Let’s regain our place as a nation of explorers

I noticed a tweet this morning from my space colleague Natalie Panek stating that the federal government’s Standing Committee on Finance had launched its pre-budget consultations and deliberations in advance of the 2019 federal budget. Natalie encouraged us to make our voices heard by sharing our priorities with the Committee. I was eager to help. I had been disappointed when the Canadian Space Agency’s new space strategy was not funded in last February’s budget. It urgently needs to get funded next year.

I clicked on the link that Natalie provided and learned that today is the last day to provide recommendations. Yikes! I scrambled to write something quickly and submit it. This is what I wrote:


Canada is a nation founded by explorers. The exploits of these early-day heroes have become vital threads of Canada’s national fabric. As a child, I enjoyed reading their biographies – stories of our indigenous people, Vikings, Champlain, La Vérendrye, Mackenzie, Thompson and others. The stories featured tales of discovery and admirable personality traits – vision, perseverance, courage, ambition, decisiveness – traits that distinguished early Canadians from other world citizens.

Shooting the Rapids 1879 by Frances Anne Hopkins

Exploration, and particularly the exploration of space, became important to me. I was inspired as a youth by a TV broadcast of a US president who declared that we explore space “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”

Not because it is easy, but because it is hard! Now that was a statement that caught my attention. It well described the mindset of the early Canadian explorers as well as of the modern-day astronauts who were venturing to the moon. From that formative moment listening to a TV broadcast, I began to fashion an educational path that would lead to a career in space and that would challenge the best of my energies and skills.

Grade 3 teacher Shirley Cole who introduced my classmates and me to the space program

I was fortunate and fulfilled – my eventual career took me to the limits of my physical, intellectual and emotional being on a regular basis. I was proud to be a Canadian and proud of our national space program.

Today, as a former astronaut, I continue to advocate for a Canadian role in space exploration. Such a role bolsters national pride, economic benefits, scientific payoffs and new technologies. Besides its pragmatic benefits, space exploration also motivates students in their STEM studies and inspires our society to take on audacious challenges – perhaps its greatest value.

The spirit of exploration that characterized our young nation must be preserved and nurtured. It is a basic human instinct. I fear, however, that our present-day drive to explore is waning. Due to societal changes over the last decades, I sense that we are losing a critical core competence that once provided Canada with a competitive edge in the global economy and that distinguished our culture.

To remain a productive and innovative nation playing a significant role on the world stage, Canada needs to nurture modern day explorers and a national culture that pushes back 21st century frontiers. I note, however, that Canada no longer pulls its weight in the world space community. Our minimal contributions to recent international programs gives us little voice around the table. It would be an exaggeration to say that Canada plays a consistent leadership role in world space affairs. We have become followers.

I was privileged to pursue a satisfying career in space when Canada had a vigorous, successful program that inspired the public. This golden era no longer exists. Our national space program is surviving, but not thriving. Our recent achievements in space have been good, but not audacious.

I spend much of my time now nurturing the next generation of young space leaders. I wish to provide these modern-day explorers in our high schools and universities with the same aspirations and opportunities that I had when I was young. But it is heartbreaking for me to hear that our young leaders are unable to find career challenges that match their impressive abilities. The best and brightest are leaving Canada to follow their space dreams elsewhere. We are slowly losing national capacity.

I recommend that the government of Canada restore support for and pride in our national space program. Allow Canada to regain its role as a credible leader within the international space community – a role that matches our heritage as a nation of daring explorers.

Specifically, I recommend that the government:

  • implement the six recommendations of the ISED Space Advisory Board’s 2017 report, and
  • approve the Canadian Space Agency’s new space strategy and restore adequate funding of the Agency as a means to stretch our national capabilities and rally our citizens.

The first human exploration missions to Mars will take place in the 2030s. This means that the astronauts who will participate in those mission are alive today and probably in high school or university.  We have an obligation to prepare these people for those daunting voyages by advancing the requisite knowledge, skills and attitudes in our national space program.

If there is one country in the world that should know something about exploration, it should be Canada. Let’s ensure that our role is significant, our voice is heard, and our astronauts are present when the space faring nations explore deep space in the coming decades.

Mission to Phobos (credit: Ludovic Celle)

4 thoughts on “Let’s regain our place as a nation of explorers

    • Ever since a long-term space plan by former Canadian Space Agency president Steve MacLean was shelved, the country has been drifting along like a lost satellite. Hopefully, this will soon change when a new space strategy is unveiled.

  1. Well said, Dr. Thirsk! I sincerely hope that our government listens to the collective voice of our astronauts, space industry leaders, scientists and explorers and makes bold commitments to our nation’s future in space exploration.

  2. Thanks, Bob; your comments are spot on.
    Canada has appropriately “punched above its weight” in the space realm for 45 of the 55 years that we have been in space – we were the third country in the world to design, build and have successfully flown a satellite in space; our engineers and scientists were vital to the Apollo program; our robotic arms in space have been crucial to the success of both the Shuttle program and the International Space Station; we were pioneers in the development of small, low-cost satellites that now dominate the commercial space sector; and we have been a trusted and important partner in many of the worlds most important space missions that continues with our seminal contribution to the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope. Furthermore, space is an intrinsic and essential element in almost all aspects of the daily lives of the country, whether we know it or not, from secure and rapid communications to all corners of our vast land, to monitoring the changes to and security of our country through earth observation, to the ubiquitous and expanding applications of navigation and timing signals in all facets of both commercial and government services. However, as you have pointed out, Bob, we seem to have lost our way over the past decade with the lack of a vision, purpose and support for what should be a fundamentally important area of expertise, innovation and pride for the country.
    For most of the past half century, Canada has been a trusted second-tier nation in the space arena, however, we are now slipping quickly into the third-tier; a nation looking in at what is happening around us rather than being an essential contributor and reaping the benefits of such contributions. And this in an area that is expanding globally at a tremendous pace with over 70% of the wealth now being generated by the private sector.
    Let us hope that the government’s long promised new space strategy will be released soon with a visionary and sustainable plan for Canada to regain its longstanding position in this domain focussed on innovation, science and economic development.

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