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Privatizing the International Space Station could actually be good for Canada: experts

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The Trump administration’s proposal to privatize the International Space Station (ISS) might just be Canada’s window to maximize its space programs, experts say.

Initially reported by the Washington Post, the Trump government submitted a budget last week that proposed offloading funding for the ISS to the private sector. Several parties quickly stepped up to argue against the idea, including American astronaut Mark Kelly in a New York Times op-ed last week.

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However, experts argue that not only could privatization be the best chance for the ISS to be used to its full potential, it could also provide Canada’s intergalactic-minded companies with a chance to get in on the action.

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The International Space Station, a joint venture across several national space agencies, has operated with the United States at the helm since its launch in 1998. The other countries involved with the project include Canada, Russia, Japan and the participating members of the European Space Agency.

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“There’s nothing to say that the Canadian private sector couldn’t take advantage of this. In fact, I would say that will potentially happen,” explained Alex Ellery, a professor of mechanical and space engineering at Carleton University.

He said that, in the event that the proposal is passed, the alternative for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is to pay the United States for private access to the ISS, which is unlikely to be a politically viable solution.

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“There is an awareness at the CSA that the private sector is going to be increasingly important in terms of space flight, so the CSA is going to have to learn how to engage with the private sector in some fashion,” Ellery said.

The United States has spent over US$100 billion to construct and maintain the space station to date, compared to Canada’s annual contribution of approximately $80 million, according to budget documents. While several countries operate the ISS under an international treaty, it would be immensely difficult for Canada to maintain access should the U.S. make the decision to privatize, Ellery said.

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While experts have pointed out that the Russian portion of the ISS is largely independent, Canada’s components don’t offer that luxury.

Ellery said that while private space ventures in Canada are still quite “small and modest,” there are several companies throwing their names in the ring to be major players in space enterprise in the near future.

Some of these include the Kanata, Ont.-based Neptec, L-3 Mapps in Montreal, and Com-Dev International in Cambridge, as well as others.

In addition, he said that other private firms are looking for ways to commercialize space travel for civilians and invest in harnessing asteroid material.

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Ram Jakhu, an expert in international space law and McGill University associate professor, said Canada’s best chance to innovate its space program is to encourage private companies to invest in the sector.

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“Canada should encourage private companies to get into this business,” Jakhu said. “I think there’s an opportunity to explore and I believe it’s in the initiative of the private sector.”

He said Canada has been very successful in some areas of space enterprise, including robotics and data processing. Furthermore, Jakhu said Canada is well-poised to be an industry leader in space mining, as an extension of the country’s robust domestic mining industry.

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Jakhu said there’s also an opportunity for Canadian firms to collaborate with the American firms who may assume control of the ISS under the proposed budget.

“Canadian companies may be in a position to join in some of the private companies in the U.S,” Jakhu said. “There is a possibility of having a piece of the pie in the commercialized space station.”

The Trump administration’s proposal would see the ISS retain its federal funding until 2025. In 2015, Former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper extended Canada’s support for the space station until 2024.