Countdown to Re-entry

David Pugliese of Postmedia News broke the story on Monday January 3rd that the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) want to make the development of a Canadian rocket a high priority.1  The justification follows the normal rationales: Canada currently relies on other countries (bad for sovereignty), native capabilities exist and should be fostered (good for Canadian labs and industries), and a niche market might develop that Canada could fill (excellent for the economy). In other words, there are several proponents of rocketry and they are trying to drum up popular support through the Conservative-friendly media outlet. The plan will probably collapse before any rockets are ever launched, but in the immediate future we can at least expect the usual suspects to study the idea and issue several position papers in favour of the plan.

Why won’t the program succeed? Well, realistically it has about a 25% chance of reaching orbit. The Canadian government has a long history of developing a sense of fiscal sanity at some point in the process, and canceling a program in favour of cheaper (American) alternatives, e.g. the Velvet Glove and Avro Arrow. On the other hand, select projects manage to survive when they present the cheapest option available, e.g. the Alouette and ISIS satellites and the Black Brant.2 At first glance, a Canadian rocket in 2011 seems to fit the Velvet Glove trajectory far better than the Black Brant.

A Condensed History of Rocketry in Canada

Omond Solandt

The National Research Council (of Canada) proved in the Second World War that science was essential to victory, and that a new agency should be created to fill this need while the NRC returned to its broader research mandate. The Defence Research Board (DRB) was created in 1947 under the Chairmanship of Omond Solandt to fill this need.

The first major project of the DRB was an air-to-air guided missile, later known as the Velvet Glove. Guided missiles were seen as so vital at the end of the Second World War that the United States, Britain and Russia raced to round up German scientists and documents associated with the V1 and V2 projects. What followed was a twelve year competition to put a rocket in space.

Solandt justified the Velvet Glove project using the seat-at-the-table rationale that had served the NRC well during the Second World War. If Canada wanted to reap the benefits of the guided missile projects of its allies (UK and US), then Canada had to undertake research to be able to make a proportionate contribution and to be able to understand the information that Canada received from the real researchers in the US and UK. A Canadian-built guided missile was never more than a secondary consideration, and a boon if it became lucrative.

Velvet Glove

By 1955 the Velvet Glove had yielded the requisite scientific knowledge for Canada to retain its seat at the table, and it even reached the cusp of development before it was scraped in favour of the cheaper Sparrow from the US Navy.

Some of the DRB expertise was transferred to industry (Canadair) to work on the production of the Sparrow, while some was assigned to a new project.

Black Brant

The replacement of the Velvet Glove was a sounding rocket (a rocket launched from the ground to the upper atmosphere with research equipment in order to study the physical properties of the upper atmosphere). The project was the Black Brant, and after successful research it was handed to industry (Bristol) for development. Black Brants continue to be produced and are one of the real success stories of Canadian aerospace research and development.

The other successful project undertaken by the DRB were the satellites, Alouette and ISIS (International Satellite for Ionospheric Studies). The first Alouette was driven by the space race leading up to the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58. The DRB built a satellite to study the ionosphere (the thorn in the side of long-distance communications in the Canadian North) from the topside. The Alouette piggy-backed on an American rocket in 1962, and Canada was the third nation to have a satellite in space.

Alouette II

The importance of communications exceeded defence needs, and so the satellite research and development capacity of the DRB was severed and turned into the research arm of the Department of Communications in 1969. Two decades later Communications was merged with other research capabilities (within the National Research Council) to create the Canadian Space Agency, one of the two government advocates for the new rocketry research.

The other government advocate of the new rocketry program is DRDC, which is the direct descendant of the DRB. In 1974 DRB was remade as the Defence Research and Development Branch, and in 2000 it was rechristened again as DRDC.

It is, therefore, no surprise that these two agencies with a shared history are keen to develop Canadian-made rockets. The agencies have a need to propose projects that keep them relevant and ensure they have funding going forward. Industries are enthusiastic to at least receive government money to develop rockets for Canada, future international contracts will only sweeten the deal for them. By the miracles of politics and economics, benefits to these two groups will improve the entire Canadian economy and ensure Canadian sovereignty.

The task for proponents is ensuring the dialogue focuses on the similarities with the Black Brant, and also overstating the economic and sovereignty benefits of that project. The problem, of course, is that popular support is highly unlikely, and there doesn’t seem to be a politician with the capital and interest to push the project through in the face of indifference.

  2. Those interested in the historical discourse about Canadian rocketry and missiles should start with the works of Andrew Godefroy (rocketry), Edward Jones-Imhotep (satellites), Henri Tardif/Alain Gelly (Valcartier), Joseph Jockel (NORAD) and Jon McLin (missiles and fighter-interceptors).


  • Amy Shira Teitel Reply

    Really interesting post. I’ve spent some time with rocketry, largely the V-1 and V-2 and their impact on the development of launch vehicles in the space race, but never looked into rocketry in Canada. Being part of a commonwealth and bordering on one of the most powerful nations in terms of rocket technology (at least in the years following the Second World War), it’s somewhat unsurprising that no strictly Canadian programs took off. It will be interesting to how this unfolds, whether the program comes to fruition or whether engineers will migrate to programs in the US like some did in the wake of the Avro Arrow’s cancellation.

  • Hank Trim – UBC Reply

    Intriguing post. Space never seems to lose its air of romance, and despite the abysmal failure of space exploration to turn any kind of profit every few years some group comes along and swears it will all work this time. As much as I am against space exportation due to its high cost and general lack of utility (exploring the oceans for instance would be far more useful) the idea space has made some surprising contributions to our society. One of the most surprising and useful was the contribution “cabin ecology” made to ecology and the role it played in popularizing recycling. One can hope that if this terrible idea get off the ground it will have similar beneficial effects, despite its inherent waste of funds.

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