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Columbia dominoes could topple Canada's space program

As the United States struggles to put its space program back on track after Saturday's loss of the space shuttle Columbia, Ottawa must examine its stake in the U.S. space program.

Although the tragedy in the skies over Texas did not involve the International Space Station, the loss of the Columbia raises new questions about the station's viability, because the ISS relies on the shuttle for continuing construction, maintenance, and crew replacement. In 1986, after the loss of the shuttle Challenger, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration held shuttles on the ground for 32 months; astronauts were grounded for 20 months after the deaths on Apollo 1 in 1967.

The two Americans and one Russian now on board the ISS can return to Earth at any time thanks to the Russian-built Soyuz ferry attached to the station, which could also fly in a replacement crew. But by the time the cause of the Columbia disaster is determined and corrected, it may be too late to continue the station's operation, let alone resume construction.

This puts at risk Canada's $1.4-billion ISS investment, which was already in question due to cost-cutting measures by the Bush administration. It takes the equivalent of two and a half crew members to keep the station in running order; a crew of three has little time for science. For Canada, this crew restriction means only 30 minutes a week is available for research.

Most of Canada's investment in the ISS goes to the Mobile Servicing System, which includes the Canadarm2, installed in 2001, and the Mobile Base System, launched last summer. The final part of the servicing system, the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator System, is built and was supposed to be launched last year but was delayed to 2005 due to the station's financial problems. Canada also pays a modest share of the station's operating costs.

Auditor-General Sheila Fraser warned in her report last December that the Canadian Space Agency's investment in the ISS could spin out of control. "In our opinion, the key risks involved in Canada's involvement in the NASA-led ISS program could be beyond the agency's ability to manage," Ms. Fraser's report said, referring to the threats to Canada's research access to the ISS. "If the crew size is not increased, there is a risk that the station may never be available for its intended purpose."

Just as the Auditor-General's report was coming out, CSA president Marc Garneau was meeting with officials from NASA and from other countries involved in the ISS program to help resolve international disquiet over NASA's cutbacks to research opportunities. Their solution involved increased use of Soyuz ferries, the space shuttle, and an orbital space plane that NASA plans to build.

But this ISS solution rests on unsteady legs. While Soyuz is reliable, Russia's economic problems raise production, cost and quality-control issues. The orbital space plane is just the latest NASA plan for crewed spacecraft to replace or complement the shuttle to have fallen prey to funding or technical problems. And now the Columbia disaster has reduced the fleet to three shuttles from four.

While the loss of Columbia puts NASA's human space program in jeopardy, it may also give Washington the resolve to replace its aging shuttles. As for Canada, our space program has proven to be a good investment.

We have used the Canadarm on the shuttle and the Mobile Servicing System on the ISS to establish an international reputation for our aerospace and robotics industries. Eight Canadians have flown into space; two were due to return to orbit this year. Canada is a leading provider of equipment for communications satellites, especially (thanks to RADARSAT satellites) in the field of remote sensing, despite some discord with the U.S. government over security issues. Canada's first new scientific satellites in 30 years are currently nearing launch, and our researchers regularly fly experiments on U.S., European and Japanese spacecraft.

Canada's space industry generated estimated revenues of $1.8-billion in 2001, 40 per cent of it in exports. We've long been in the unique position of making more in space-related exports than we spend on our space program.

Canada has limited options when it comes to human space travel, because the ISS is, for better or for worse, the only viable program on this high-technology frontier. Withdrawal from the station would have major ramifications for our space industry, which depends on relationships with the U.S. and European space programs. America's reaction to the Columbia disaster will determine how well Canada's investment in the ISS continues to pay off.
Chris Gainor, a Victoria-based consultant and space historian, is the author of Arrows to the Moon: Avro's Engineers and the Space Race.

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