The Canadian Context: Rocketry, Space Launch, and the Brain Drain
With the recent rise to prominence of entrepreneurial space launch providers such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Orbit in the US, Rocket Lab in New Zealand, and multiple others around the world, there has been incredible interest generated in rocketry. These companies have emerged partly from the realization that there is tremendous unmet demand for truly affordable space launch opportunities. As the world becomes increasingly reliant on assets in space, access to reliable and affordable launches is becoming increasingly crucial. The recent SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch made national headlines here in Canada, but as noted by a recent CBC story, these new developments have also thrown Canada’s relative lack of support for this critical area of space technology into sharp relief.
Canada has traditionally focused on niche space technologies, and for a very long time we have suffered from a perception that we are too small of a country to pursue rocket and space launch technologies. But increasingly, efforts around the world by entrepreneurial companies, supported by progressive government policies, programs and regulatory regimes, have shown that this need not be the case. Today, even small nations with little or no established rocket industry such as New Zealand, Australia and the UK are actively developing their own space launch capabilities and the high-tech, highly skilled industries that support them.
Canadians are increasingly eager to play a role in this exciting development, but when faced with a lack of support at home, they frequently have no choice but to either abandon this passion, or leave the country to pursue these opportunities elsewhere. It was recently noted that SpaceX’s mission manager for the recent Falcon Heavy launch was himself a Canadian, and we are increasingly losing some of our brightest, most talented and motivated individuals due to lack of opportunity and support at home. In an increasingly knowledge-driven global economy, this state of affairs must not continue.
Historically, amateurs and enthusiasts working individually and in groups have played a disproportionately large role in the development of rocket technologies. The inventor of the liquid-propellant rocket, Robert Goddard, began his revolutionary work as an amateur working in his spare time, as did a large majority of the major players throughout the history of the space program. This continues to the present day, with an extremely robust amateur rocketry community across the USA. Several amateur rocket groups also exist, including the Reaction Research Society (RRS) and Friends of Amateur Rocketry (FAR) in Mojave, California, both of which operate their own private facilities for engine testing and rocket launches and make them available to members, student groups, and even startups and small businesses. Many of the current leaders in the rocket industry today, including the head of propulsion at SpaceX, got their start as members of these organizations.
In the US, these amateur rocketry activities are facilitated by the FAA’s Office of Space Transportation, which explicitly acknowledges them as a fundamentally valuable, legitimate pursuit, and is mandated to facilitate them. Accordingly, the FAA allows launch waivers to be obtained for amateur rocket launches, where no danger is posed to aircraft or civilians, via a straightforward application process that is distinct from and much simpler than the process that is applied to larger or orbital rockets. Further, it formally defines an “amateur rocket” as being any with a total impulse of under 200 000 pound-seconds. This simple definition is generous enough to allow significant rocket activities, including suborbital flights to space (100 km altitude) to be pursued under the umbrella of “amateur rocketry”, with greatly simplified regulations compared to larger rockets and orbital launch vehicles.
Fundamentally, amateur rocketry harnesses the drive and passion of its practitioners to learn, innovate, and pursue projects that they are passionate about. It simultaneously provides invaluable real-world, project-based education and skills development, and the potential for the creation of new technologies and potentially the nucleus of new companies, and in countries where it is facilitated, it has proven to be highly effective and successful.
Canada currently has a rapidly growing amateur rocketry community, but at present it suffers from a lack of any official recognition of amateur rocketry, and a process for approving launches that is at best uncertain, and at worst prohibitive. If these roadblocks could be overcome, this would go a long way to encouraging and facilitating amateur rocket activities in Canada, and helping us to capitalize on the success that these activities have led to elsewhere.
Rocket Competitions and Student Teams
One of the most active sources of amateur rocket activities, both internationally but especially here in Canada, is the student rocket teams. The recent surge of interest and enthusiasm for rocketry taking place around the world has been very clearly seen here in Canada as well, with the remarkable rise of university and college rocket teams from coast to coast. At present there are about 17, and that number continues to grow. Some build sophisticated vehicles using large off-the-shelf hobby rocket motors, but a growing number develop their own hybrid and even liquid rocket engines. The sophistication of their activities continues to increase at a truly impressive rate.
Most of these teams compete in the Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition (IREC), held annually in the United States. Canadian teams have been stunningly successful, consistently bringing home a disproportionate number of the top awards. Yet this does not come easy for Canada’s students. This event is a prime venue for companies such as SpaceX to recruit top talent, but it is frequently not possible for US companies to hire Canadians due to strict American regulations on rocket technologies unless they have US citizenship or leave the country to obtain it. They currently have few options to pursue their rocketry work at home in Canada, and few avenues available for support. Moreover, Canadian teams that develop their own propulsion systems typically have no ability to even launch their rockets here due to the unsupportive regulatory environment and a lack of places from which to fly.
With the enthusiasm, talent and ingenuity that these Canadian rocketeers so consistently demonstrate, it is strongly in Canada’s interest to encourage them and facilitate their activities in this country. The qualities they demonstrate make them indispensable to the high-tech economy in Canada and the learning they gain through these amateur rocket projects will be invaluable regardless of where their careers may take them. But more than this, supporting their drive and skills is a straightforward way that Canada can at very little cost support the growth of the entrepreneurial space and rocket sector in Canada, simply by helping to facilitate those that are already determined to do it.