Reaching for the Stars for a Better Life on Earth

The space science sector is one with a bit of an image problem. The popular belief, fueled by a media focused on space shuttle launches and tourists in space, is that of an industry that puts a lot of money into some very big toys. However, a closer look reveals that the creation of the space shuttle program and the International Space Station has lead to some cutting-edge research in both pure and applied sciences that is helping researchers answer questions that will make life better right here on earth.

In Canada, the space sector accounts for annual revenues of CA$1.43 billion and employs approximately 6000 highly skilled people across the country. Though dominated by telecommunications (CA$920 million), other areas of research include space astronomy, space exploration, life sciences, microgravity sciences, space environment, and atmospheric environment. The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is the primary federal funding source in Canada, with an annual budget for space science of CA$65 million (1999), of which 75% to 80% supports research in universities, industry, and not-for-profit research organizations.

According to Alan Mortimer, director of program development, life, and microgravity sciences at the CSA, their mandate is that the research not only be applicable to life in space, but also here on Earth. "The research that we do support extended human stays or exploration of space but we?re also using the space environment to help do things here. We do work that helps speed the treatment of disease and can help people here on Earth, in a cost-effective way."

Along with the CSA, organizations such as CRESTech at the Ontario Centres of Excellence are enthusiastically supporting the space sector. The centre promotes cutting-edge research, including in nontraditional areas that the business sector might not be quite ready to invest in. "Space is open to anybody who wants to be in space," says Richard Worsfold, director of business development and technology transfer for space systems at CRESTech; eventually everyone from horticulturalists to economists and social scientists will be part of the space program, he surmises. So part of his job is to get people to broaden their perspective on their own research and see if somehow it has a place in the space sector.

CRESTech also focuses its funding on collaborative projects that have strong involvement of students. "One of the things we mark is the presence and participation of students at the graduate or postgraduate level, as we see those are the people who are going to carry the technology into the community." CRESTech offers travel awards and student fellowships including a CA$100,000 fellowship over 2 years for an entrepreneurial student to start a company. Although focused on Ontario universities, collaborations with universities across Canada exist. Worsfold says, "A university here might help the University of Saskatchewan get money, for example. So the leveraging factor can be direct. Our direct influence in Ontario has a direct influence in other parts of Canada."

Both the CSA and CRESTech promote both the advancement of current areas of study (for example, osteoporosis, bone loss, muscle loss, and radiation exposure) and the expansion of research into other sectors. "Our hope is that a lot of people will be able to use the space environment as a way to get to an answer that they wanted or to expand upon something that they?re doing presently," says Mortimer. And get those answers faster. In current research on osteoporosis as well as muscle loss, "we can start to see changes in bone cells and shifts in cell metabolism in 5 days in space and it takes a lot longer than that on the ground with bed rest." The results from this research directly impact on astronauts but also help provide answers to diseases that we face on Earth.

Many companies could find that their research or product fits well with the space sector. But there is one reality to consider--you must have a long-term strategy. According to Mortimer, the cycle of experiment to results is very different than a typical industrial product. "If it?s going to take you 2 1/2 years to get your first data point, then you?re going to think about it twice. So, basically, we?re working with companies who have in their strategy long-term development. There are companies that are in the business of doing early stage development, or have a company strategy that allows them to do some long-term things with potentially high pay-offs in the future." Within these types of companies, there is also recognition that expanding their focus into space could potentially advance their research, enhance funding opportunities, and increase their market exposure.

For Ian Thomson, president of Thomson-Neilson Electronics, work in the space science sector is providing exciting opportunities for his company. Starting with work in radiation detection, they are now using MOSFET (metal oxide semiconductor field effect transistor) technology to create the smallest dosimeter that can be placed right on a patient. Their foray into the space sector was fueled by the obvious links between a medical radiation detection device and monitoring radiation exposure of astronauts, as well as Thomson?s interest in space (he worked at the European Space Agency for 6 years). Thomson feels that continued development of this product is being helped by the company?s involvement in the space program. "The reason that we still do some space work is that it allows us to push the technology further because there?s no R&D money in this country for companies like ourselves to further the medical technology. So we have an interest in it, it furthers our technology, we?re able to develop things that we probably couldn?t do on our own, and the recognition is great." Although work in the space sciences is only a small part of what the company does, Thomson-Neilson will continue to work with CSA, and hopefully the Russian Space Agency, to expand their activities in the space sector. Thomson sees the benefits of small companies trying to get into this sector, even if it?s hard to see the commercial benefits right away. "If you?re small enough, like we are, and you can see the benefits of getting some R&D, and going into an area where we wouldn?t be able to do it otherwise," the possibilities are truly endless.

Another company that has found its product is a good fit in the space program is Optech Inc. Started in 1974, Optech develops products in the field of Lidar technology. According to Alan Carswell, chair of Optech, "there are two broad areas of our technology both based on laser ranging. One is studying various atmospheres and the other is doing precision landing-docking-rendezvous." Lidar, a light-based analogue of radar, is a more precise detection system than radar and so seemed a perfect springboard into space where precision is a necessity. "Our atmospheric work has recently been extended to some collaborative work we?re doing with NASA on the study of the martian atmosphere. As Mars has a very dusty atmosphere, using our Lidar, it?s extremely easy to see dust and to measure how much there is and where it is." Their "docking, rendezvous, and landing" technology also has space potential. Carswell says, "it allows you to generate a three-dimensional map of whatever target region you?re interrogating and we?ve been doing this for a variety of applications: locating buildings and measuring topographic features. This application is of considerable interest in the space regime for docking of spacecraft."

As with Thomson-Neilson, Optech does not focus all its energy on space research, but as the company was looking for new ventures, and NASA saw the potential in their technology, it seemed a perfect fit. Carswell hopes that this segment of his company will grow. "Space has the advantage of opening up new applications, and a number of the things we offer cannot be done by any other ways, so there is a unique and interesting aspect there. And it does give an opportunity to develop techniques with technologies" that couldn?t be done here on Earth, says Carswell.

The perception of the space program as one with no connection to life on Earth no longer appears to hold true. The potential to get answers to questions we need more quickly than otherwise possible on Earth, as well as the potential to advance our technology through studies in space, is one that more and more people are embracing. And these opportunities in space could mean light-year advancements right here on Earth.

* Christianne Wilhelmson, M.Sc., is a science communication and public relations consultant in Vancouver, BC. She can be contacted at

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