Canada’s new space strategy missing key global elements

While the strategy, released this month, includes new investments in space exploration and satellite technology, it misses diplomacy and governance completely.

By: /
18 March, 2019
Canadian astronaut Jennifer Sidey-Gibbons checks out the Juno 6 rover in the rover demonstration room at the Canadian Space Agency in Longueuil, Quebec, Canada, February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi
Jessica West
By: Jessica West

Senior researcher, Project Ploughshares

On March 6, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains released Exploration, Imagination, Innovation — A New Space Strategy for Canada, which charts a path for Canadian investment and activities in space.

“It has been estimated that the global space economy will triple in size over the next 20 years,” Bains wrote in the strategy’s introductory message. “Today, the challenges we face on Earth, alongside the opportunities that the rapidly evolving space industry and advances in space science provide, demand that Canada again make strategic and visionary commitments to leverage space to maximize benefit for Canadians.”

Prioritizing niche contributions to space exploration through artificial intelligence, robotics and biomedicine, the strategy reveals a much-needed plan for the Canadian Space Agency, intended to maximize the benefits of a modest budget for Canadian science and industry, and the collective benefits of space applications for the government and society.

It’s a good plan, but it falls short of being a national strategy for space.

As the third nation to have had a satellite launched into orbit and a member of the International Space Station (ISS), Canada has benefited immensely from participating in space, through access to communications and imagery to monitor and connect our vast country to fostering scientific and industrial innovations. But space is still hard to sell to ordinary citizens. The links between space activities and the resulting socioeconomic benefits are not always easily understood. Much of Exploration, Imagination, Innovation is focused on articulating the value that accrues through investment in space. It does this well.

The goal of the new strategy is clear: to continue to maximize benefit. It views space as instrumental, as a “national strategic asset.” But this is a narrow vision. Space is not a national asset, but a global commons, a heritage of humanity, and possibly our future.

As a strategy, Exploration, Imagination, Innovation lacks a vision of the fundamental values and strategy that should guide our participation in space activities and largely ignores the actual topic of outer space itself.

The strategy claims that “Canada is a nation defined by its bold efforts in space.” Absent is any mention of the role that Canada has historically played in shaping the governance of this global commons. Yet our achievements, such as pioneering communications and radar satellite capabilities, and our contributions to the ISS, including world-class astronauts and the iconic Canadarm, are possible because of these diplomatic efforts. Canada was at the table during the formative years when the 1967 Outer Space Treaty was shaped into the bedrock for outer space activities. Intended to avoid damage and dangers from self-seeking competition, the treaty stipulates that outer space is the “province of all mankind,” and articulates core principles on using outer space to benefit all peoples; keeping space free from appropriation; maintaining peace, security and cooperation; and banning weapons of mass destruction.

Now these principles are increasingly under stress.

At a minimum, the strategy should reinforce Canada’s commitment to the core principles of the Outer Space Treaty.

We are in a new space age. In Canada and around the world, there is a rush to exploit the socioeconomic, scientific, military and commercial benefits that access to outer space provides. The number of countries with new space agencies and satellites is growing rapidly. Luxembourg is championing itself as an epicentre for space mining. SpaceX is leading innovations in rocketry and is one of many companies seeking to launch constellations of thousands of satellites to provide space-based Internet services. The United States is forging ahead with a Space Force division within its Air Force. And the landing of China’s Chang’e-4 spacecraft signals a new global focus on long-term exploration — and possible economic exploitation — of the moon and beyond. Maintaining harmony in an outer space environment that is rapidly becoming crowded is not easy.

Most alarming is the growing threat of warfare and continued global unwillingness to agree on measures to limit the potential use of weapons or other intentional harm. Also challenging is the nascent but persistent emergence of new, more complex activities such as debris removal, satellite servicing, and the extraction of resources, which raise new questions about how we interact with space, and with one another in this domain. Underpinning everything is the challenge of preserving the fragile, natural environment for future use.

These are challenges with which Canada is engaged. The Canadian Space Agency provided valuable technical expertise and diplomatic leadership in the creation of the first global guidelines to preserve the long-term sustainability of the space environment. Global Affairs Canada participates in various UN fora grappling with the dilemma of arms control in space. The Department of National Defence is thinking about how to protect its assets in outer space. The same week that the space strategy was released, Natural Resources Canada issued a new Canadian Minerals and Metals Plan, which identifies space as a “new frontier” of mining.

And yet none of these issues are discussed in the new national space strategy.

Surely, a national strategy should articulate not only a plan to utilize and benefit from space, but also the fundamental values and vision that will guide our actions and interactions — and those of our citizens and industry — in this global community. At a minimum, the strategy should reinforce Canada’s commitment to the core principles of the Outer Space Treaty, including peaceful use and universal benefit. It should prioritize working through multilateral channels to address omissions and challenges to this framework. And it should recommit to our once clear stand against the weaponization of outer space.

As the name of the new strategy suggests, space is deeply connected to innovation and inspiration. But if we want to be leaders in fields such as artificial intelligence and robotics, we must also prioritize global diplomatic and normative leadership. At a time when others are preoccupied with domination, superiority and military forces in space, or narrow economic gains, such leadership is sorely needed. Without proper stewardship to maintain outer space as a domain that can be used sustainably, safely and securely by all, today and in the future, all other possible gains will be lost.

If Canada wants to maximize the benefits of space, it must not take outer space for granted.

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