NEWS
07/30/2011 05:00 EDT | Updated 09/29/2011 05:12 EDT

Astrophysicist works to line up his rockets to build Canadian launch site in B.C.

Flickr: Hugo90

MONTREAL - Whether Canada should have its own space-launch facility is a debate that's been making the rounds in the scientific and business communities for years without any progress being made.

But that hasn't stopped Redouane Fakir as he develops a proposal to build the first-ever rocket launch site on Canada's west coast.

His dream is to eventually make Vancouver Island Canada's future hub for space science and exploration — once he lines up the cash, local co-operation, and government approval.

The astrophysicist already has his eye on a site, even at this early stage: Estevan Point, an isolated peninsula halfway down the west coast of the island.

Fakir says he wants to build a "parking-lot-sized" launch pad that would send Canadian space probes into a polar orbit.

"If you want to optimize the safety of when we launch into this polar orbit that will get you on top of the Arctic, you can launch over the Pacific Ocean in a south-southwest direction," he told The Canadian Press.

Fakir says the platform, which could also be used to send up scientific balloons, would not be busy all the time.

Fakir wants to make it clear — especially to environmentalists — that he doesn't intend to build a huge complex like the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"In the beginning, we'll be lucky if we have one launch a year and then maybe two or three a year," said the director of Space Launch Canada. He is also an honourary professor of theoretical physics at the University of British Columbia.

He believes a half-dozen towns, including Port Alberni, Campbell River and Comox, could each house one aspect of the program.

"For example, Campbell River has ambitions to develop higher education and a research program could be developed in collaboration with the university up there," Fakir said.

Vic Goodman, the CEO of Rivercorp, the Campbell River Economic Development Corporation, says he's been invited to meet with Fakir but the project hasn't gotten very far yet.

"It's too early for us to comment on the pros and cons of his concept," he said. "We're willing to keep an open mind about the idea."

Fakir argues that there are advantages to Canada having its own launch facility, instead of relying on the rockets of other countries like India and Russia.

The current international tug-of-war over Arctic sovereignty is a good case in point.

"If you want to be serious about your sovereignty over the North you have to have space autonomy like the other players, and to do that the minimum is to launch devices from your own territory," Fakir said.

Ian McDade, a York University space scientist, believes launch delays — and the cost of sending up satellites — could be reduced if Canada had its own facility.

He points to one of his own experiments, which involved an instrument that measures wind in the stratosphere.

"We won a competition with the Japanese to go for a free launch on one of their satellites," he recalled.

"We were all ready to go, probably spent $8 million just doing the paperwork, then they had their own problems and a couple of failures (and) we got bumped off."

McDade says the European Space Agency and the Russians tried putting the instrument on a satellite, but after two years of engineering discovered that it wasn't compatible.

"If we had our own launch capability, you would shortcut all that," he said. "It would make it better and cheaper in the end."

A more recent example is NEOSSat, a Canadian satellite which was originally supposed to be launched in March to look for potentially dangerous asteroids.

A Canadian Space Agency official says the launch of the $15 million suitcase-sized satellite has now been delayed until the first quarter of 2012.

The reason given for the delay was a backlog in previous launches by the ISRO — India Space Research Organization.

Astronomy professor Jaymie Matthews wonders if using a Canadian launch facility would actually be cheaper than "rocket-for-hire services" provided by other countries.

"In the past, Canada hasn't been sending enough satellites and people into space to justify our own launch site," he said in an email.

"If we build it, will they come? Possibly."

He maintains that delays in rocket launches are part of the nature of space exploration.

"Even if there were a Canadian spaceport, there'd still be a launch queue and there would still be delays," Matthews said.

Fakir's launch pad would not be the first time that rockets have been blasted into the skies over Canada.

During the 1960s, Fort Churchill, Man., was the home of the Black Brant, a small research rocket, which was first launched in 1959. The facility closed in 1985, but there were attempts in later years to try reviving it.

Fakir also points out that a commercial space port located on Kodiak Island in Alaska has been operating since 1998.

The Kodiak Launch Complex was designed to launch sub-orbital and orbital vehicles into polar orbit.

"It's reassuring from the point of view that there's actually an industry out there — that they built it and they're making money from it," Fakir said.

He estimates it would cost $200 million to build his launch pad, which initially would use rockets built by other commercial companies like U.S.-based SpaceX while he works on a made-in-Canada rocket.

Fakir says money is not his biggest concern because, he says, he has investors interested in backing the project.

What he says he needs is some assurances from the federal and B.C. governments that, if he raises the money, he and his partners would be allowed to build.

"The money never seems to be the obstacle," he said. "The issue (is) if we need to know that the government is going to allow this if we actually fund it."

Fakir says 2016 is "very realistic" target date for beginning to launch operations using foreign rockets, while a Canadian one is being developed.