Canada, U.S. Strike Deal on Space Station

Canada will build an important component of the international space station in exchange for free access to its laboratories under a new bilateral agreement announced today in Washington. The agreement, unveiled after a meeting between Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and U.S. President Bill Clinton, preserves Canada's commitment to local industry while allowing NASA to hold down construction costs on the station, to be launched beginning next year.

Under the arrangement, Canada will spend $152 million over 3 years to build the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM) that it has already designed. The component serves as the "fingers" at the end of a robotic arm, also manufactured by Canada, that astronauts will use to assemble pieces of the multistage station. For Industry Minister John Manley, the deal ensures that Canadian industry will continue to benefit from the SPDM. "Our priority is to sustain the three established Canadian industrial niches [in space]: Earth observation, satellite communications, and space robotics," he says.

In return, Canada will receive a 2.3% stake in the station's research capacity, which translates to 132 hours a year of crew time and access to one experimental rack in the station's pressurized labs. Moreover, Canada will not have to pay a slice of operating costs required of nations performing scientific experiments at the facility. (Canada's portion would have run about $22 million a year.) Science Minister Jon Gerrard says the agreement "is a very important building block for Canadian science. It's positioning us very well in space and in robotic technology."

For NASA, the deal eases the strain on the space station's annual budget, now capped at $2.1 billion. Officials say that Canada deserves an exemption from paying operating costs because the arm is a unique apparatus and because it is accepting a bit less research access than initially slotted as a trade-off for building the robotic components.

However, the good news comes at a stiff price for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), which must pay for the robotic arm by draining a $53 million reserve fund for new initiatives as well as what remains of the contingency fund for development of the robotic arm. The CSA will be forced to delay plans to build new satellites under the Advanced Satellite Communications program and to withdraw from affiliate European Space Agency membership for 6 years, beginning in 1998.