When astronaut Chris Hadfield blasts off in a tiny Soyuz capsule for the International Space Station this week, it will be the latest accomplishment — and one of the loftiest — in Canada's 50-year-old space age.
Hadfield's goals are clear over the next six months, particularly when he becomes the first Canadian commander of the station in March, but much less certain is the country's future in space in the coming years.
Wednesday's launch from the Russian cosmodrome in Kazakhstan comes less than a month after a review commissioned by the federal government found that Canada's space industry has been lacking direction and falling behind other countries for the past decade or so.
Even smaller countries such as Belgium, Israel and Luxembourg spend more of their GDP on space than Canada does, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
At the same time, the federal aerospace review suggests that the significance of space is growing, extending beyond spacewalks and high-tech rovers to everything from national security and economics to digital communications via satellite.
For example, satellites up to 100,000 kilometres above Earth have become increasingly significant in everything from monitoring weather, crops and climate change to telecommunications, national defence and sovereignty.
For industry players such as Iain Christie, president of Neptec Design Group Ltd., an Ottawa-based space engineering company, Canada's space policy is at a crossroads.
"We have been a space-faring nation for a long time and we're used to thinking of ourselves as being in the top tier of space nations," he said in an interview. "But we do run the real risk of losing that status if the kind of decay that we've been seeing in the last little while isn't stopped."
The review, led by former cabinet minister David Emerson (a Liberal who crossed the floor to the Conservatives in 2006), urges Ottawa to boost spending on the development of space technology, and to establish 10-year, five-year and one-year priorities for the Canadian space program at the cabinet level.
"Canada was a pioneer in space," Emerson said in an email statement to CBCNews.ca.
"But for the last decade, Canada’s activities in space have suffered from ambiguous priorities and uneven implementation."
Emerson went on to say that "Canada's national interest demands that we make effective use of space to unlock wealth, secure our coastlines and borders, protect our population and environment and deliver services.
"This is becoming even truer as the North opens," Emerson wrote in the email.
The review draws particular attention to opportunities in the North and the role a national presence in space could play there.
"Through a vigorous presence in the North, using satellites as a key instrument of policy, Canada will be able to accelerate wealth creation, protect the environment, and assert its sovereignty," the review said.
"Given the intensification of multiple, conflicting national claims in the Arctic, both international law and pragmatic geopolitics demand that Canada be active in the region if it wants to secure its interests there."
But how the federal government and the Canadian Space Agency plan to respond to Emerson's review remains unclear.
The agency said no one was available to talk about Canada's future in space.
In an email Friday, Industry Canada said the agency's priorities are:
The Radarsat Constellation Mission.
The space station and robotics.
Chris Hadfield's mission.
The Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite.
The hybrid small satellite Cassiope.
The Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite, announced in 2008, is a suitcase-sized telescope set for launch next year that can spot asteroids and track satellites and space debris.
Cassiope, also set for launch next year, will help monitor space weather. The satellite's telecommunications payload will provide the first digital broadband courier service for commercial use, the department said.
Industry Minister Christian Paradis told the Canadian Aerospace Summit in Ottawa on Dec. 5 that the government is "carefully reviewing" the recommendations in Emerson's report, and that it is "not going to sit on a shelf collecting dust."
Paradis was not available for an interview last week.
The space agency's core budget has decreased over the past 10 years, the report said. In current dollars, the core budget has fallen from $325.8 million in 2001-02 to $285.8 million for 2012-13.
The agency had an annual budget of nearly $425 million in 2011-12, but about one-third of that is temporary funding related to the recession-fighting Economic Action Plan and specific projects, so not the kind of money that can be planned around over the longer term.
The agency expects to cut its budget by $29.5 million by 2014-15 as part of the federal government's budget reductions.
While Emerson is suggesting increased spending in one particular area — $10 million per year for three years to develop space technology — he's not recommending massive injections of funds overall. Rather, he suggests having stable core funding for the agency, and better planning and priority-setting.
"Although increased investment in space infrastructure and services may eventually be required, all the elements described [in the report's recommendations] can be achieved in a fiscally neutral way," the Emerson report says. "There is no reason for equivocation or delay."
Christie says he would like to see the federal government follow through on the Emerson recommendations and that he hopes the industry has a say in what happens next.
"I'm anxious to make sure that industry continues to have a voice in those future discussions about what will be done with the recommendations," he says. "But I'm encouraged because we did have the review."
For Neptec, the overall state of the Canadian space program has made it difficult to do long-term planning. Uncertainty over the space agency's delayed Radarsat Constellation satellite program is also clouding the skies.
"That's not something that Neptec has … typically worked in, but we'll certainly be glad when that is finally sorted out because I think then we can get some attention paid to some of the other parts of the industry where maybe we'll be able to contribute more," says Christie.
Industry Canada said Friday that the federal government "remains committed" to the Radarsat Constellation Mission, and is investing $497 million over five years in research, development and construction for the project that will include three surveillance satellites that can see through clouds, bad weather and darkness. Launches, initially planned for 2014 and 2015, are now set for 2016 and 2017.
Neptec has been working with the Canadian Space Agency to develop a lunar rover, as well as on automatic rendezvous and docking sensors that will fly to the ISS next year when Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. sends its Cygnus spacecraft there.
Orbital Sciences has a contract with NASA to deliver cargo to the space station, and represents one player in the growing privatization of space development. Another U.S. company, Texas-based SpaceX, delivered its first shipment to the space station this fall with its Dragon spacecraft.
Emerson's review acknowledged the growth of private-sector activity as a "key trend" in the global space sector, noting both the construction and operation of satellites for telecommunications and the establishment of private launch companies.
Christie says Canada should continue to be at the forefront of private space development, just as it has been in other space endeavours.
"It's still very much a very sort of immature sector so it I think there is a danger about assuming it can step in and fix all the ills," he says. "But it certainly is a trend that is going to continue."
Christie says Hadfield's upcoming stint as commander of the space station makes him "so proud to be a Canadian," but he sees the choice of Hadfield — the first non-American and non-Russian — for the role as a signal that Canada is "a trusted member of the league of space-faring nations."
It’s a position he doesn't want to see Canada lose.
"We are expected to be able to contribute at the highest levels of the International Space Program without question. It's just taken for granted we can. There are many, many countries in the world who wish they had that same kind of reputation and work very hard every day to try and get it.
"We already have it and I think what Emerson is saying is we need to work harder to keep it."