An interview with William Macdonald Evans, President of the Canadian Space Agency
William Watson: What in your view are the costs and benefits to Canada of our participation in the International Space Station? How do you rationalize spending a very large amount of money on a project that many people don’t think has many benefits?
William Macdonald Evans: Let me start by saying we’ve been in the project since 1984, and the costing that we have available for it takes us from 1984 to 2004, a 20-year period. The total costs, including all the contracts and the public servants and so on that we have working on it, is $1.4 billion over that 20 years.
William Watson: Are those current-year dollars or real dollars?
William Macdonald Evans: Those are actual-year dollars.
William Watson: So the old dollars would be worth more than the current dollars. Money spent in 1984 would be worth more than money spent this year.
William Macdonald Evans: But most of the money that we did spend on this program occurred in the last five or six years. The overall Canadian Space Agency budget this year is about $340 million and about a third of that will be for the Space Station. Next year, the Space Station will be less than a quarter of our budget.
William Watson: Is that an increase? Did you go through hard times in the war against the deficit?
William Macdonald Evans: No, our budget is actually on its way down. We had a peak when we were doing our major manufacturing for the Space Station, but our budget is now headed down to $300 million. In the next two or three years, it will be about $300 million.
William Watson: What benefits do you see arising from this spending?
William Macdonald Evans: The benefits are several. First of all, there are the advanced technologies that are created when we enter into a program like this. This is a follow-on from the Canadarm program on the Shuttle. We–the Canadian government, essentially–contributed the Canadarm to the Shuttle program. We designed and developed it and gave NASA the first one and they procured the next four. That got us into the space robotics area and allowed our companies to take those technologies and apply them in other areas. We’ve done a cost-benefit analysis on the Canadarm project, and to date, it’s over a six-to-one return on the government’s investment, in terms of sales, all of which were exports. So, that program, just on a straight, narrow, direct-cost, direct-benefit basis, has been quite successful.
We’re looking for the same sort of thing on the Space Station. For example, we’re looking for spin-offs that come from the fact that we are developing very sophisticated and advanced robotics technologies. There are many examples of how this technology is spinning off into terrestrial applications. The company that was the prime contractor for the new arm that we’re putting on the Space Station took some of these advanced technologies and were part of a major trial in the United States to use robotics for a particular environmental cleanup operation. The technologies that we are developing for space, which is a very harsh environment, are applicable to harsh environments here on Earth. People may not want to go into some of these areas, but robots can go in and, in the case of pollution, clean them up.
Another example of how these technologies are being used is something you probably wouldn’t think of: a totally automated gasoline station that Shell has on trial in the United States. Those technologies were supplied by a Canadian company, and they come from the Space Station work that we’ve done. In this automated station, you drive in and a vision system, which is part of our technologies, identifies your car. It knows exactly where your gas tank is, and so a robot machine comes over and fills up your tank and closes it all up again and away you go. You don’t even have to get out of your car.
We’ve done a cost-benefit analysis on the Canadarm project, and to date, it’s over a six-to-one return on the government’s investment, in terms of sales, all of which were exports. So, that program, just on a straight, narrow, direct-cost, direct-benefit basis, has been quite successful.
William Watson: You hope they get it right.
William Macdonald Evans: Yes! It’s under trial now, and it’s just another example of where we see economic spin-offs from the fact that we are building this very sophisticated new arm for the Space Station.
Another area where we get benefits comes, of course, from the use of the Space Station. As a partner in this program, we have access to it and can use it. The primary purpose of the Station is as a laboratory. It’s a unique laboratory where you can do experiments in zero gravity–what we call ”micro-gravity.” Our scientific and industrial community has focused on two areas: one is life sciences and the other is material sciences.
Let me give you some examples of what we’re doing in the life sciences area. We had an experiment fly on the Space Shuttle where we were looking at the effect of bone loss and bone rebuilding in the micro-gravity environment. It turns out that in space, bone loss occurs at about ten times the rate that it does on earth. Your bones are continually rebuilding themselves. It’s a very complicated process and obviously something happens in space that allows the destructive forces to prevail over the rebuilding forces. So we’re trying to understand that. The application here on earth, of course, is in osteoporosis. A large percentage of our elderly population is afflicted and we’re hoping that the knowledge gained in this type of research will help those people.
We’re also doing research in cardiovascular systems and in balance systems. In space, of course, your balance systems don’t have gravity to help them, and so by studying the things that happen there, we get a better understanding of the whole balance mechanism of human beings. Stroke victims, all sorts of people, suffer from balance problems, and so here’s another area where we’re hoping that the research that goes on on the Space Station will give us answers that will help people.
In the area of material science–actually, it’s a crossover with life sciences–it turns out that crystals of protein, which make up the majority of the human body, are very hard to isolate and grow here on earth. But in space, you can grow very pure and very large crystals. If you bring these crystals back, this gives the scientists an opportunity to better understand how they work and what functions they do. And, of course, this leads to new medicines and to a better understanding of how we can affect certain disorders in the human body.
In the area of materials processing, we all understand what a flame does here on earth. Because gravity is involved, a flame operates in a certain way. In space, there’s no gravity so the flame performs differently. By studying combustion in space we get a better understanding of the combustion process. When you apply that to combustion processes here on Earth, you can have an enormous effect on pollution and the environment. If we could get one per cent better efficiency out of our combustion processes here on Earth, we’d have a tremendous impact on the environment.
Those are the types of advantages we get from being able to use the Space Station. When we went into this program, we were looking at both the industrial benefits from developing this new technology and the results that would come from the research that we would be able to do on the Space Station.
The primary purpose of the Space Station is as a laboratory. It’s a unique laboratory where you can do experiments in zero gravity—what we call “micro-gravity.”
William Watson: What’s the scientific cost of the Space Station? I assume that in practical terms Canada has a science budget, and maybe it has an industry budget as well. What you get out of those budgets, other projects don’t get. Are you sensitive to what an economist would call the ”opportunity costs” of what you do?
William Macdonald Evans: All of the science that we do, whether it’s on the Space Station or in other aspects of space science, is based on peer review. We have a collaborative arrangement with NSERC [the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council] and NIHR [the National Institute for Health Research, the former Medical Research Council], the granting councils that handle all the federal government’s research funding activities.
William Watson: Are you bidding in the general pool of people or have you got …
William Macdonald Evans: We have money in our science program to fund the instrumentation that goes into space, whether it’s an earth observation instrument or whether it’s an experiment on the Shuttle, an experiment on the Space Station or a free-flying scientific satellite"all of which we do, by the way. And then NSERC and NIHR support the principal investigators. Like any other principal investigators, they have to enter into the NSERC and NIHR competitions.
William Watson: But at NSERC there’s no set-aside for space? You’re entering general competitions and if you don’t get anything, you don’t get anything, is that right?
William Macdonald Evans: That’s right–although NSERC itself sets aside money to various categories. That process is well understood and we’re just one of those categories.
I want to emphasize that we are involved in many, many activities. People often think our Canadian space program is the astronauts and the Shuttle arm and now the Space Station. But we do quite a lot more, and in fact, over the next five years, we’ll see that our astronaut program, our Space Station program, will be maybe only 20 per cent of what we spend on the space program. Our major area, which is going to be 30 to 35 per cent of our expenditures, is what we call ”the Earth and the environment.” We are operating an Earth observation satellite which is taking images of Canada and the world for a whole host of applications: the environment, natural resource management, shipping offshore, surveillance, disaster management when there are things like the Red River flood. So we’re doing a whole host of things that may not be terribly visible because there’s no human in space that you can see and watch. But Canada is in space in a large number of areas–telecommunications, Earth observation, and science"that people don’t see, and the benefits are coming quite dramatically. What you do see is this 20 per cent of our program that is the astronauts and the Space Station. But the proper context is to see it in the bigger picture.
People often think our Canadian space program is the astronauts and the Shuttle arm and now the Space Station. But we do quite a lot more, and in fact, over the next five years, we’ll see that our astronaut program, our Space Station program, will be maybe only 20 per cent of what we spend on the space program.
William Watson: You talk about a six-to-one benefit cost ratio on the Canadarm. What kinds of things are we selling to get a six-to-one ratio? I understand that they bought four arms after we gave them one.
William Macdonald Evans: There’s the repair and overhaul of the arms themselves. They are continuously being repaired and overhauled. The six-to-one number is a straight Canadarm test, including only the directly-related sales that arose from the initial investment.
William Watson: I understand that for many of the physical processes, since we deal in gravity all the time, it’s often useful to take something outside its natural environment to hold it up to a different lens. But if you’re developing applications, micro-gravity applications don’t work on earth, do they?
William Macdonald Evans: Well, no. This scientific process is one of taking away a variable, gravity, and looking at what’s left. Take combustion as an example. One of the major factors in what forms a flame here on earth is the fact that we have gravity and convection. That gives you the heart-shaped flame that comes off the top. That’s because of gravity. Now, that masks the other processes that are going on in the combustion process. So, if we take gravity away, then we are able to look at the other factors that affect the flame. And if we can find ways and means of increasing the efficiency of the flame from the knowledge that we’ve gained in space, then we can apply that back here on Earth. We still have gravity here on Earth. It’s still a major factor, obviously, but, as I say, if we can find a way of increasing efficiency by one-tenth of a per cent or one per cent, or some very very small number, it can have a big impact on things.
William Watson: What part of the appeal of this project is what might be called the ”to boldly go” component–the fact that it’s the new frontier.
William Macdonald Evans: I think there’s an element of that. One of the benefits of the Space Station is national pride. There’s no question that Canada is playing a critical role in the building of this Space Station. Without our robotic equipment, it could not be built. Marc Garneau’s recent flight clearly shows the benefits of the Canadarm on the Shuttle, in terms of helping to build the Space Station. But if you watched that happen, you will see that the Canadarm was stretched right to its limits. We’ve reached the end of where the Canadarm can do this by itself. There’s a need now for another robot on the Space Station, and that will be a very interesting thing to watch. You’ll see the Shuttle arm taking a payload out of the Shuttle and handing it over to the new Space Station arm, which will then take it and put it where it’s supposed to be on the Space Station. So, you have these two pieces of Canadian robotic technologies doing the work of building the Space Station. That’s a highly visible and attractive aspect of what we’re doing. We’re not an add-on to the Station–the Station cannot be built without us.
This is a critical role and we earned it through our Canadarm program and through other programs that we’ve had that have given the international community confidence that Canada can do this sort of thing. We find in our dealings with the Canadian public that our astronauts and our robotics and the role they play in space are extremely attractive to the youth of the nation, and to others as well. We can’t come anywhere close to meeting the demand for astronauts and for people who work on the Space Station program to go to schools and to communities to talk about what we’re doing. There is a big interest in this program and in the astronaut program.
We haven’t done any studies to see how many people have gone into science and technology after they’ve listened to an astronaut talk to them, but the excitement in their eyes when these talks are given is something to behold.
I don’t know how you convert that into an economic benefit, but if some children are enticed into a career in science and technology as a result of this, that’s probably to the benefit of the country. We haven’t done any studies to see how many people have gone into science and technology after they’ve listened to an astronaut talk to them, but the excitement in their eyes when these talks are given is something to behold.
William Watson: What about the argument that in effect space is too sexy, that is really does attract people to this type of science–which is fine in itself–but that means that it attracts them away from other kinds of science which may not be as exciting or photogenic but may even be more useful in terms of, say, osteoporosis research or even flame research or any of the other things you’re talking about?
William Macdonald Evans: Well, life is a series of choices that everybody makes. Canada needs people in all types of careers. We need researchers and scientists in a whole variety of activities. I come to a question like that from the point of view of: Here’s one area where we believe that there will be significant benefits flowing directly to Canadians from our work. It’s an area that Canadians are quite attracted to. There are some solid economic benefits, some solid application benefits, plus it has this attractiveness to young people. We think those are all important things. With our system of making decisions about what to do, I think Canada has been extremely good at finding niches like the telecommunications business, where we have the best in the world and we can compete with the world. I think space is another area like that. We don’t do everything in space, but we concentrate in a few places, and it’s demonstrable that we are bringing benefits to Canadians from our participation.
William Watson: Thanks very much for doing this.