Shrinking Budget and No Space Plan puts the Canadian Space Agency in a Bind

On March 4th the federal government will release what is expected to be a frugal budget. This is in part is due to lower tax revenues. The December 2009 deficit was $3.1 billion with revenues down $19.4-billion and program expenses up $22 billion. With revenues down and the deficit climbing the government has signaled that there will be few new spending initiatives and that some cuts might be in the offing. While the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is not expected to see a significant change in its budget this coming year, it is possible that cuts are forthcoming in future budgets which were already scheduled to decline as the government reigns in spending.

The CSA meanwhile had already been allocated $110 million in stimulus spending in last years budget of which $60 million is to be spent this year and the remainder, $30 million, next year. The stimulus money had been directed to be spent on space robotics research and development and mid-way through the year the CSA began issuing RFP's to to start spending that stimulus funding. While the stimulus money is welcome, the reality is that the CSA budget has been decreasing since 2006.

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Back in September of 2008 it seemed that the Canadian Space Agency might be looking on better times. Former astronaut Steve MacLean had just become the new President of the Agency and then Jim Prentice, Minister of Industry seemed to be signaling a new day was dawning for the Agency.

"I have given Steve a mandate to make sweeping changes at the CSA. As we stand at this crossroads, he will revitalize the Agency. He will restore its ability to punch above its weight in an international quest. He will develop Canada's capacity for a new era of prestige and achievement.

And to that end, as one of Steve MacLean's first acts as new President, the CSA will begin consultations with stakeholders that will lead to a new Long-Term Space Plan. I expect this plan -- the fourth in the series -- to be as influential for our generation of exploration and development as any plan that Canada has produced for charting our future in space. That's a tall order. I know that Steve is capable of bringing together the stakeholders. Time is of the essence, and I look forward to the plan in the coming months."

Unfortunately for the CSA this announcement came just before the banks in the US started to fail, the Toronto stock exchange plummeted in record time and the economy was to begin a deep dive. The government in it's 2009 budget had to deal with the pressing issue of the economy and tried to assure Canadians that all was not that bad in Canada. Thus they initiated the stimulus money for various sectors of the economy. This also happened to be one week after Barack Obama was inaugurated as President and had already signaled through his NASA transition team that changes at NASA would be forthcoming.

The combination of a bad economy and Canada's largest space partner in transition meant that Canada's Long-Term Space Plan was left in limbo. It appears the government wanted to wait out the changes at NASA before committing to the long term.

At this point it seemed that by the summer, once NASA had its new administrator and that the transformation was complete, the government would unveil the Long-Term Space Plan. Unfortunately by June it was clear that NASA's transition with the new administration was far from over. And in fact on June 1 NASA announced the formation of the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee whose charter was to "...conduct an independent review of ongoing U.S. human space flight plans and programs, as well as alternatives, to ensure the Nation is pursuing the best trajectory for the future of human space flight..." After a longer than expected review the committee issued it's final report on October 22 and it was not until the US Federal Government issued it's new budget on February 1 of this year did we know the expected direction of the US space program.

As NASA was soul searching it appears the Canadian government was content to sit and wait while NASA determined which direction it was heading in. And while it is true that the government did provide the CSA some stimulus money, the reality is that this was a short term infusion to an already shrinking budget. And while the money was earmarked to help Canada either stay in the lead or lead in new technology areas that Canada has a history at doing well in, without further infusion of new money, a shrinking budget and no Long-Term Space Plan it seems that the government doesn't see the space agency as a priority.

A question which many ask is, why is a Canadian Long-Term Space Plan contingent on what the US government does? The answer to that is that in part it does, and in part it doesn't. Major projects in space with Canadian involvement are coordinated with other countries. This is to offset the costs associated with these big projects. An example is the International Space Station (ISS). Canada provided robotic technology to the ISS and in return we get access to the station. Of course Canada does not have it's own rocket launchers so we're dependent on others to get us to the ISS. Other projects such as the Radarsat program, which is a part of the CSA's Earth Observation thrust, don't rely on other partners and therefore decisions for the long term can be made at any time. So the current policy is that any Long-Term Space Plan needs to take into account what major projects Canada will be contributing to with our partners. The question of whether Canada should be waiting for its partners before initiating its Long-Term Space Plan is for another article.

The news is not all bad however. In November the CSA's Policy and External Relations Directorate released it's 2008 State of the Canadian Space Sector based on its annual survey. The picture it painted was a good one. Canadian space sector revenues reached $2.79 billion on 17.8% growth over the previous the year. While 2009 numbers will most likely reflect the economic downturn there is some optimism at least in the commercial space sector. One industry group which feels the commercial space sector will continue to grow is the Canadian Space Commerce Association. On March 16th in Toronto, just over week after the budget comes out they will beholding their annual meeting with the theme "Learn About the Growing Canadian Commercial Space Sector." Speakers include Christian Sallaberger, Vice-President who will give the keynote talk "Structuring for Success in the Commercial Space Sector".

Just last week Gary Goodyear, minister of state for Science and Technology in an in-depth interview with the Hill Times reiterated that the government is committed to Science and Technology and even mentioned the stimulus money to the CSA. However it is now almost 1 1/2 years after Steve MacLean became President of the CSA and was given the mandate to generate a new Long-Term Space Plan and we still have no plan released and no inkling of when it might be forthcoming. With only a short-term infusion of money and a shrinking budget it's hard to see how Canada can sustain its lead in preferred areas, lead in new areas and stay competitive. While the CSA outlook is not bleak, the government has put them in a bind and doesn't seem as committed as their words speak.

About Canadian Space Agency Watch:

Canadian Space Agency Watch is a feature section on SpaceRef Canada devoted to informing the public about the Canadian Space Agency and promoting active public involvement. It's your space agency, get involved. If you're interested in contributing an article to this section or SpaceRef Canada then please contact us.

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Disclaimer: The author, Marc Boucher, serves as director on the Canadian Space Commerce Association and is the President of the Mars Institute which has received contracts in the past from the Canadian Space Agency.