Humans are heading back to the moon — and Canada is playing a bigger role than you may realize
If all goes as planned, NASA’s most powerful rocket yet will roar to life on the morning of Aug. 29, as part of the Artemis I mission to the moon.
While the mission will be uncrewed — the only passengers on the towering, 32-storey Space Launch System (SLS) and attached Orion capsule are three mannequins — it is the first moonshot for a human-rated spacecraft since Apollo 17 in December 1972.
The goal of the Artemis program is to send humans back to the moon — and ultimately to Mars.
But unlike the Apollo program of the 1960s, Artemis is an international effort. And Canada has no small role in returning humans to deep space; we are building a new Canadarm, a lunar rover and sending astronauts.
Our country’s role is bigger and better than it ever has been in our quiet, but storied, past with space exploration.
Canada was the third country to have a satellite in space. We have sent astronauts to live and work in space. We have provided crucial instruments to Martian rovers, and tools on a spacecraft that charted a distant asteroid. We are partners in the newly launched James Webb Space Telescope, providing the instrument that keeps it guided.
And, of course, we built the iconic robotic arms — Canadarm and Canadarm2 — that have been used on space shuttles and the International Space Station, as commemorated on our $5 bill.
And we, too, are going to the moon.
The mission of Artemis I is to test the SLS rocket and the Orion capsule. But after that comes Artemis II, scheduled for 2024 or 2025, when four astronauts will travel in Orion and orbit the moon.
On that capsule will be a yet-unnamed Canadian astronaut — the first to travel to deep space.
NASA also has plans to build the Lunar Gateway, a small space station that will orbit the moon. Canada is contributing the Canadarm3, built by MDA, to that project — and the new arm is much more sophisticated than the originals.
“Canadarm2 today is on the International Space Station. It’s about 400 kilometres away from Earth, so a few hours’ drive, if you’re going straight up,” said Holly Johnson, vice-president of space and robotic operations at MDA. “Canadarm3 is going to be orbiting the moon at Lunar Gateway, which is 400,000 kilometres from Earth.”
With that extended travel, she said, the CSA is focused on “evolving” the intelligence and the artificial intelligence of the Canadarm.
“It needs to be more autonomous, it needs to be smarter, because communication takes longer to go between Earth and the moon.”
Just as the first two Canadarms were instrumental in building and maintaining the International Space Station, the Canadarm3 will be crucial in building the new Lunar Gateway.
MDA is also partnering with Lockheed Martin and General Motors to provide a robotic arm on a future lunar rover.
And when it comes to lunar rovers, Canadian companies are also working on one capable of spending two weeks in the frigid temperatures of lunar night.
“Canada’s role in space — we’ve been a player from the beginning,” said Ken Podwalski, executive director of space exploration and the Lunar Gateway program manager at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
“I just don’t think Canadians … realize how awesome we are. I don’t think they realize the things we’ve done with the shuttle program, with our astronauts, with science, with our satellite programs, our Earth observation, the International Space Station,” he said.
“We’ve been kicking butt for 25 years on that program and we’ve never failed. Never failed. We are absolutely a go-to player in space exploration. And Canadians need to know that.”
Canada may not be as big or populous as the U.S., Europe or China — some of the major players in space — but we are definitely mighty, said Chris Gainor, an amateur astronomer and space historian.
“On a per capita basis, we don’t spend nearly as much as the Americans,” he said. “But where we’ve been involved in space, we’ve always been kind of right at the front. We’ve been able to succeed when we put our minds to it and put some resources into it.
“I think that’s the important message: It may not be kind of top of mind what we’re doing, but we are actually playing in the big leagues at a bargain-basement price, I would say.”
A $470B industry that’s growing
Canada’s efforts are also about more than simply going to space, according to those in the industry. It’s also about investing in the future and jobs here at home.
“The global space sector was $470 billion in 2021 — and that’s growing. In Canada, it generates revenues of $5 million, and it creates 20,000 jobs,” said Lisa Campbell, president of the Canadian Space Agency.
“That’s growing as well,” she said. “More and more young people are gravitating toward the space sector, because it’s exciting, it’s interesting. It’s science, technology, math, law, project management, finance — you name it. And there’s going to be huge demand for people in the future to work in the space sector.”
While it may not be immediately apparent that investments in space help us here at home, over the course of 65 years, there have been trickle-down benefits here on Earth, including technology for the cordless vacuum, memory foam and improved eye surgeries.
Canada’s contributions, too, have had knock-on effects: The Canadarm technology was modified and used to support medical robotics, performing thousands of procedures in hospitals on Earth, Johnson noted.
The CSA is also home to an Advisory Council on Deep-Space Healthcare, which aims to learn more about human health in space, with an eye to innovating here at home. And the agency has launched the Deep Space Healthcare Challenge, seeking to create new diagnostic technologies that will serve both deep space missions and those living in remote communities.
“As we figure out how to sustain human health, and feed people further in space, it also helps us with challenges we have here on Earth with remote communities, food security, and detection and prevention and treatment of illnesses,” said Campbell. “Many of the technologies we develop in space help us here on Earth as well.”
The new race to the moon is now on, Podwalski said, and Canada is a big part of it — and should let it be known.
“As Canadians,” he said, “we don’t brag enough.”