MONTREAL - The head of the Canadian Space Agency, a former top general, insists his appointment as president last August does not signal the militarization of the federal department.
"I have to support the mandate that the Government of Canada has given the space agency and that is the peaceful use of space and it doesn't change whatsoever," Walt Natynczyk said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
"We're very much in accordance with the Canadian Space Act, which is that the space agency is created for the peaceful uses of space."
Natynczyk said he is working with "a great team of civilians" but that he's also pleased "a number of the space agency folks were former military."
The ex-chief of defence staff added there's "a natural relationship" between the Canadian military and space because of project management and the requirement for strategic planning.
Worth noting is that Canada now has Sapphire, a military satellite in orbit and its mission is to support Canadian and international military operations as well as bilateral commitments such as NORAD.
He said space agency workers are really comfortable with him now after eight months — "at least that's what they're telling me."
The space agency has close to 700 employees, with 90 per cent of them employed at its headquarters in Longueuil, just south of Montreal.
Natynczyk took over as president on Aug. 6, 2013. He replaced former astronaut Steve MacLean who had quit six months earlier.
In a wide-ranging interview, Natynczyk also indicated he is not jumping at the possibility of Canada taking part in a U.S. plan to send astronauts to visit an asteroid.
In 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama challenged NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid. But reaction in the American Congress has been lukewarm and the proposal has not generated much enthusiasm.
NASA has described the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as "a key part of the agency's stepping-stone path to send humans to Mars."
"At this point in time we have not indicated any interest to participate in that program," Natynczyk said.
Marcia Smith, a veteran U.S. space policy analyst, says there's very little enthusiasm for the asteroid mission outside of the White House.
"Whether or not the United States ever actually tries to do this I think, is very much up in the air," she said from Arlington, Va.
NASA says the mission would identify a small near-Earth asteroid, send a robotic mission to capture it in 2019 and then park the space rock in orbit around the moon.
Astronauts would then be sent to rendezvous with the asteroid in 2021, conduct space walks to collect samples and return them to Earth for analysis.
The mission is also designed to test technologies to deflect any space boulders that may be on a collision course with Earth.
But right now, Natynczyk said one of his key areas of interest is to get another Canadian astronaut to visit the International Space Station.
"We're working with the international community . . the partnership with the International Space Station to see when is the next opportunity that we can get one or both of our astronauts into space," he said.
CSA officials have said in the past that the next Canadian will travel to the orbiting space laboratory somewhere between 2016 and 2019.
Meantime, Canada's two astronauts, David Saint-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen, are continuing to work on their training.
Natynczyk also said once the timing of the next space trip by a Canadian is clearer, the agency will resume the process of recruiting more astronauts.
The astronaut corps was at its peak during the summer of 1992 when there were 10 active Canadian astronauts.
The CSA boss does not appear to be in any hurry to extend Canada's commitment to the space station beyond 2020 — even though the United States has announced its continued support until at least 2024.
Natynczyk pointed out he still has six years to decide. "At some point in the future, we'll have to consider what we're going to do beyond 2020," he said.
Ron Holdway, a space consultant, says he's impressed with Natynczyk's performance eight months into the job.
"He seems to be making great progress in moving the space agency in a new direction to make it something that the government is comfortable with," Holdway said in an interview.
"I think it's going in the right direction in redefining and rebuilding (in) to something that's more closely tied to government priorities."
He said Natynczyk brings "an enormous skill to the space agency as a leader, in a sense of being able to motivate the team."
"Everything I see going on in Ottawa suggests the government has confidence in him so far," said Holdway, a former vice-president of COM DEV International, a space hardware company based in Cambridge, Ont.
— With files from The Associated Press
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