons: it will give their firms what one manager called a much-needed “shot in the arm” and will put them at the forefront of one of the most ambitious projects ever launched. At the same time, the Canadian firms are at the centre of a contentious political debate. NASA officials say they hope that by bringing Canada and two other foreign partners—Japan and the European Space Agency, representing 13 Western European countries—into the project, the U.S. Senate will be forced to fully fund the space station.

Meanwhile, Ottawa is still trying to decide where to put the headquarters of Canada’s new space agency. And Canadian critics say that the government only agreed to finance the MSS in an attempt to improve its image in the scientific community. But such charges do not phase Spar’s Trump, who declared: “When the space shuttle Challenger exploded, all the long knives came out—the people who had been waiting in the shadows for NASA to stumble. But in effect, the internation-

al partners have secured NASA’s flank.”

Canada is to supply a sophisticated computerized manipulator arm that will be used not only to assemble spaceships in space, but to actually put sections of the orbiting station together after U.S. shuttles have ferried them into space. The MSS will look some-

what like the existing Spar-designed Canadarm that worked so successfully on manned shuttle flights, but it will be far more advanced.

Indeed, it will contain highly computerized robotics, giving it capabilities far beyond anything that now exists. The 440foot-long space station will weigh about 175 tons and will orbit 220 miles above the Earth.

Present plans call

for 19 space-shuttle flights to ferry sections of the station into orbit, for assembly beginning in 1994. At 440 feet, it will dwarf the Soviets’ existing and cramped 45-footlong Mir station. In fact, just the pressurized areas where the astronauts will live and work will be two or three times as large as the entire Soviet space station.

The space station will be a complex of four modules attached to the centre of an epoxy-and-aluminum boom. The boom will also have several attachment points for mounting a variety of scientific instruments. And NASA officials say that they plan eventually to expand the station with more electric power and extra trusses to hold a variety of instruments and equipment to assemble spaceships for planetary exploration. Although current deadlines call for the first phase to be manned by 1995, it is now doubtful that the second phase will be constructed before the turn of the century.

Because the MSS will be used in the actual construction of the station, NASA considers the system to be one of the most vital components in the program. Spar, the firm leading the MSS’s development, is well-known to NASA through its Canadarm—a powerful but sensitive device that can extend 49 feet from the shuttle and lift the equivalent of a fully loaded bus into space. Spar has also designed Canadian communications satellites and won a contract to build two satellites for Brazil and Earth communications stations for China. Spar, which has 2,000 employees and annual revenues of $200 million, already has a space-station team in place. By 1995, it could have as many as 150 subcontractors working for it across Canada. Federal govern-

ment officials say that they want to spread MSS funding across the country, and there are now five main subcontractors in Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Saskatoon and Vancouver. Those subcontractors are also required to purchase goods and services and to develop research in their regions.

Although many of the firms participating in the Spar-led venture do not yet know precisely what their role will be, executives with those firms say that they are pleased to be participating. Many of the firms involved with the MSS were closely involved in Spar’s development of the Canadarm. For its part, CAE Electronics Ltd. of Montreal designed and manufactured the display and control panel that NASA astronauts used in the shuttle cockpit to manipulate the Canadarm.

CAE will take on a similar role in the MSS project. Its scientists will be responsible for design and construction of a vital control section. Robert Kemerer, CAE’s vice-president of international affairs, said that CAE has been working on the Spar study team for more than a year. And as well as a new source of revenue, Kemerer said that the U.S. space station project “advances the capability of Canadian industry and, by inference, the research community in the universities and National Research Council.”

For other firms operating under

Spar’s umbrella, Ottawa’s decision to allocate funding on a regional basis has provided a major advantage. Harold (Arch) Conner, marketing director of I.M.P. Group Ltd. (IMP) of Halifax, said that the decision added to IMP’S credibility by pushing its name to the “forefront of such companies throughout the world.” Conner added that the result will not only be increased revenues for IMP but also for universities across Atlantic Canada, which will now be able to participate in a wide variety of research.

Originally, the government had expected to spend only $800 million financing its commitment to the U.S. space station. But the increase to $1.2 billion involves no new federal money. The original $800 million had been allocated already, and the $388-million increase will come from Ottawa’s $1.3billion science and technology fund, which Prime Minister Brian Mulroney announced in February. The decision to dip into the science fund has raised concerns that scientific research, already poorly funded in Canada, will further suffer. But at this point the money from the science fund has not yet been allocated to the scientific community, so the shortfalls in other areas have yet to materialize. And Ottawa argues that the space station is scientific research and, as a result, is entitled to such financing.

Despite the glamorous nature of the space station project and the $1.2-billion outlay, some senior government officials say that Ottawa’s commitment to space is still an extremely low priority. By comparison, some countries are dramatically expanding their space programs. Japan’s 1987 space development budget was $1.7 billion compared to Canada’s $160-million-a-year commitment. Indeed, the federal officials say that the proposed creation of the space agency in the first place was merely a sop to the science community, many members of which were angry about previous cuts to their budget by the Mulroney government. But although Ottawa’s MSS funding appears to have deflected scientists’ charges of neglect, a battle is raging over whether to locate Canada’s new space agency in Montreal or Ottawa. The agency headquarters will employ 40 to 50 people in space administration positions. As a result, it is viewed as a prestige item for any city.

Ottawa must also decide who will head the organization. The government has apparently been looking for someone with a solid background in both government and the private sector. One leading candidate is reported to be Jean-Claude Delorme, who headed Teleglobe Canada, the governmentowned overseas communications monopoly that was sold to Montreal-

based Memotec Data Inc. last year. But until Ottawa decides whom to appoint, space policy continues to be directed by an interdepartmental space committee with representatives from the 12 different ministries and departments who have some involvement in the field, including the department of transport and the department of energy, mines and resources.

Other critics say that politics, not science, is propelling the Canadian space program. One senior government science official said that the decision in 1985 to take part in the U.S. space station was a purely political move taken to coincide with Mulroney’s “Shamrock Summit” with President Ronald Reagan. Said the official: “They had just

snubbed the U.S. government on the Strategic Defence Initiative [Star Wars], so they had to give in on the space station.”

Meanwhile, the future of the international space station program is still far from clear. And money is at the centre of the debate over how it will develop. Including shuttle flights to ferry the station components into orbit, and other indirect costs, the international space station will cost the United States an estimated $39 billion. Cuts already made in the NASA budget have increased the project’s long-term costs by $1.7 billion and have pushed back its deployment until 1995 at the earliest.

Reagan has proposed a total NASA budget of about $14 billion for the 1989 fiscal year, but Congress is expected to cut it to $13 billion by the time budgets are made final this summer. In the face of further cuts, NASA must now decide if the budget reductions should be spread across all its programs, including the space station.

Speculation over the depth of the cuts has created much uncertainty about the future of the U.S. space station. Said Logsdon: “This administration is clearly committed to the project, but Congress is not nearly as certain about its validity. The program does not seem to be solidifying and moving ahead.” Critical long-term decisions on the space station’s future are expected to be left until next year when a new administration assumes power in Washington. For the space station’s international partners, in-

cluding Canada, that means continued uncertainty about the U.S. commitment to the project. Said Logsdon: “It is really a bad situation. We are asking Canada to make some difficult decisions.”

Open discussion of the partnership agreements between NASA, Europe, Japan and Canada will take place at next month’s congressional hearings. And Logsdon said that by bringing the space-lab problem into the public spotlight, foreign space-policy officials hope to remind Congress that America’s allies have made some extremely expensive commitments and, as a result, Congress should fully fund the

project. Said Logsdon: “The U.S. asked its closest allies to join it on this project, and now there seems to be uncertainty about carrying through on the offer. It is an embarrassing position.” Congress will likely give NASA enough money to keep the project alive but not enough to guarantee the venture’s success. Said John Pike, associate director of space policy at the Washingtonbased Federation of American Scientists: “Unless the next administration really gets behind it, I think there are real questions about the future of the program.”

Indeed, the project already appears to be on an unstable financial footing. Building the space station would require about $3 billion a year between 1990 and 1995. NASA has already received $615 million for the station in 1988 and will not get more than $1.2 billion in 1989. Said Pike: “You have to come up with five times as much money per year as they have right now, and it is difficult

to see where Congress will find that money when housing, environment, veterans’ payments and other science projects are in competition.”

One alternative would be to reduce the size of the proposed space station. But critics say that such a move could force the Europeans, Canadians and Japanese to back out of the project. And the Canadian contribution is particularly vulnerable because it involves spaceshuttle servicing, and it remains unclear just how much shuttle activity there would be on a down-sized space station. For his part, Andrew J. Stofan, former NASA associate administrator for the space station, said that a Canadian pull-

out would severely undermine the project. He added, “If the Canadians do not show, we do not have a space station.” And there is still some hard negotiating to do between the partners and NASA over assured and adequate access to the station and how it will be used. Canada will be allowed to use the space station for six months every two years. And all of the partners are concerned over possible Pentagon use of the station. The department of defence has reserved the right to carry out weapons experiments at the station without declaring exactly what it intends to do. But although major hurdles remain to be cleared in the United States, Canadian space industry officials say they remain confident that their equipment will be putting pieces of the space station together in 1995.