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Garneau talks space, and politics

by Archives January 29, 2008

In 1983 the Canadian Government placed an ad for astronauts in newspapers across the country. Over 4,000 people applied but only six were selected to even train for the space mission. One of those six was Marc Garneau, and in just under a year Garneau became the first Canadian in space.
Since 1984, Garneau has been back in space two more times, headed the Canadian Space Agency and lately, he has been representing the Liberal Party of Canada as a candidate.

Innovation in Canada

On Thursday Garneau will be at Concordia to speak “Research, innovation and Canada’s competitiveness.” According to the former astronaut, “innovation will be the key to Canada’s success in the years to come.” He said it’s up to the Federal government to implement a, “coherent policy that encourages innovation.there’s lots of ingredients required for a country to be a great innovator.”
Garneau points to Finland and South Korea as examples of countries that have been successful technological innovators. He said that while Canadian universities, hospitals and government laboratories are currently conducting cutting edge research they need to work alongside others.
“Companies, industries that are able to take innovative ideas and turn them into commercial products or services that they can sell. Here, there’s a real challenge,” said Garneau “most of the research in Canada takes place in universities and in government and yet most of the products and services are done in the private sector.”
“The challenge is to take good research and to transform it into commercial products.”
Garneau believes mechanisms need to be put in place to bring the public and private sectors together. He sees the federal government serving to “facilitate” these connections.
In order to make Canada a more innovative country, said Garneau, the government needs to ensure protection for venture capital and intellectual property; increase immigration and support “well funded universities.” He said that while directly funding universities is a provincial responsibility, the federal government can help by funding programs like the “Canada Research Chairs” – a federal program which provides grants directly to university researchers.
Good research can end up “sitting on some dusty bookshelf in a university,” instead of being put into use, worried Garneau.

Canada left behind in space

Garneau also wants to see Canada to have a stronger presence in space. He is concerned about the recent acquisition of the Geospatial Services branch of MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates – Canada’s largest space company, and the maker of the Space Shuttle’s Canadarm – by American company Alliant Techsystems.
“It’s a mistake,” said Garneau, “not because it’s the United States, but to sell it abroad.”
Garneau spent over twenty years working as part of Canada’s space program, and operated the robotic Canadarm on one of his missions.
Talking about space, he said, “I think Canadians are very good at it and there are very good reasons why Canada needs to be in space.” But he worries that if Canada doesn’t act now, we could be left behind.
“All of the emerging countries, such as China, India, Brazil are putting a very strong emphasis on going up into space and Canada, which was the third country in space, should not be backing away from it.” He said that while sending people into space “attracts the most attention with the public, its’ only one part of it. Much much bigger than that is the fact that we put satellites into space, whether that’s to help us observe our planet, our country or to help us communicate.”
Garneau said that satellites help maintain Canada’s national security, enabling us to protect our borders, the arctic and our territorial waters. He said that satellites also help “monitor the changing environment.”

Space vs. Politics

Garneau’s career as an astronaut has been a clear success – three space missions, the top job at the Canadian Space Agency and being named a Companion of the Order of Canada (Canada’s highest civilian honour). However, he has yet to see the first success in his political career.
In 2006 Garneau ran in the Quebec riding of Vaudreuil-Soulanges, but lost to Bloc Québécois candidate Meili Faille by almost 10,000 votes. When asked which he found more difficult, his career as an astronaut or a politician, he paused before answering.
“I would say they’re both challenging in their own way. Being an astronaut is sort of a mission-oriented thing, you have a mission to accomplish and you want to do it 100 per cent right, the price of failure is pretty high, it can be a matter of life and death but it’s fairly well defined… Politics is much more complicated in the sense that things are not black and white, they’re various shades of grey and so it requires a different approach.”

Marc Garneau is speaking Thursday Jan. 31 in EV 2.260 at 5 p.m. as part of the CSU speakers series.

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