CSA Director General eyes future, long-term presence of Canada in space

by Nathan Barker & Chris Gebhardt

From the robotic arms of the Shuttle era and the International Space Station to synthetic aperture radar programs and satellites studying critical elements of Earth’s changing climate to telecommunication needs in the northern parts of the country, Canada has been a mainstay of space exploration from the beginning.

While many champion the current “golden age” of commercialization of space, that very commercialization is what has always driven Canadian space goals: to boost scientists and universities and industry through government investment designed to put private entities in charge of space projects instead of government.

Now, those public-private partnerships will propel Canada to the Moon via Canadarm3 and the NASA-led Lunar Gateway initiative.

Last week, NASASpaceflight’s Nathan Barker and Chris Gebhardt spoke with Gilles Leclerc, Director General, Space Exploration at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), who has been an instrumental figure within the Canadian space program for decades and who has held various roles within CSA since its formal founding in 1990.

Prior to CSA, the Canadian space program operated under the National Research Council.  After a number of efforts were made from the mid-1940s to study the upper atmosphere and space, Canadian space research moved toward the creation of suborbital rockets (Black Brant, which still flies today) and the nation’s first satellite, Alouette 1, which launched in 1962 on a Thor-Agena rocket from the Pacific Missile Range, now known as Vandenberg Air Force Base.  

This entry into orbit earned Canada the place of third nation, behind the Soviet Union and the U.S., to have a domestically-built and operated orbiting satellite.  Canada would go on to: 

But the best known element of Canadian space operations remains the commitment to and excellence in the field of robotics.

For 39 years, Canadian robotics supported the U.S. Space Shuttle program and now continues to offer unexpected and new support for the International Space Station.

The first version of Canadarm was built by SPAR Aerospace in Brampton, Ontario, (itself a combination of de Havilland Canada’s Special Products division and Avro Canada’s Applied Research unit).  SPAR’s robotic division was later sold to MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates — better known as MDA, which recently won the contract to build the new Canadarm3 for Gateway.

Known as the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (SRMS), the first Canadarm made its debut in November 1981 during STS-2, Columbia’s second trip to orbit.

Flying on 90 of the 135 Shuttle missions, the five Canadarms of the program supported objectives from deploying and recapturing satellites to servicing the Hubble Space Telescope to constructing the International Space Station.  

Further support was required following Columbia’s STS-107 accident.  The need to scan the Orbiter’s Thermal Protection System for damage after launch resulted in the Canadian Space Agency’s delivery of three Orbiter Boom Sensor System (built by MDA) booms to NASA that Canadarm would grab and use to inspect the vehicles.

“In the beginning, it’s interesting to note that NASA didn’t see how necessary the original robotic arm would be for Shuttle,” said Leclerc.  “Now, in hindsight, it served almost every Shuttle mission that was launched.  We had the same doubts for Canadarm2.  Now, Canadarm2 is a very famed vehicle in maintaining the Station.”

In 2001, the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS), Canadarm2, was launched on STS-100/Endeavour and installed by Chris Hadfield — a Canadian astronaut.  This 17.6 metre, 58 foot titanium arm can move payloads as heavy as 116,000 kg (256,000 lbs) and — with its dual Latching End Effectors, or “hands” — has the ability to “inchworm” or “walk” itself across the Station’s platform.

ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano on the end of the Canadarm2. (Credit: NASA)

The arm was mainly needed to support construction of the truss and modular elements of the U.S. Operating Segment of the Station in areas unreachable or un-navigable by the Shuttle’s Canadarm.

It is now best known for and most often seen grabbing and berthing SpaceX’s now-retired cargo Dragon (Dragon v1), Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo craft, and Japan’s HTV crafts as they approach the Station with supplies and experiments.

But the arm does much more.

In fact, Leclerc discussed new operations never intended for Canadarm2 that will directly support the next generation arm, Canadarm3, for the Lunar Gateway. 

“We’ve added some brains to Canadarm2.  Just last week we demonstrated autonomous AI (Artificial Intelligence) for the first time [with Canadarm2].  We have to go through a lot of script and coding just to move the arm, but we’re starting to automate the motions of Canadarm2, and that’s going to prepare us for Canadarm3 on Gateway.”

Even with Canadarm2’s abilities, the Station program also asked for another robotic arm assembly, the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator — or Dextre, through the Canadian Space Agency.  Dextre was built by MDA and delivered to orbit in March 2008 on STS-123/Endeavour.

A multi-arm tool, Dextre is capable of conducting a variety of tasks that would otherwise have to be assigned to astronauts, including removing unpressurized cargo from Japan’s HTV cargo vehicle and conducting some exterior maintenance and equipment replacements.

For Canadarm2 specifically, the automation work now underway within the world-famous robotic arm is a small part of an unprecedented 24 year financial commitment from the Canadian Space Agency to NASA’s Lunar Gateway and exploration programs, commonly wrapped together under the umbrella of the Artemis program.

Gilles Leclerc, Director General, Space Exploration at the Canadian Space Agency. (Credit: CSA)

“The 24 years is interesting because to get policy coverage for Gateway, we had to get approval for the whole life cycle of the program,” said Leclerc.  “So not only designing and delivering, but operating Canadarm3 on Gateway as well.”

“And that reflects also the fact that this is a long-term commitment for Canada.  Gateway is the first step, and then we’re going to look and propose to Government another major contribution for lunar surface exploration and Mars.

Exactly what those “major” contributions are will have to be seen in CSA’s proposals; however, CSA is already committed to fostering the creation of the first Canadian science experiments that will go to the surface of the Moon.

“We’ve already received funding for the next five years to develop and launch, with commercial partners, the first payloads, the first science experiments, the first Canadian science experiments that will go to the surface of the Moon,” Leclerc added proudly.

The Mars element — at the very least — likely includes a Synthetic Aperture Radar (based on technology from Canada’s ongoing RADARSAT missions) for a proposed NASA/CSA Mars Exploration Ice Mapper orbiter.  The mission would detect non-polar water regions on Mars for future robotic and human missions to the Red Planet.

“That [Mars Exploration Ice Mapper mission] is particularly exciting because it’s kind of RADARSAT 4, but RADARSAT 4 is going to go to Mars and do things that we do already on Earth, like mapping ice for science, but also to identify water reservoirs for future human missions to Mars,” said Leclerc.

“So there is that continuity of purpose, trying to be a smart partner, a trusted partner, and making sure that we give work to Canadians, inspire them, and our industry.”

That goal of being a “smart partner, a trusted partner” is seen most fervently in NASA’s commitment to immediately turn to Canada for the robotic needs of the Lunar Gateway.

Artist’s concept of Canadarm3, Canada’s smart robotic system, located on the exterior of the Gateway. (Credit: Canadian Space Agency, NASA)

“For Gateway, for Canadarm 3, NASA gave us the responsibility for all of the robotics on the Gateway because they trust us and they know that given that Gateway is not likely to be occupied on a permanent basis for many years, there’s going to be a lot of work, a lot of essential work, to be done by Canadarm3,” Leclerc enthused.

“This is an exciting moment.  But there’s also the stress of delivering, obviously,” he cautioned.

Canadarm3 is currently set to be delivered to NASA in 2026 for launch to the Gateway.  “We’re not going to be one of the first elements on Gateway, but we’ll get there at the right time,” said Leclerc.

While partnership work between CSA and NASA on the Gateway concept began more than six years ago, the formalization of that partnership was announced last year by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he laid out Canada’s National Space Strategy.

The contract to build Canadarm3 was issued to MDA (which built the previous two Canadarms and Dextre) earlier this year.  Phase 0 of the contract is already complete, and Phase 1 operations will begin shortly.

CSA contractors are also in the process of developing and building the robotic interfaces that Canadarm3 will need on the Power and Propulsion Element and HALO portions of the Gateway when it arrives.

“So we have to develop the robotic interfaces that are going to be put on the first elements, the PPE and Halo, that are going to be launched first,” noted Leclerc.  “So our first delivery will be the robotic interfaces.  And that’s going to happen in the next couple of years.  The delivery of the Canadarm3 to NASA is now planned for 2026.”

The Memorandum Of Understanding between NASA and the Canadian Space Agency for Canadarm3, which should be signed in the coming days or weeks, holds a guaranteed 15 year planned lifetime for the arm.

However, Leclerc  pointed out that CSA is in fact making an open-ended commitment to Gateway, as they did for the Space Station.  This signals that for however long NASA continues the Gateway beyond its originally contracted lifetime, Canada will be a continued partner to the end.

Canada’s strong commitment to the international effort to return humans to the Moon and establish permanent bases there leads to the obvious question of when the first Canadian will set foot on our closest celestial neighbor.

Ten Canadians have made the journey into space so far.  Nine of those were trained astronauts while one was a civilian: space tourist and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté.

According to Leclerc, CSA is currently in talks with NASA to determine when Canadian astronauts will again fly onboard ISS and if and when we will see Canadian boots on the Moon.

Those negotiations are an intricate and complex part of the agreements between the international agencies supporting the Artemis Program and Gateway efforts (NASA, CSA, the European Space Agency, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency).

Nevertheless, flights to the Station and Gateway via NASA partnership are not the only avenues to space now available and interesting to CSA.  Leclerc noted that seats on commercial SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner missions are also future possibilities for additional Canadian flights.

“So the goal [that’s] written in the National Space Strategy is to sustain and have a viable astronaut program in Canada.  So that means regular flights to the Gateway and the Moon and Mars,” noted Leclerc.

“Obviously, given that Commercial Crew will expand, there will be seats for sale aboard the Crew Dragon… Boeing eventually… and the price will come down.  We might become one of these commercial passengers in addition to our partnership rides that we have to fly Canadians.”

The reverse side of a Canadian $5 note, highlighting Canada’s continued contribution to space exploration and the field of robotics. (Credit: Bank of Canada).

But beyond that, the commitment of the Canadian Space Agency to bolster, embolden, and invigorate private companies into taking the reins and ownership of space exploration is paramount.

“It’s been the creed of the Canadian space program, making sure that government at the beginning will promote, will start research, will fund research,” said Leclerc.  “When you look at the history of the space program, we had the first domestic telecommunications satellite.  But the knowledge was transferred to industry very quickly.  In fact Telesat, which is now a private company, was originally the creation of the government.  And we did that transfer.”

With approximately 80% of the Canadian Space Agency’s annual budget going to industry, the agency itself is more of a project manager.  Instead of hiring scientists themselves, they partner with research institutions and universities to promote and fund scientific research.

“It’s no secret that MDA has been selected by government to do the work on Canadarm3.  But [even there] we want to move away from the model where we give orders and just have the Canadarm piece of hardware developed by industry and then we deliver it to NASA,” added Leclerc.

“Parts of that model need to persist, but we want MDA to show us that they are going to generate value based on the investment that we are making, and we want them to show how they’re going to establish a center of excellence for robotics and how they’re going to bring in industry as part of their value change.”

“And we want to make sure that MDA and others will use this investment to partner, to provide Canadian contribution with the private sector.  The new economy — you know ‘new space’ is already an old term — we know that the space economy and the sphere of the Earth’s economy is expanding to the Moon.”

“And we want Canada to be present.”

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