Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Dare Mighty Things, Canada

Canada was the 3rd country to build a satellite, Alouette, shown above (Photo courtesy CRC). From the very start, ours was an international effort, but one that has been fraught with many ups and downs as my recent reading of "Canada's Fifty Years in Space" (written by the resident of the neighboring office to mine at York, Gordon Shepherd) has revealed. On this anniversary, I can't help but wonder, what might the future hold?

2012 was a significant year for space exploration. Not only was this past year the 50th anniversary of the launch of Canada’s first satellite, Alouette, but it was also the 50th anniversary of the start of planetary exploration with Mariner 2’s voyage to Venus.

Our exploration of the planets continues to this day. Just this past August, as millions around the world watched, the Mars Science Laboratory Rover Curiosity achieved a daring landing on the dusty soils of Gale Crater in equatorial Mars. Over the next two years, the largest and most capable planetary rover ever developed will climb the five-kilometer high Mount Sharp and will search for the tantalizing clues to why a place that was once very much like the early Earth diverged to become a frozen desert. It will also help to determine if those early conditions might have led to life on our neighboring world.

I was fortunate to be at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena on the night of the landing. As I cheered them on from mission control, the team that successfully met the challenge of delivering Curiosity to Mars celebrated. A product of eight long hard years of work, the landing was a great triumph for the United States as a Nation and a message to the world that their country can still accomplish inspiring things.

In a small way it was a triumph for Canada as well. For a relatively meager investment of $17.5 million, Canada was able to provide Curiosity with an indispensable tool – the alpha particle x-ray spectrometer that will determine the proportions of different elements in the Martian soil. In turn, a team of Canadian scientists was welcomed into the fold.

Some might say that this is another example of Canada “punching above our weight” on the international stage. After all, Canadians make up over 5% of the team that will decide what the rover will do each day, despite having contributed less than 1% to its costs.

However, such a statement ignores the fact that, compared to the United States and even ailing Europe, our Space Program is relatively undersized both in absolute terms and proportional to our population. Despite drastically reducing its commitment in the years since Apollo, the US still spends nearly $60 per citizen per year in space, Canada under $7.

The present situation contrasts strongly with our history. Canada, the third nation to build and place a satellite in orbit, was an early achiever. From the Canadarm to RadarSat to the CCDs that captured Curiosity’s first glimpse of the Martian surface our expertise remains world class.

Furthermore, as a nation spread across a vast expanse we stand to benefit more than most from investments in space. Orbiting spacecraft are the only effective way that we can communicate across the distances that separate us, seek out the natural resource wealth lying undiscovered beneath our territory and monitor the health of our atmosphere, oceans, forests and cities in trust for future generations.

The innovations that improve our daily lives and our ability to accomplish these goals come from technologies that push the limits of what is possible. It is not a stretch to say that the techniques being pioneered today on Mars, where the conditions and challenges are more severe, will lead to tomorrow’s advances. If we do not, as a nation, choose to do these things, those spoils will not be ours.

Fortunately, robotic exploration is economical. We could actually lead! Had Canada been responsible for all aspects of building and launching Curiosity it would have cost us just a tenth of one cent for every tax dollar spent in Canada. Projects like this would give us a robust exploration program that would enhance our expertise at home and enable our space industry to become more competitive abroad while making us stronger partners in international projects.

But beyond our ability to calculate monetary costs and benefits, planetary exploration is an inspirational exercise. Today, these robots are the true explorers, their cameras give us a human perspective on worlds that until recently were nothing more than points of light in the sky. Such images are the reason why many of us choose Engineering and the Sciences as a career. Couldn’t we all take pride if spacecraft made right here at home were opening up new vistas of their own?

At the press conference that followed the touchdown, Charles Elachi, Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory cited the Olympics. He said that he felt his team had won the Gold medal with their picture-perfect landing. Like the Olympics, some cite Space Exploration as a dream not worth the cost. It is also said that, as Canadians, we pride ourselves on being a pragmatic people. But are Peace, Order and Good Government all there is to us? For my part, on the eve of our next 50 years in space, I feel Canada also can dare mighty things. 
Originally, I had intended to submit this as a Newspaper Op-Ed, but in the end decided that this was the better venue. I'd also like to thank a former professor of mine and a current colleague on MSL, Dr. Laurie Leshin, for help with editing.