This article was originally published in The Conversation, an independent, non-profit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. The disclosure information is available on the original website.
Author: Alex Ellery, Associate Professor, Carleton University
Should Canada go to the moon? What's in it for Canadians? It is these issues that we must reflect upon when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently announced that Canada will be participating in the new vision of space exploration.
As a space robotics professor at a Canadian university, I would like to receive this news, but I'm not so sure.
The Lunar Portal of the United States is an incremental progression of the International Space Station (ISS) that dominated the American (and Canadian) manned space flight in the last decades. Of course the history of the ISS has been in controversy – it was expensive, it had no purpose, it took decades to design, redesign and finally build. It has not produced great scientific advances nor advanced human exploration on Mars as originally proposed.
Canada in space
Canada's role in ISS was to provide a set of robotic weapons, including Canadarm 2. They were paid by the Canadian taxpayer to a single Canadian company, MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) Ltd. In turn, we obtained seats at the ISS. to our body of Canadian astronauts, including Colonel Chris Hadfield.
There is no doubt that Hadfield, our own star-troubadour, and his fellow Canadian astronauts did much to raise awareness of Canada's participation in the human space program.
The Lunar Gateway is an extrapolation of our previous agreements with the ISS. It comprises a space station similar to being built in orbit, this time around the moon instead of the Earth. Yes, Earth is so passive.
Income Tax for Canadarm 3
The participation of Canada should be dominated by the development of a new Canadarm 3, to be mounted on this orbital space station once again paid by you, the taxpayer. The lion's share of your money will be channeled to the same Canadian company, MDA. In return, we will have places for a new generation of Canadian astronauts at Gateway Station.
However, the Gateway promises to be another white elephant like its predecessor, the ISS.
This brings up two important issues. First, is it appropriate for the Canadian Space Agency to act as a government channel of huge taxpayer funds for a single company? This company is not known for generously sharing their toys with the other kids on the playground. Surely the Canadian government should be serving the wider space community? What about small and medium-sized businesses? What is your participation? And the universities, which are repositories of some of Canada's best minds? Are they all to be offered only sparse crumbs from the top table? Does Canadarm 3 promise to make big leaps in our country?
WhenCanadarm was developed in the 1970s, it was an innovative new concept to adapt to the new US space shuttle. NASA did not realize that it was in need of this until it later realized – Canadian naivety came to the rescue because we discovered a weakness in NASA's armor and explored it. Canada has become the world leader in this new technological capability: space robotics. Since then, we have revitalized the Canadarm shuttle to the Space Station, and this will in turn be resold to the Lunar Portal. To yawn!
The second question is whether Canadarm 3 will project Canadian space interests in the future? I think not. Not even a Canadian boot should step on the surface of the moon because the Lunar Gateway is an orbiting station. The true value of lunar exploration will not be in orbit, but on the lunar surface. All – Europe, China, India, Japan and USA – are interested in setting up a store there.
The Race for the Moon
What is so attractive on the moon? Europeans imagine a "Moon Village" on the lunar surface, comprising a mixture of government, scientific, commercial and private assets. The so-called "New Space" approach in the US encouraged the private sector with a more aggressive and pioneering approach to space exploration in the pursuit of commercial ventures, often in partnership with the public sector.
Entrepreneurs are opening new avenues for commercial prospecting – some successful, some less so – and crucial to this is a culture of entrepreneurship and competing ideas. It is this culture that has stimulated interest in the lunar surface. There are broad commercial prospects: water ice mining, hydrogen and oxygen supply, construction of electromagnetic launchers, services of lunar base construction, lunar mining, additive manufacture and so on, to support a growing lunar infrastructure.
Both the US and Europe have fostered an entrepreneurial atmosphere to incubate competitive ideas for the next stage of space exploration on the Moon, Mars and asteroids, encouraging commercial development.
For example, a European start-up company is developing a box in which the lunar soil can be excavated and, on the other hand, a solar cell carpet to enjoy the sunlight.
What is Canada doing? Write policy reports that no one will ever read or impose a straitjacket for Canadian activities. Hardly conducive to fostering innovative and competitive ideas across Canada in opening a new frontier.
So where does Canada fit into all this? I believe that the Lunar Gateway will restrict our opportunities on the Moon rather than expanding them. Canada has extensive experience contributing to Rover vehicles, drilling, robotic mining, mineral processing, robotic construction, sustainable chemical processing, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and robotic manufacturing, all of which are essential for the development of a lunar surface infrastructure.
We have already led in relevant areas of basic technologies on Earth and in space that are directly applicable to this new business environment. If Canadian taxpayer funds are channeled to a small Canadarm 3 consortium led by MDAs, there will be little investment in real commercial ventures on the lunar surface.
We will be left in orbit around the Moon, having committed our investment for the next decade or two to serving the Portal.
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