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This article was published 7/8/2010 (3393 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A controversial decision by U.S. President Barack Obama to privatize the exploration of space could be a blessing for Canada's aerospace industry, experts say.
They argue this country's space agency and its associated industries are in a prime position to hitch their wagon to the U.S. president's initiative.
With the successful launch of the Falcon 9 in June — the first in a new generation of privately built rockets intended to shuttle supplies to the International Space Station — space exploration is poised to enter a new phase.
"Obama's vision for the future of NASA... is putting a lot of stock in the private sector," says Paul Delaney, a professor of physics and astrology at Toronto's York University.
"There's been a lot of groups that have been trying to position themselves to take advantage of what they see as a commercial opportunity in the coming decade. And I think they are right."
Delaney says Obama's vision is clear on what the next generation of space exploration vehicle should do: study asteroids near Earth and get ready to go to Mars.
If industry can deliver on the "low Earth orbit" side of space exploration, he says, such as the "taxi" activity of restocking the ISS, NASA will be free to pursue larger goals "of getting away from Earth entirely."
The move comes as NASA's shuttle fleet is slowly being retired, and the agency is seeking newer, more efficient options from the private sector, such as Space X, the California-based company behind the Falcon 9.
Obama is banking on the fact that, having pumped nearly one-third ($6 billion) of his five-year, $19-billion NASA budget into the development of commercial rockets, NASA will be free to focus on farther-reaching goals. But the president's plan also cancels the moon-focused Constellation program, and has been criticized for moving away from manned space flights, effectively putting some astronauts and NASA staff into early retirement.
Just last week, United Space Alliance, NASA's prime space shuttle contractor, laid off nearly 1,400 staff. The company also rolled out layoffs in October 2009 and June 2010, and more are planned for next year.
For its part, Canada has long relied on NASA to get its astronauts into space. And the Canadian Space Agency's latest hires, David Saint-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen — the first new astronauts in more than 15 years — will hit the halfway mark in a two-year, Texas-based training program next month.
So what will the future hold for them?
Experts suggest the astronauts won't get the sort of experience the space explorers of the Apollo generation did, but there is still much to be done on the ISS. And they are standing at the threshold of the next great mission: Obama wants to reach near-Earth asteroids by 2025 and Mars by the mid-2030s.
Canada ultimately stands to profit, Delaney says, pointing to our track record in robotics and space technology, which will be needed as the groundwork is laid for future travel.
"There's a good history here as far as developing space hardware, instrumentation," he says. "I think you're going to see stepped-up activity from Canadian industry to contribute in a more significant way."
Steve Oldham, general manager of satellite missions and robotics for the B.C.-based MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, agrees, pointing to his company's internationally recognized Canadarm as the best example of successful Canadian space hardware.
"Obama has opened the door for collaboration; he's mentioned robotic exploration as being extremely important for him," he says.
"The fact that Canada has undeniably the best heritage in that area, really, is a huge opportunity."
Oldham says the Canadian Space Agency needs to decide if it wants to be part of the next generation of space exploration.
"(My) hope would be that Canada sees that there has been significant value in being a member of the space-exploration community."
The Obama plan is ambitious, says Steve MacLean, CSA president and a former astronaut.
"The amount of money that Obama's White House has increased is quite substantial into the space sector," he says. "And given the fiscal framework right now, that's impressive."
The CSA is in the process of developing its own long-term space policy, McLean says, adding Canada's policy is likely to line up with that of the Obama administration, which outlines goals "very similar to the types of things that we would like to do.
"The question comes in the timing of it. When do you allow that switch (from public to private) to take place?" he says.
"President Obama has decided that should be right now. If he's right, it will accelerate the pace. If he's wrong, it can slow (exploration) down.
"I think the commercial industry has established itself to the point that, given the freedom, they can move pretty quickly."
— Postmedia News