Is government funding to bolster Canada’s space sector the best use of taxpayer dollars?
“Canada is going to the Moon,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on February 28, part of a new federal space strategy spanning decades. Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques, currently on a six-month mission at the International Space Station, said he’s “proud and thrilled that Canada will continue the adventure and join the next chapter of space exploration.”
Sixty years ago, Apollo 8 became the first crewed spacecraft to leave the Earth and orbit the Moon. It was there, amongst the stars, that the crew began a special broadcast back to the Earth, a reading of the first 10 verses of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. . ..” Upon the crew’s return to Earth, Apollo Commander Frank Borman told a group of Congressmen, “Exploration really is the essence of the human spirit, and to pause, to falter, to turn our back on the quest for knowledge, is to perish.”
Together, the Genesis reading and Borman’s words reveal something of humanity’s attitude toward space: a mix of reverence for what we’ve long considered the heavens – God’s holy dwelling place – and an indelible desire to explore and make sense of them.
All these years later, our fascination with outer space appears undiminished. A myriad of private and public sector companies plan for space exploration, and any new Star Wars film is assured a successful box office run. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may have sought to tap into this fascination with his sensational words, along with the announcement that the government is expanding investments in Canada’s space sector. The cornerstone of these investments will be $2.05 billion over 24 years to support the development of space robotics and Canada’s involvement in the NASA led Lunar Gateway project.
The Lunar Gateway project aims to put a space station into orbit around the Moon by 2026. Once in orbit, the Lunar Gateway is expected serve as, among other things, a scientific laboratory and a stepping stone to future missions to the Moon and to Mars. Canada’s main contribution to the Lunar Gateway project will be the Canadarm3, a robotic arm on the exterior of the station to aid in maintenance and scientific experiments.
The expanded investments and new focus on the Lunar Gateway have been praised as a breath of life into Canada’s recently directionless space program. Canada’s space sector, comprised of private businesses and academic institutions, is the main beneficiary of the investments, as it will receive financial support and contracts that are likely to emerge from the program. Support for Canada’s space sector is one of the government’s main rationales for the investments. This makes some sense, given that the space sector employs approximately 10,000 people, and generated $2.3 billion for Canada’s economy in 2017.
The investments in the space sector are also expected to bring broader social benefits. Technology developed for outer space often filters down for use on Earth. Technology created for previous Canadarms, for example, spurred the development of robots capable of performing high-risk surgery on previously inoperable tumours. Investments in the space sector are, therefore, presented as a means to benefit all of Canada, through economic growth and the development of technologies that improve our lives.
BEST USE OF RESOURCES
Despite their purported socio-economic benefits, Canada’s space investments are not immune to criticism. Much of this criticism is focused on the Lunar Gateway project. In the U.S., this project has been criticized as pointless and void of any actual scientific goal. One former NASA administrator described the initiative as “stupid architecture.” These critics believe funding for space programs would be better spent on other pursuits, such as crewed missions to land on the Moon or Mars.
Missions to Mars have become especially relevant for those who believe the effects of climate change may soon have even more disastrous consequences for humanity. Colonizing Mars, and eventually, other planets, is seen as a way to ensure humanity’s survival indefinitely. In this viewpoint, Borman’s words are taken literally: we will perish as a species if we stop exploring.
Other critics may question the inherent value of any kind of government investment in space programs, regardless of their application. These critics believe taxpayer dollars are better spent improving humanity’s current home. After all, would the money spent colonizing a new planet not be better spent making our lives on Earth happier and more sustainable? Should we not clothe the poor, feed the hungry and heal the sick before we set off on journeys through the Galaxy?
CURIOSITY AND WISDOM
There are no simple answers to these questions. It is impossible to tell if investing money directly in curing diseases would be more effective than the technology we indirectly receive from space programs. We cannot be sure that we would have gained the precision surgery of robots without innovation from the Canadarm. It is also possible that a thriving space sector will do more for the poor through job creation and economic expansion than giving money directly through social programming.
Ultimately, we cannot be sure what good will eventually come from the space sector investment, but we can evaluate the justification offered for it. Frank Borman was likely on to something when he said exploration is a part of being human, but it is certainly not the only part. Exploration for its own sake is dangerous if we leave human beings behind in the process. We should exercise our God-given curiosity with wisdom and compassion, remembering that it was God who created the heavens and the earth, and it is he who holds their future in his capable hands.