Canadian astronauts could be grounded for years after next mission
MONTREAL - Canadian astronauts could be stuck on the ground for years following Chris Hadfield's space mission scheduled for 2012.
That six-month visit to the International Space Station, which begins next November when Hadfield blasts off in a Russian spacecraft, will mark the end of a busy era for Canadian space travel.
It's not clear when another Canadian will leave the planet, says an official at the national space agency.
"According to our agreement on the International Space Station we don't have a flight -- beyond Chris Hadfield -- before the end of the decade," Gilles Leclerc, the Canadian Space Agency's director-general of space exploration, said in an interview.
In the 27 years since Marc Garneau became the first Canadian to fly into space, a total of eight Canadians have taken 15 space trips, many of them enjoying several voyages into the cosmos.
For the next while, the Canadian space program will focus on sending not people, but machines into space -- like rovers and satellites for earth observation and military applications.
At one point Canada had six active astronauts. Now there are two young ones, but David Saint-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen still have to undergo a few years of training before any trip.
They will still get their chance -- eventually.
NASA has an agreement to ship all Canadian astronauts up to the space station as long at it's in orbit, which is until at least 2020. Because it helped build the space station using the giant robotic Canadarms, Canada gets "credits" for trips to the space station.
That basically means it's able to send an astronaut with the Americans picking up the tab, under a barter system.
One small problem: Canada has no credits left after Hadfield's flight.
"We've used up all our credits for transport of Canadian astronauts to the International Space Station," Leclerc said. "We're trying to negotiate a flight before 2019, obviously."
There may be another option. Since the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle fleet this year, the focus has been on commercially developed vehicles which will carry cargo and astronauts to the space station.
One U.S. firm, SpaceX, successfully launched its Dragon spacecraft atop a Falcon 9 rocket in December 2010 and it returned safely to Earth.
NASA has given the company the go-ahead to launch Dragon, in February 2012, to carry cargo to the International Space Station.
Leclerc points out that the Canadarm on board the space station will be playing a big part in that flight.
"We will capture the spacecraft as it approaches, so it's a new role for us and it's part of our duties on the International Space Station," he added. He said the Canadarm has already been used for a number of years to grab supply ships sent up by the Europeans and Japanese.
Leclerc says "it's highly possible" the next Canadian astronaut after Hadfield will be transported to the space station in a commercial rocket.
But that is also years away.
NASA had been hoping to use commercial flights to get astronauts to the space station in 2016. But that's now been pushed into the following year because of funding problems.
Since the retirement of the American shuttles, NASA has depended on the Russians to deliver astronauts to the space station. And now, because of the one-year delay in the development of commercial spacecraft, NASA will have to buy extra seats on the Russian Soyuz.
Despite the problems and delays, Leclerc has ruled out the possibility of Canada going ahead and buying its own seat on the Russian spacecraft.
"It's not something we can afford," he said, adding that the going rate for a seat on a Soyuz is between $50 million and $60 million.
Billionaire Guy Laliberte paid an estimated $35 million to the Russians to became the first Canadian tourist to visit the space station in 2009.
Leclerc predicts that, starting in 2012, a lot of changes are coming as commercial actors, like SpaceX, enter the scene: "In less than three or four years, you'll have regular private flights into space carrying tourists," he said.
Leclerc points to Virgin Galactic, which is already testing a commercial space ship to carry tourists into sub-orbital, brief low-altitude flights.
Seat tickets are priced at US$200,000 and more than 430 people have already made reservations.
"It's going to be like the very first days of aviation where it was quite an extraordinary thing for people to fly," Leclerc said.
Leclerc even ventured that "in 20 years, you'll be able to have a real honeymoon."