Why space matters to students

While the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) is an international organization, our mission to advocate for the interests of students in the space sector is particularly necessary in Canada.

All Canadian students are harmed by Canada’s inattention to space, but the students who are most hurt are those training to work in the space sector. Canada has many strong aerospace schools1. These programs attract top students from around the world, and they produce top graduates. But what prospects do these graduates have?

Sadly, the once stable Canadian space sector is languishing in a prolonged state of decay. For years, a dismal lack of public support has forced many Canadian space companies to shift their work to other countries. Canada’s top talent rarely stays in Canada. Many Presidents of the Canadian Space Agency seem to leave the organization well before their term ends because the agency has no consistent public mandate. Even great victories for space exploration and development, like Canada’s participation in the James Webb Space Telescope, often appear to sideline public commitment. The default view, in this community, is that the Canadian space sector is going nowhere fast.

This is not a rosy picture for a new graduate in the space sector. Employment opportunities are few and dwindling. After years of Brain Drain, even if a top graduate manages to remain in Canada, they will have few colleagues and few mentors. And without a real public commitment, the jobs will not be coming back.

This phenomenon is hard to quantify, since direct data on the subject is rare. To get a rough idea, though, we can consult The Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) searchable directory of space sector companies. According to this directory, there are only 96 companies – private, public, and academic – that would allow an Ontario aerospace graduate to work both in their field and in their province.

Already, 96 organizations is not many. Of these, only about 70 are private companies that focus on space systems engineering. Even worse, in a highly specialized field with strong rates of job retention, it is not clear how many of these firms are looking to hire new graduates in a given year. Indeed, a newly certified Ontarian space systems engineer might reasonably expect to have fewer than a dozen companies to apply to in their entire province.

That’s just Ontario. Quebec has 40 private space companies; British Columbia has only 12; Nova Scotia has 8; Alberta has 6; Manitoba has 3; Saskatchewan has 2; Newfoundland has 1; and New Brunswick, PEI, and the Territories do not have any.

The problem is clear: if there are no organizations in your field and in your province, then you must choose between them. If there are 3 or 5 or 10 such companies, chances are good that none of them will be hiring when you graduate, so you have no opportunity to practice your trade at home. Even if there are 40 or 70, your chances may be slim, and your competition fierce. The result? Canada produces good engineers, highly trained in a specialized skillset. Then, we boot them out of the country. Why are we training engineers to grow other countries’ economies and aid their efforts in space?

This is not a special interest. As SEDS-CAN noted in a previous post, the Canadian space sector generates $3.5 billion every year, employing over 8,200 Canadians. Our overall aerospace sector generates $30 billion annually, and employs over 150,000 Canadians. So the space sector is a relevant and lucrative part of Canada’s manufacturing-heavy economy; in every two thousand and five hundred Canadians, one works in the space sector. This proportion of the Canadian workforce, 0.04%, is about the same proportion of Canadians who are over 90, or who live in the Yukon, or whose native language is Korean; it’s a small number, but it matters. Surely these Canadians deserve the option of working in their field while living in their country.

Despite the importance of this sector, Canada’s investment in space is tiny. As we’ve noted, the Canadian Space Agency’s $300 million budget, set in 1999, was about 0.1% of the most recent budget. This stagnant funding has fallen far behind inflation; according to the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator, the CSA’s $300 million core expenditures in 1999 would now cost $400 million — while their core budget may have stayed the same on paper, their purchasing power has fallen sharply. Why has their spending power shrunk when they are the public manifestation of a critical, even futuristic, industry? This stands in stark contrast with the local importance and global growth of space: according to the Space Foundation, the global space economy is consistently growing, and now producing more than $300 billion every year.

But it wasn’t always like this. Canada used to punch well above its weight class in space. Between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, Canada was contracted by NASA to produce the Canadarm: a series of robotic arms that were a crucial contribution to the International Space Station. This influx of public money and global relevance meant a boom in Canada’s private space sector, and specialized jobs with private space sector contractors were numerous. When this program ended and the CSA lost its firm public mandate, the contractors left town. Even the last Canadarm has gone to America to look for work. Ironically, we put the Canadarm on our money shortly after the program ended. Let’s hope our $5 bill is not a commemorative coin.

SEDS-CAN strongly urges our next government to increase the core budget of the Canadian Space Agency to account for inflation.

If we accounted for inflation and restored the proportional CSA funding of 1999, we could rejuvenate Canadian space. SEDS-CAN strongly urges our next government to increase the core budget of the Canadian Space Agency to account for inflation since 1999. Canada has a role to play in space, and a detailed independent government report has determined what that role should be. That report, called the Emerson Report, has already recommended that “the Canadian Space Agency’s core funding be stabilized, in real dollar terms, for a 10-year period; that major space projects and initiatives be funded from multiple sources, both within and beyond the federal government; and that increased international cooperation be pursued as a way of sharing the costs and rewards of major space projects and initiatives”. To illustrate the problem, the report includes this graphic, which has been reprinted from page 35 of the Emerson Report’s 2nd volume, illustrating the difference between the CSA’s core budget in real dollars and its spending power:


Increasing the CSA’s core budget to account for inflation would address the agency’s decaying spending power. With good public funding, we could ensure that our specialized graduates can find competitive jobs at home, growing our economy and furthering our own interests.

All of this — the Brain Drain, the lack of job opportunities, and the increasingly weak public commitment — explains why students in the space sector are getting the short end of the stick. But students in the space sector are not the only students who are affected by Canada’s ineffectual policies in space exploration and development. When we ignore space, we are gambling on the future of all young Canadians.

Space matters. Space investments grow the economy. They lead to new inventions, and improve our infrastructure. Space investments are why we have GPS, cell phones, modern television, and the internet. Many space-inspired technologies save lives, from surgical arms to grooved highways. Space investments make us safer in a broader sense, too; they are a peaceful avenue for international relations and cooperative foreign policy. And they help us protect our planet. Investments in space are how we learned about global climate change, and they allow us to gauge crop health and predict dangerous natural disasters. And space investments aren’t only important to our future: they give our students some continuity with the past, since space investments are an important part of Canadian history.

It’s hard to spend today’s money on tomorrow’s dividends, but that is the choice we must make. SEDS-CAN understands that space investments make us richer, smarter, and safer. This federal election, we urge Canadians to elect a government that will protect our future by investing where it counts.

1Using aerospace programs is not a totally fair comparison, since the space sector is only a small part of the aerospace sector, but space programs are rarely independent of aerospace programs

Samuel Baltz, advocacy@seds.ca

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