It’s a startling thought that it’s been over half a century since Neil Armstrong and his fellow explorers bridged the lunar frontier in an event that captivated the world.
This week, as NASA prepares for its Artemis II mission — the first to carry humans around the moon since 1972 — it was announced that the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) will play a significant role, with Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen selected as one of its four crew members.
For members of my generation, the moon landing was a seminal moment. One that truly ushered in a new era. But the half-century since has seen few comparable, equally cinematic, or paradigm-shifting endeavours in outer space.
So, Artemis II, which promises to finally revisit this frontier, will be keenly anticipated. What’s more, Canadians will and should be proud that one of our own has been selected for such an important mission. As the prime minister noted, Hansen will be the first non-American to observe the full sphere of the Earth.
Canada has a proud history of space exploration, exemplified by none better than Marc Garneau, the first Canadian in space, long-time MP and former cabinet minister, who announced his retirement from Parliament earlier this year.
But our parliamentarians must realize another important lesson from this Canadian success story: Canada can, and should, punch above its weight. And when we do, it is good news because exploration and technology development have positive implications for two areas where Canada is badly lagging our peers: innovation and defence.
In both domains, we are only offering limp-wristed flails.
First, on innovation. The CSA has limited resources compared to other agencies, yet it holds a commanding presence on the International Space Station (ISS) and in the astronautical community. Incomprehensibly intricate robotic arms, developed by the CSA, are deployed on the ISS to conduct repairs and other automated tasks, and several Canadian aerospace companies are on the rise building rovers and other equipment to be used in future missions.
These examples can help signal to the world that Canada has what it takes to be an innovation economy. While the recent federal budget contained lots of talk about innovation, its disparate tax incentives are unlikely to make a meaningful difference in any specific industry or help grow and protect Canadian intellectual property. Further, we lack a national strategy to bolster private sector research and development spending.
Our success in space shows that R&D is essential to innovation, yet we continue to rank among the lowest of G7 and OECD peers in this regard.
Our defence capabilities are, frankly, even more embarrassing. This week, as Finland’s flag was raised at NATO headquarters in Belgium, we gained yet another multilateral ally who is willing to proportionately outspend us in shared defence commitments and do more to protect global rules-based interests.
Despite pressure after Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine to step up to the plate, our defence spending remains well below the two per cent of GDP required by our commitment to NATO and is forecasted to only be 1.43 per cent by 2025. This is an indictment on our multilateral credentials and gives others good reason to consider us a pipsqueak.
Space is an important ingredient in improving our defence credentials. The war in Ukraine has highlighted, among other things, the growing consequence of satellites in warfare. It’s no secret that Russia and China have territorial ambitions in the Arctic and respectively have begun integrating satellite systems to increase their surveillance and navigation capabilities in the region. Unless we sharpen up and leverage our partnership with the Americans in aerospace to include greater defensive capabilities, we will be at severe risk.
Ultimately, this Canadian victory needs to propel ambition in other areas, namely innovation and defence. Canada’s presence on this historic mission shows the power of daring to dream. I hope it can motivate our politicians to unleash our capabilities for other critical policy imperatives.
This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on April 9, 2023.