Canada can’t afford not to be in space

by Mike Greenley – Chief Executive Officer, MDA

As published in The Hill Times

With investments in space paying strong dividends now and over the longer term, this sector is ready to play its part to help our country build back better.

Mike Greenley, CEO of MDA Inc.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Necessity is the mother of invention. We’ve all seen those aphorisms in action lately, from front-line workers of all kinds rolling up their sleeves and getting the job done, to engineers and scientists (and policy-makers) applying their knowledge and creativity to solve the problems of the pandemic. New ventilators? Check. New vaccines and drug therapies? Check. New economic support policies? Check. For the good of their fellow citizens, and the country.

The space sector is certainly no stranger to those aphorisms, no stranger to engineers and scientists and policy-makers applying their knowledge to finding needed solutions.

Tenacity and ingenuity were called for when Canada needed long-distance communications—a top priority for a country with Canada’s geography—and the engineers and scientists and policy-makers decided, at the outset of the space race, that a satellite might just be the solution. Their ingenuity catapulted us into space with the big guys. Canada was the third country in space, the first to have a satellite telecommunications system, and first to have an operational and commercially focused radar remote sensing system. Today, we have a 60-year legacy of leadership in the most forward-looking industry there is. Indeed, thanks to the strategic choices made back then, and along the way, Canada is now a world leader in three key areas—satellite communications, Earth observation (RADARSAT), and space robotics (Canadarm). Because in space, the government’s role is paramount—as an investor, owner, regulator, and anchor customer.

People sometimes ask me how Canada can afford to be in space when there are so many problems that need our attention here on Earth, especially in light of the global pandemic. That’s when I realize that those of us working in this industry haven’t done a good enough job of explaining how essential space is to our everyday lives—did you know that space touches the lives of Canadians 20 to 30 times a day? It provides the silent, but critical infrastructure for everything from television, weather predictions, monitoring climate change, the internet and wireless communications, finance, agriculture, shipping, to ground and air traffic management, and so much more. (Can you imagine living through this pandemic without high-speed internet to power your Zoom calls, facilitate your doom-scrolling and fuel your binge streaming?)

And, maybe more importantly, we haven’t done a good job of explaining just how important being a leader in space is going to be to Canada’s future, both our immediate future (the economic recovery), and longer term, as Canada positions itself for future prosperity and continued high quality of life.

In terms of the economic recovery, there’s a school of thought that says, ‘Let’s look back to how things were and try to repair pandemic ravages to our economy by directing money where the damage is worst.’ There is another school of thought that says, ‘Let’s turn this epic challenge into an opportunity for a reset and build back better, charting a path to the future that focuses on areas of strength and claims them for this country.’ Space is one such area. Every dollar invested in space by the Canadian government has a strong multiplier effect producing roughly twice the impact. Investments in space have an immediate effect—they are rocket fuel for Canada’s economic recovery.

And, in the longer term, we know that decisions taken about space today are going to affect Canadians’ quality of life tomorrow. In the first few decades that Canada was in space, we were part of a small club, just over a handful. Today, there are close to 90 countries with space agencies or space programs. Countries are moving swiftly and decisively to participate in the new space economy because, while space may not be the final frontier, it is the next one. The global space market is worth more than USD$420-billion today; Morgan Stanley forecasts this market will grow to USD$1-trillion per year by 2040. We’re well-positioned to lead in that future, if we keep our hand in. We have the capability within our domestic borders to build space systems from beginning to end. We have the expertise today that will contribute to Canada’s competitiveness in the long run. We have world-class research institutions and a highly-skilled STEM workforce. We have the tenacity and the ingenuity to help position Canada for success.

So, in answer to those who enquire, Canada can’t afford not to be in space. We need to be there for the practical solutions that space brings to Canada, keeping us on the leading edge of climate science, of robotics and AI, and of communications, connected to the world and each other. We need to be there to wield geopolitical influence. We need to be there to inspire the next generation to go further and reach higher. Because, even during the economic uncertainty created by the pandemic, space is, fittingly, a light on the horizon. With investments in space paying strong dividends now and over the longer term, this sector is ready to play its part to help our country build back better.