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Budget cuts to Canadian Space Agency prompt concern at international conference

QUEBEC – Cuts to the federal space budget are coming under scrutiny at an international conference being hosted in Quebec City.

The CEO of a top space company says he thinks the 10 per cent cut, part of broader decreases in the recent federal budget, may hurt the Canadian Space Agency’s ability to compete internationally.

Mike Pley, the head of COM DEV International, noted Tuesday that the cuts come after the CSA’s annual $300 million budget had already remained steady for years.

“Canada’s space industry rates with the best in the world. It has momentum from past success, but it is at risk of slipping in today’s environment,” he told a conference organized by the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute.

COM DEV is a satellite-equipment manufacturer based in Cambridge, Ont.

Pley noted that 50 years ago, Canada was the third country into space, but other space nations are preparing to challenge it and other “first world” countries.

“Despite fiscal pressures, most space-faring nations are not significantly cutting back on their civil space programs — in fact emerging nations such as China, India and Brazil have been significantly increasing their investments in space,” he said.

He warned that it’s going to be very difficult to successfully compete with the rest of the world with a CSA budget that is small and shrinking.

An official with the Canadian Space Agency would not comment, saying that it’s still reviewing the recent federal budget.

During opening remarks at the conference, CSA President Steve MacLean underlined China’s impressive space strategy.

“In a way, it’s a concatenation of all the strategies of all the other space agencies,” he told the 300 conference participants. “Everything that Europe is thinking about, everything that the United States is thinking about, every niche that we have, they have it listed.”

MacLean said the Chinese could become leaders in space as they focus on developing their human resources.

“They are not leading yet — they don’t have all the technical niches that the rest of the world has — but with that kind of focus it’s going to change very soon,” he added.

The conference was treated to a rare look at China’s plans for deep-space exploration by a chief engineer from the Chinese Academy of Space Technology (CAST).

Qiu Jiawen admitted that China was 40 years behind the space programs of the United States and Russia, but it was clear his country isn’t wasting any time trying to catch up.

He presented the broad outlines of a deep-space exploration plan — which includes the search for life beyond Earth.

In the short term, China is planning to send a rover mission to the moon to bring back lunar samples. Qiu added that China is willing to co-operate with other countries in various ways and jointly develop international deep-space exploration.

“China is now building its own space station,” Qiu told the conference. “And China may not refuse co-operation with other countries to use the space station.”

A key Chinese official added that China would welcome any technological co-operation.

Most conference speakers agreed that international co-operation is the way to go as space exploration extends beyond low Earth orbit to human exploration of Mars.

Andreas Diekmann, an official with the European Space Agency, called for a global political vision of space.

The director of ESA’s Washington office said any common vision should provide opportunities to new partners and not be confined only to the five agencies involved in the International Space Station.