Timothy Caulfield is an author and professor at the University of Alberta
This November, for the first time since the Apollo missions more than 50 years ago, humans will head for the moon. Jeremy Hansen, a Canadian astronaut, will be aboard NASA’s Artemis II rocket for a lunar flyby that sets the stage for another moon landing—and maybe even a mission to Mars in the 2030s. Trips beyond Earth’s orbit are rare: only 24 people have completed one. But in the coming years, we’ll be seeing more space flights, more space-related research and more chances for regular Canadians, albeit very wealthy ones, to go where few humans have gone before.
Last March, the federal government dedicated $2.5 billion to position Canada as a leader in the global space race. This investment builds on Canada’s long history as an active collaborator in exploration—the Canadarm, anyone?—and renews our involvement with the International Space Station as well as new projects, like research on a lunar-utility vehicle. Commercial space travel is also set to accelerate in 2024, thanks to private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. In 2023, SpaceX flew 80 orbital missions, a record for a private company; this year, it’s aiming for 144. Many of these flights deliver payloads like communication satellites to low Earth orbits. Canada is putting its stake in the private space game, too: Maritime Launch Services recently received approval to build a spaceport in Canso, Nova Scotia, to launch satellites. It will conduct commercial sub-orbital research flights as early as mid-2024.
Confession: I’m a space geek. When I was eight, I transformed a corner of my basement into the Apollo 11 command module, and I now have a tattoo of the lunar lander on my left arm. I’m thrilled to see exploration ramp up again. Still, I recognize the controversies associated with pouring vast amounts of resources into space, especially when there’s so much to be done here on Earth. The first era of space flight—including the 1957 orbit of Sputnik, the 1961 flight of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and the 1969 moon landing—was largely motivated by Cold War paranoia. And it played out against a backdrop of rising civil-rights tensions and conflicts like the Vietnam War.
It can be hard to cheer for today’s commercial space initiatives, given the Bond villain–esque, tech-bro uber-billionaires who fund them. There are concerns about, for instance, deep-pocketed private companies monopolizing space—with little accountability to citizens—not to mention the production of more potentially dangerous pieces of space junk, of which there are already tens of thousands in orbit. But don’t forget that there are many benefits to these projects beyond space jaunts for old, rich dudes. In addition to expanding our knowledge of the universe, space flight is one of those rare, large and multidisciplinary efforts that can move science in unexpected directions. The Apollo missions accelerated the development of technologies that still impact our lives, like freeze-dried foods, fire-resistant materials and microchips. More recently, we’ve leveraged the micro-gravity environment to grow cell cultures to test cancer drugs, develop stronger plastics and optic fibres, and deploy orbital instruments that monitor subtle changes in temperature, which are key to tracking the progression of climate change.
The profit motive still looms large, for better or worse, but today, the stakeholders driving space flight are more diverse. At the end of the 1960s, two countries had gone into space; that count is now above 40. Recently, I worked with an international team of scholars, space-industry representatives and experts from NASA and the U.S. Air Force to create a set of international ethical standards for space travel. Our conclusions, which were published in the journal Science last year, call for governments and private-sector actors to establish guidelines for responsible space exploration as soon as possible—ones that view space as a community resource and ensure scientific excellence remains a key priority. The regulatory environment is messy but, as Canada’s involvement in these exciting ventures increases, we need to be a leader in developing policies, data-sharing and selecting future space travellers—to paraphrase the Apollo 11 lunar plaque—for the benefit of all humankind.
It’s unlikely that space tourism will become a common activity for most Canadians in the near future, unless they’re William Shatner. I’ve come to accept that I don’t have the money or physical constitution to blast off myself. But even for those of us stuck on solid ground, there’s much to be excited about in 2024: proudly watching a fellow Canuck take flight, thrilling at the raw power of new rocket technologies and allowing this latest era of space exploration to fuel the country’s innovation, provided we travel responsibly.