How Space Benefits Canadian Life on Earth

Four years ago on Earth Day, I spoke in front of a crowd of approximately 3,000 people in Toronto for the March for Science on the importance of assets in space in the everyday lives of Canadians here on Earth. Since the messages are still entirely relevant today, here is the full text of that speech. (Note that certain references and budgets given are reflective of 2017, where the speech was given.)

As a scientist who works on robots that we send to other planets, I often hear complaints about how much money is spent on “space.” Space is viewed as this futuristic pipe dream, the realm of eccentric billionaires with money to burn. Many don’t see how money spent on “space” has any benefit to humanity, especially with pressing matters like war and poverty here on the ground.

And these are absolutely valid concerns, don’t get me wrong.

But space, like all of science, is thoroughly integrated with our society. Space is here and now. Space is completely entrenched in our everyday lives as Canadians to the point that we don’t even see it. At this very moment, thousands of satellites for everything from communications to navigation to imaging are flying over our heads. And in Canada, each one of us uses these satellites in some fashion an average of 20 to 30 times every single day. These satellites have become a critical part of our infrastructure. Take GPS for example. It’s not just something you use when you’re driving from Point A to Point B. GPS satellites transmit time codes to a huge array of devices here on the ground, from cell phones to ATMs. They’re used on 2.5 million farms in the U.S. and Canada for precision agriculture, which helps to maximize crop yields and cost efficiency. Precision agriculture systems use GPS to keep track of when and where to water and fertilize down to the millimetre. From traffic lights to water treatment plants, many things we perhaps take for granted as being there all the time for us rely on timekeeping from GPS satellites to function.

Many of the satellites flying overhead are looking down and taking pictures at this very moment. Some of these are weather satellites. Did you check the weather forecast before you decided how to dress this morning? Thank satellite data. Have you ever used Google Maps? Thank satellite data. Have you flown on an airplane recently? Thank satellite data. Pilots rely on constant weather updates provided by satellites to avoid bad weather. Satellite images are also crucial in monitoring the effects of climate change, from sea level rise to polar ice retreat to changes in vegetation cover.

Satellite images are also used to combat illegal mining, fishing, deforestation, and human trafficking. Satellite images were used to search for the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Africa in 2014. They were used to track boats in Southeast Asia transporting men kidnapped to work as slaves in illegal fishing operations, directly leading to the rescue of dozens of men in 2015. Canada’s RADARSAT played a crucial role in disaster relief efforts after the devastating magnitude 7 earthquake in Haiti in 2010.

Space also provides direct benefits to the Canadian economy. The space industry employs 8,000 people across Canada and generates over $3 billion in revenue annually. However, the budget for the Canadian Space Agency — yes, Canada has a space agency — is a mere $373 million. That’s only 0.1% of Canada’s total annual budget. To compare, NASA’s annual budget is around $23 billion CAD. And yet, with this small amount of money, we’ve managed to make a big name for ourselves in space. Canada has the market cornered on robotic arms thanks to the Canadarm — which itself led to the development of revolutionary robotic arms for telemedicine and microsurgery. An Ipsos-Reid survey, reported by the CBC in 2008, found that the Canadarm was viewed as the top Canadian accomplishment of all time, ahead of universal health care, insulin, and the telephone. We’re so proud of the Canadarm, its successor, the Canadarm2, graces the back of our $5 bills. But beyond the Canadarm, Canada built the landing struts on all of NASA’s Apollo lunar modules, including the “Eagle” that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed in to become the first humans to walk on the Moon. A Canadian-built a weather station on NASA’s Phoenix lander discovered of snow on Mars. Canada developed a spectrometer aboard the Curiosity rover on Mars, which tells us about the composition of rocks. Canada also built a laser that’s onboard NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, currently on its way to an asteroid called Bennu. This laser will be used to create a 3D map of the asteroid’s surface. And perhaps Canada’s most recent claim to space fame is Commander Chris Hadfield, who captured the attention of the world during his time aboard the International Space Station and inspired thousands of people of all ages with his passion for space, science, and communication.

So, when you think about “space,” you probably envision astronauts and Mars rovers. But space is also playing a huge role in life here on Earth every single day. It’s also intimately tied to science. To ignore science to is deny a fundamental part of what makes our society work. And science is such an amazing thing — as scientists, we work to increase knowledge for the benefit of humanity. But it’s also our job to effectively communicate that knowledge to the public at large to help people understand the how and why of what we do. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Professional Martian. PhD Geoscientist at Planet Labs. Former operations team member for Opportunity, Curiosity, & the Mars Recon. Orbiter. Views = my own.

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