CANADA'S space industry is awaiting federal Cabinet approval for what newspapers here call a ``space garage and crane.'' It is Canada's contribution to the manned, multinational Space Station program managed by the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States.
As in the US, costs are escalating. Robert DeCotre, minister for regional industrial development, recently indicated the 10-year cost could be $1 billion (Canadian; US$770 million), up from the $800 million assumed last year. Regardless, observers expect Cabinet approval soon. The money ensures continued prosperity for an industry that has been growing about 20 percent a year for the last four or five years.
``Canada is the only country in the world that earns more from exports of space-related materials than the government spends on space,'' notes Frank Oberle, minister of state for science and technology. Industry sales amount to about $350 million to $400 million (Canadian; US$270 million to $308 million), compared with government expenditures running about $170 million per year.
Canada's space program is overshadowed by the massive American industry. Nonetheless, Canadians are proud of their space technology in such areas as satellite communications and smaller rockets as well as the more famous Canadarm used on the US space shuttle craft.
The government money will buy what is known as a mobile servicing center to be used in putting the Space Station together and then servicing and repairing it. Weighing 16,500 pounds, it will provide the station with a movable crane similar to but larger than the original Canadarm. It will have two arms and seven joints (instead of six for the ``shuttle remote manipulator system''). It will be designed to manipulate up to 250,000 pounds, making it capable of bolting the orbiter to the Space Station and attaching modules to the truss structure. The shuttle arm could handle only 65,000 pounds. The new arm will also be able to manage delicate tasks as well as heavy duties.
The base for the servicing center will be built in California by a subsidiary of Spar Aerospace Ltd., the Toronto-based prime contractor for the Canadian Space Station program.
The Canadians recognize the essential nature of their contribution to the Space Station. Without it, the station cannot be constructed in space. With government financing relatively assured, they anticipate no problem in providing on-time delivery.
But they are concerned with the reliability of the American time schedule. Karl H. Doetsch, who directs the project from the National Research Council here, says the difficulty in getting the shuttle program in operation again ``has caused us all concern.'' The shuttle must be available to lift elements of the station into space by 1994.
Further, Canadians are concerned about the ups and downs of congressional financing of space, a problem that has been less troublesome in Canada. In December, Congress cut the proposed budget for the Space Station to $425 million in the current fiscal year, $342 million less than NASA asked. Total cost of the program has been estimated at $21 billion (in 1984 dollars).
``This is very worrisome,'' says Christopher G. Trump, a vice-president of Spar Aerospace. ``It means more stretchouts. There is no sense of urgency in the US about space.''
If there is too much delay, it could be hard to keep teams of scientists and engineers working on the project, he warns. ``You can't keep good people spinning cobwebs.''
Mr. Trump also wonders whether extended delay could break up the international consortium. ``For two cents the French would leave in a minute and put all their money in the Hermes [rocket] project,'' he warns. Other nations are also getting ``a little antsy,'' he adds.
One potential hitch for the Canadian contribution was removed in December when Canadian and US negotiators signed in Washington a memorandum of understanding that Canada could be reimbursed for any money spent on the space station if the US decided to use it for military purposes. The memorandum also spells out details of the Canadian contribution and, in return, Canadian access to the station and its capabilities for scientific purposes. Canada plans to have instruments looking at Earth from a Polar Platform.
The Progressive Conservative government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney inadvertently put itself in a no-win situation last year when it announced a plan to create a Canadian Space Agency to bring together various space-related programs now managed by several agencies and departments. A failure to name immediately a home for the agency turned the plan into a political dud. Now Ottawa and Montreal are competing hotly to be the government base for the industry. It is an example of regional rivalry over government spending programs which is common in Canada.
If the government names Montreal, much of English-speaking Canada will feel Mr. Mulroney is favoring French-speaking Quebec - a province where the Conservatives must do well if they are to succeed in federal elections. An earlier controversial decision awarded Canadair in Montreal a contract to service CF-18 fighter planes over a lower bidder in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
The Quebec National Assembly even took the extraordinary step of passing a unanimous resolution demanding that the federal government favor Montreal. It wants that city on the St. Lawrence River to become the center of Canada's space industry. ``Montrealers are positively emotional on the issue,'' notes Trump of Spar Aerospace.
But if the government chooses Ottawa, it might strengthen the separatist tendencies in Quebec that have revived somewhat recently.
Because of the controversy, there is some suspicion in the industry that the government will avoid making a decision. But government officials maintain that isn't the case.
Because of regional rivalry, the work on the Space Station will be spread across the country, adding to the project's complexity. At least $50 million will be spent in the Atlantic provinces, $50 million in the prairie provinces, and $50 million in British Columbia.
Other contractors besides Spar Aerospace in the space consortium include MacDonald Dettwiler & Associates Ltd. of Richmond, British Columbia; SED Systems Inc., Saskatoon, Saskatchewan; CAE Electronics Ltd. of Montreal; Canadian Astronautics Ltd. of Ottawa; and IMP Group of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Canada hopes its work on the platform will bring benefits to its robotics, mining, nuclear, and electronic industries. ``The real value of any of this initial development of space systems is the spinoff to more-conventional systems,'' says Science Minister Oberle.
Canada was the third nation in the world - after the Soviet Union and the US - to place a satellite in orbit - the Alouette in 1962. With its sounding of the ionosphere from the topside, Canadians regard it as the most successful of the early scientific satellites.
Ten years later Canada was the first nation to enjoy commercial communications from a satellite in geostationary orbit, the Anik A. This system is especially useful to Canada with its relatively small population spread over a huge territory. Another 10 years later Spar Aerospace signed a contract to build for Brazil the first satellite communications system in Latin America.