Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Nearly everyone on planet Earth has heard of the organization called NASA.  They may not know that NASA stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration, but they do know that it runs the world’s most successful space program.  Though founded in 1958, NASA was immortalized in 1969, when it sent a man to the surface of the moon.  The event was the landmark of the twentieth century, and cemented the United States as the world leader in space exploration. 

The economic benefits that the United States reaped from its lunar landing cannot be overstated.  Leaders in aerospace are leaders in technology, and leaders in technology are economic superpowers.  If the American energy and auto industries matched the level of excellence of NASA, the United States would be technologically untouchable.

I would bet that the vast majority of Canadians haven’t a clue what CSA is.  The Canadian Space Agency is the Canadian equivalent of NASA, but the two organizations are hardly equivalent.  CSA is a fine organization.  They participate in the expensive practice of space exploration on a meagre budget; it is however the level of funding of national space organizations that determines the extent to which they may participate.

Here is an order of magnitude scale for the kind of aerospace related activity you can afford for a given amount of American dollars in 2011:

$100,000,000,000                 Manned interplanetary mission
$10,000,000,000                   Manned lunar mission
$1,000,000,000                     Unmanned rocket for satellite placement
$100,000,000                        Complete communications satellite or a 747 airplane
$10,000,000                         Space payload (eg, Satellite Antenna)
$1,000,000                           Basic helicopter
$100,000                              Half a tank of gas for a 747 airplane
$10,000                               One foot wide meteorite (collector’s item)
$1,000                                 Typical coach plane ticket with return
$100                                    Nike sneakers to jump as high as you can
$10                                      Movie ticket for Apollo 13
$1                                        Paper airplane

The table above shows that you need a factor of ten in terms of dollars to take an aerospace project to the next level.  Ten million buys the payload... Add a factor of ten for the satellite to mount it on... Add a factor of ten for something to launch the satellite with.  To merely participate in a project outside the atmosphere, the kind of budget required is ten million dollars.  This is why many nations stay out of the space game entirely.
NASA has an annual budget of 18.7 billion dollars.  This money comes from the roughly 300,000,000 US tax-payers, to the tune of about sixty dollars per tax-payer.  This level of funding allows the organization to explore space independently via unmanned probes.

CSA has an annual budget of about 300 million dollars.  Each of Canada’s 30,000,000 tax-payers contributes about ten bucks towards their nation’s space exploration effort.

The six-to-one US to Canada tax-payer contribution ratio used to be ten-to-one.  The gap has closed in recent years, not because Canadians pay more, but because Americans now pay less.  Still, with ten times the population and six times the per-person funding, NASA’s budget is sixty times greater than that of CSA.

With an operating budget of 300M, CSA can build payloads independently (Canadarm and Dextre, feeds and reflectors), and on occasion, with the help of private industries like MDA, build complete satellites (Radarsat-1 and Radarsat-2).  CSA also conducts research, both at its home base in St. Hubert, Quebec, and on the International Space Station, thanks to its accomplished crew of astronauts.

Still, with funding of this magnitude, Canada will never be able to launch anything into space independently.  And, maybe that’s OK.  By removing themselves from the propulsion side of space exploration, Canada has become a world leader in space payloads by developing its prowess in both robotics and antenna engineering.  CSA can be commended for doing a lot with not very much.

The classic argument against funding space agencies is that there are so many current problems that this money could help to solve here on Earth.  If we are forward-looking enough, we will realize that money invested in aerospace will usually pay for itself in spinoff technologies.  Other organizations like ESA (European Space Agency), JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), and ROSCOSMOS (Russian Federal Space Agency) continue to fund their space presence on the world stage for this very reason.

The accomplishments of a nationally funded space program should be saluted by the tax-payers that contribute to it.  As a Canadian, I have pride that my country has done so much with so little.  I hope that the level of funding for CSA will be maintained, and perhaps even increased over the years.  The boomer generation of kids were inspired by the lunar landing.  If space funding dwindles, this generation of kids will have to settle for paper airplanes.  


Dale E. Moore said...

All our other problems Global Warming, Education, Health Care, you name it should take a back seat to establishing at least one self-sustaining off-planet community. Then we can get back to arguing about the lessor priority items.

The Engineer said...

Dale, I do not detect a trace of sarcasm in your reply. I think your view is not held by the vast majority of voters anywhere.

I think there is a balance that needs to be struck between technological endeavours, which are fun and often economical, and societal maintenance, which is necessary.