It took four years of negotiations for Canada to secure a seat on NASA’s upcoming moon mission.
That mission, Artemis 2, will send a Canadian and three Americans around the moon by November 2024. The Canadian seat comes courtesy of a major contribution to NASA’s Artemis program: Canadarm3, a robotic arm that will service the planned Gateway Moon-orbiting space station. (The identities of the Artemis 2 crew members are currently unknown but will be revealed on Monday, April 3, at a live NASA event that you can watch here on Space.com.)
Canadarm3 was announced in 2019 as part of a larger push to refocus space exploration in Canada’s federal government circles. The government has committed US$1.56 billion USD in space spending over 24 years ($2.05 billion CAD under 2019 exchange rates). That’s $65 million USD a year, a fairly significant amount for a space agency that specializes in special projects.
Most of that Canadian Space Agency (CSA) money was for Canadarm3, but some money was also allocated to a business incubator known as the Lunar Exploration Acceleration Program (LEAP). Other support went to food and health technology development competitions designed to assist future deep space astronauts.
Getting all this funding and securing a seat on Artemis 2, however, took four years of behind-the-scenes negotiations. To introduce what happened, let’s talk about something that might not seem all that place-y at first: potato salad.
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Canada is a strong technology specialist providing highly capable space robotics since 1981 — Canadarm for the Space Shuttle program; Canadarm2 for the International Space Station (ISS), with an “elephant robot” named Dextre; and Canadarm3, which will be built by the company MDA. All of these critical tools are used for applications such as spacewalking, satellite repair, and space station servicing.
Ken Podwalski, a senior CSA official involved in the Artemis 2 and Gateway negotiations, compared Canada’s space robotics reputation to a dinner guest who arrives armed with a divine side dish: “People look at Canada and say, ‘Canada, you make people. The best potatoes.’ The salad bar is nothing. This is the best potato salad you can get. Nobody does it like you.'”
His confidence comes from decades of space experience. For example, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope would not operate today without Canadarm, which was used on five Space Shuttle servicing missions at the iconic observatory from 1993 to 2009. And the ISS would not exist in its current form without Canadarm 2, which berths cargo ships. , helping build and even starring in a spectacular 2007 emergency spacewalk to fix a torn ISS solar panel.
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But in 2015, when the future of ISS cooperation was being discussed between Canada, the United States and other countries, there were plenty of questions about what would come next. After the 2015 election, Canada changed from a Conservative to a Liberal government for the first time in nearly a decade.
The United States was on the eve of the 2016 election, which also brought a new presidential administration. There were numerous ideas about the direction of NASA’s human spaceflight program in the coming years. Will the agency work toward a crew visit to an asteroid? A moon mission? How fast and with whom? And within Canada, no space plan had been formulated to guide government spending for years, making roadmaps similarly uncertain — until a high-level strategy document was released in 2019.
Multinational space group Canada agreed on one thing, Podwalski said: Mars was the ultimate destination. The question simply comes down to which way to go. CSA created its own planning group that used the ISS agreements as a starting point. Gateway, though the design and scope changed periodically, was a solid target for planning discussions with NASA during negotiations from 2015 to 2018, he said.
“We were going through this pretty intensive period. We were making presentations to partners and trying to figure out what the right fit was,” recalls Podwalski. “We were (also) making presentations to our government, trying to make sure we were taking the right approach.”
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Construction of the new Canadarm3 was established as the primary goal. Podwalski, who delivers what he calls the “potato salad speech” at such planning meetings, said he always tells people that focus is essential.
“Everybody expects Canada to bring potato salad,” he said. “Potato salad gets you in the door, no problem… and it doesn’t stop you from bringing something else. You’re part of the party now. Now’s a good time to bring other things.”
He thus urged his allies to steer clear of expensive and innovative work that Canada could undertake, such as space modules or large rovers. But they also look for other ways in which modest investment can have a powerful impact and involve many smaller companies in space-related industries. Through these conversations, a mini moon rover (announced in 2021), a lunar utility vehicle (announced March 28 in the Canadian federal budget) and the CSA LEAP incubator program (renewed in the 2023 federal budget) all came to fruition. .
Canadarm3 is designed to align with Canadian government priorities. Serving remote communities in the North, especially indigenous groups, through spinoff medical technology? check Canada’s artificial intelligence community continues to grow, a key technology direction for the country? Another big check, because Canadarm3 will operate autonomously without an astronaut crew nearby for at least 11 months a year. Preparing for Mars? Absolutely, as artificial intelligence and robotics will be useful on more distant planets, Podwalski said.
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Podwalski stressed how important it was to remain flexible through the negotiations, which spanned several US elections and Canadian cycles from 2015 to 2018, not to mention policy changes by the European Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and other partners.
“It’s hard to put together these multibillion-dollar programs and get all these partners with all their own agendas about what they want to do in space, what technology they want to develop and what they want to do with their industry,” he said. .
The formulation will continue to change even on the original hardware, he emphasized, and discussions are always done with that flexibility in mind. For example, he said, the gateway could change again after SpaceX’s Starship achieves its first spaceflight this month, as the Starship can carry enough cargo to the lunar realm.
But for Canada, the benefits of Canadarm3’s “potato salad” approach have been substantial so far. The Artemis 2 seat, when offered by NASA, fulfilled CSA’s goal of an initial moon mission with an astronaut on board to build industrial and scientific momentum for other moon initiatives, Podwalski said.
So far, NASA has promised a long-term Gateway mission to Canada sometime in the future. Other astronaut lunar journeys may come, including a landing mission, through negotiations down the road.
ISS journeys will continue alongside Artemis. Canada last month committed to extending its ISS participation until 2030 with other partners who agreed to it last year, most notably NASA. (Russia has said it aims to exit the ISS partnership sometime after 2024.) Canada will also fly an astronaut to the ISS again in 2024 or 2025, Canada’s federal budget confirmed a few days ago.
Podwalski urged the community to keep an eye out for new announcements. “We are partners in good standing,” he said of the ISS and Artemis consortium. “We’re part of the initial (moon) expedition; we’re part of the trailblazers. It really positions Canada in a good way.”
Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of “why am i tall (opens in new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow him on Twitter @wholespace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @space.com (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).