QUEBEC - The federal government's decision to commit to the International Space Station for another five years should mean Canadian astronauts will return to space sooner than expected.
Industry Minister Christian Paradis announced Wednesday in Quebec City that Canada will extend its commitment to the ISS from 2015 to 2020.
The announcement came as the heads of foreign space agencies were arriving in Quebec City for an international conference where they planned to discuss the future of the space station.
It also came amid a climate of heightened concern with the Canadian space community, with the federal government about to embark on a round of significant spending cuts.
The government already signalled in its annual spending estimates released Wednesday that the Canadian Space Agency's budget would fall 14 per cent, to $363 million, with the expiry of previous short-term commitments. There could be even deeper cuts in the March 29 federal budget.
Given that a number of industry projects are supported by the Canadian Space Agency's budget, its future funding decisions carry deep financial implications for the space sector.
So the delay in announcing a renewed commitment to the space station had some of them worried. Canada was the last of the five ISS partners to commit itself to the space station up to 2020, the end of the orbiting lab's current projected lifespan.
Paradis defended the government's delay.
"I think it was important to evaluate all of the factors," he told reporters. "Things are changing. Who could have predicted years ago that NASA would cut its budget and stop launching space shuttles and then launching (its astronauts) from Russia?"
The federal industry minister said the government would share details later about the terms and conditions of its continued involvement, but he said Wednesday's announcement signalled that, "Canada is there, Canada is on board from 2015 up to 2020."
Steve MacLean, head of the Canadian Space Agency, called Canada's continued commitment to the space station "a major milestone." He suggested it would lead to another Canadian astronaut visiting the space station before 2020.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield will travel to the ISS for a six-month stay at the end of 2012, but there are currently no flights — beyond Hadfield — scheduled for Canadians before the end of the decade.
"The relationship is basically a mathematical formula," MacLean explained. "If we are a member (of the ISS) we accumulate so many credits per year.
"We have credits until 2015 and now that we've extended our participation ... we will accumulate credits for another five years and, yes, it does mean more Canadians will fly on the International Space Station before 2020."
A spokesman for Paradis said the financial details of Canada's extended commitment to the ISS will be included in the next federal budget.
MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (TSX:MDA) which provided Canadarm2, a robotic arm that was critical in the construction of the space station, praised the extended government commitment.
"We see this as a strong signal from the government that it recognizes the strategic importance of space robotics," said Craig Thornton, MDA's general manager of robotics.
"This is the kind of decision that helps to support Canada's high tech jobs, our worldwide leadership in space robotics as well as our competitiveness."
MDA also provided Dextre, a sophisticated space robot that was involved in delicate assembly and maintenance work.
Iain Christie, president of the Neptec Design Group, had been particularly critical of the government's delay in committing itself to the ISS beyond 2015. But in an email to The Canadian Press he said he was thrilled with the industry minister's announcement.
"This clears up any lingering confusion over Canada's intent to remain at the forefront of space exploration and exploitation," Christie said.
"It is a welcome shot in the arm for all of us in the space business who are very proud of the work we have done in maintaining and advancing Canada's reputation in the international community."
Ottawa-based Neptec made the laser-camera system that was used to inspect for damage on the exterior of the recently retired U.S. space shuttles.
On Wednesday, MacLean met with NASA administrator Charles Bolden, who described Canada as an important part of the exploration team that's now in place.
The meeting was one of a number of bilateral get-togethers that involved the five ISS partners.
"What we are telling each other is now we need to start thinking about where we go after 2020, how do we phase into a deep space exploration program, and take advantage of the capability that the international space station provides," Bolden said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
The head of NASA said he and MacLean discussed several issues, including how Canada can provide a capability to analyse samples taken on Mars or on asteroids, using sensors it had developed or have in development.
Canada's announcement Wednesday came nearly a year after member states of the European Space Agency decided, following some debate, to endorse continued support and financial assistance of the station until 2020.