Canada is a small but mighty power in space exploration. After providing the Canadarm robotic arm for the space shuttle in 1981, Canada received an invitation to start an astronaut program. Since then, Canadian astronauts have commanded the International Space Station, flown as copilots on spacecraft, and even held senior roles within NASA.
Canadarm and Collaboration traces how Canada grew from small beginnings into a major player in international space policy.
Below is an excerpt from the epilogue, by Elizabeth Howell.
When I began writing this book, the conversation about Canada in space was a much different one. As I signed my contract in October 2018, city buses in Ottawa — which trundle through a bus corridor less than a kilometre from Parliament Hill — had a special space-themed wraparound.
“Don’t Let Go Canada,” it said in bold letters. I had never seen such a strong statement about space in Canada before or since. Those star-wrapped buses were a protest by a coalition of Canadian aerospace companies (including big names such as MDA) concerned about Canada’s lack of long-term space plan. Canada didn’t have a space plan when I was a young reporter in 2009, watching astronauts Hansen and Saint-Jacques get introduced to media for the first time in Ottawa.
Canada still didn’t have a space plan after Hadfield became world-famous in 2012. And in late 2018, after the NASA president personally 196 visited Ottawa and announced at a prominent space conference he needed Canada to agree to a moon mission soon, no plan appeared forthcoming still. Companies were restless. They wanted answers. Everything changed after Saint-Jacques went into space. With the annual federal budget looming, in the year of a federal election, and as the Trudeau government grappled with a sponsorship scandal, suddenly space was in the national conversation for the first time in half a decade.
In swift succession, the CSA and several ministers announced a Canadarm3, the opportunity to bring Canada to the moon, and a space plan emphasizing the roadmap to get there. Meanwhile, NASA accelerated its moon plans to land astronauts by 2024 (near the end of Trump’s second term, if he is re-elected, or within the first term of a new president’s mandate). I can’t tell you if Gateway will be built on schedule or if astronauts will walk on the moon in less than half a decade, but it’s common for space programs to be pushed back. For example, NASA was hoping to have commercial crew vehicles ready almost immediately after the shuttle retired in 2011; eight years later, Saint-Jacques finally saw the first uncrewed version arrive at the ISS. (He was in fact the first-ever astronaut to go inside, which is a Canadian milestone that most history books will probably ignore.) And in the pages of this book, you have seen the stumbles on the way to building the International Space Station, the false moves and programs that were supposed to bring us beyond Earth but never came to pass. So what is next for the ISS and its astronauts?
As I edit this epilogue in May 2020, many space industry events and activities are being disrupted by the rise of the novel coronavirus pandemic, whose long-term consequences cannot be predicted at the time of this writing. That said, the next initiative is Commercial Crew — those company-led spacecraft that SpaceX and Boeing have been working on for the better part 197 of a decade. The first crews have been announced for the test flights, naturally composed of all American astronauts due to the fact that it’s a NASA program — and probably the inherent risk of being among the first crews to fly it. Once those test flights are through, NASA expects the flight pace to pick up — and that Canadians will be able to fly more often, too. ISS manager Shireman told me so in March 2019, adding, “Hold me to it. Come back and talk to me in another year and a half and see if I’m true to my word.”5 I suppose that’s because at that point NASA expects to be finished with the first test flights and to announce newer flights for Commercial Crew.
While we eagerly await a bigger Canadian manifest, it is interesting to note a surprising Canadian connection with one of the first Commercial Crew members. Michael (Mike) Hopkins was selected in the same class as Hansen and Saint-Jacques, in 2009. While he’s not Canadian, he spent years living in Canada on an exchange program. This former US Air Force test pilot moved from sunny California to frigid Cold Lake, AB, in 1999. He thrived in the small community of 12,000 people, staying so long that his second son was born there and earned dual citizenship. Hopkins, meanwhile, flew a who’s who of Canadian aircraft platforms — the F-18, the C-130, the CH-146 helicopter, the Tudor and the C-33.
“Just had an incredible experience professionally, but as well on a personal front,” he said. He also remembers barbeques in −20 degrees: “You accept it and you embrace it and you continue to enjoy the lifestyle, the outdoors and all of that, even though [it’s] in the middle of winter. Now when it got minus 40, you were hunkering down, but that happened rarely.”
Perhaps that experience helped for his 2009 astronaut application, or for the six months Hopkins has already spent in space. He’s now getting ready for Crew Dragon. The stay aboard the space station is going to be the same as usual, but 198 where Hopkins and his crewmates — NASA astronaut Victor Glover, NASA astronaut Shannon Walker, and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi7 — get to make a difference is in the spacecraft training. They’ll be helping to write the procedures for future crews, and they’ll be pointing out how these vehicles are similar or different to the Soyuz that most astronauts today are familiar with. There’s another thing Hopkins is looking forward to. Crew Dragon can hold four people. Soyuz can only hold three. And this means, by pure numbers, there will be more astronauts going into space. He praised the Canadian corps — most especially Hansen — for their patience in waiting in line and added that he hoped the situation would change when Dragon is available.
“The Canadian astronauts unfortunately don’t get a lot of seats,” he said. “They don’t fly that often. I don’t know the program’s plans for how they’re going to fill the seats that we have, but we have an extra seat. We have four seats versus just three that the Soyuz had. That, I hope, is potentially going to make differences in terms of the fly rates, not just for US astronauts and European astronauts, but also the Canadian astronauts.”
So for the foreseeable future, Canadians will still be going to ISS — although the Trump administration, as of May 2020, did hope to land astronauts on the moon by 2024. It’s unclear if NASA can meet that deadline as it will require tens of billions of dollars, not to mention marshalling the resources of its thousands of workers — this amid and after a global pandemic that is depressing economies worldwide. Canada might end up going to the moon, too, but for now, we know at least we’ll return to ISS.
We’re lucky ISS exists. Against all odds, a fatal shuttle flight and a Soyuz abort and all the political issues over the years, it survived. And it still can inspire at odd moments. Most of the world’s population can see ISS pass overhead, a steady star that skims across the sky for as long as six minutes at a time. I remember my journalist friend Sean Costello, near the end of our otherwise difficult trip to Kazakhstan in December 2018, encouraging all of us to go outside to “wave” to SaintJacques in his Soyuz as he caught up to the ISS, just hours after his rocket launched in front of us. It was cold, it was dark, we were jetlagged and tired from a long few days, and we were in a strange (to us) country surrounded by little more than barbed wire and desert.
But looking up at the stars, watching the faint Soyuz passing overhead, I felt at home again. There was a Canadian making his way in an even more hostile environment than Kazakhstan’s December cold. There was a Canadian thriving amid the stress and fame of a spaceflight. There was a Canadian whom history will remember, long after all of us now living turn into dust. There was a Canadian who flew among the stars. Who will be next?