Image: The Canadarm/Wikimedia Commons
Space has recently become one of the favorite pastimes of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Canadian government.
Earlier this week, the president of the Treasury Board of Canada and federal cabinet member Tony Clement triumphantly announced Canada’s planned partnership with NASA to 3D map the asteroid Bennu. Basically, Canadian scientists will contribute research towards the designs of a 3D laser mapping system traveling aboard NASA's unmanned OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, visiting the gargantuan asteroid to chip a sample off of it to bring back to earth.
Clement touted the $8.4 million initial government investment into the space mission, while promising $61 million in additional funding for the project spread across 15 years.
“Canada is a world leader in optics and this mission will challenge our domestic space industry to, once again, push Canada's world-renowned expertise to new frontiers,” said Clement. “In return for Canada's contribution, the Canadian Space Agency will receive a portion of the total returned sample letting Canadian scientists conduct research that could revolutionize our understanding of the Solar System and our planet Earth.”
The spacecraft is set to launch in the fall of 2015, making its way across our galactic neighborhood to reach Bennu by November of 2018, and then returning to Earth in 2023.
In the lead up to the announcement, Clement didn’t hold back from showing his personal excitement, or his own brand of hyperbole: “Just T minus 11 hours before my announcement with the Canadian Space Agency that is bigger than Michael Bay's blockbusters!”
Without downplaying the significance of an investment in an important NASA mission to learn more about Armageddon asteroids, space is really becoming one of Harper's favourite funding ventures.
The interest began when Chris Hadfield, the guitar-wielding singer and spaceman, became the first Canadian to take over as commander of the International Space Station. His global popularity, fueled by tweeting pictures of space or his own rendition of David Bowie’s "Space Oddity," were pure catnip for the Canadian government.
I watched in April of that same year as the finance minister, head of the Bank of Canada, and representatives of the federal mint, unveiled a space-themed five dollar bill—with one predictable special guest announcing the bill. From the heavens, Hadfield joined the politicians via webcam for the event, whooping it up with the crowd as the closest astronaut Canada has ever had to a Buzz Aldrin figure.
And the parade didn’t end there. Harper, who is notoriously hard to snap public photographs of, made sure he came out of hiding to have a summertime photo-op with Hadfield in the midst of the Senate scandal last June.
Since, there's been a glut of Canadian space-related announcements. New Industry Minister James Moore has been the point man for Harper of late, promoting a Canadian space policy for the future in early 2014, meant to "inspire young Canadians to pursue careers in science," and promote innovation in the private sector. Then, in June, he unveiled a Canada from Space map, for students across the country to familiarize themselves with space.
There's no denying the optimism in the Canadian aerospace industry, the actual good news surrounding a self-repairing robot Canadian arm aboard the International Space Station, or even the overall successes of the Canadarm.
That being said, some of these projects can be tempered with other news from Canada's space agency. For one, in 2013, Marc Garneau, former Canadian astronaut and current Liberal Member of Parliament, pointed out, the Harper government cut 10 percent of the Canadian Space Agency's budget. Currently, the space program runs on about $260 million, barely a drop in the bucket compared to NASA's proposed $17.5 billion for 2015. Not to mention that, after using up all of its credit contributions to the International Space Station for Hadfield's journey, the Canadian agency won't actually be sending anymore astronauts into space until 2019.
Ultimately, the Harper government could end up being the savior of the Canadian Space Agency if its ambitious plans come to fruition. But like anything else governmental, talk and action are loose concepts. Even so, it will be interesting to see if Commander Hadfield makes an election time appearance for Harper in 2015—guitar, space suit, and all.