By Lydia Dotto
Irwin Publishing; 374 pp,

At the Shamrock summit in 1986, the Mulroney government committed this country to a 15-year, $800-million investment in the American space program, with most of the money to be spent on the design and construction of a “Mobile Servicing Centre” for the planned U.S. space station.

Your reaction is:

(A) The conquest of space is a rare adventure of the human spirit. I am proud as a Canadian to be involved.

(B) Space represents the next great arena of commercial enterprise. We would be foolish to squander the opportunity to participate.

(C) Oh, boy! Uncle Sam is going to let us ride on the back of his Harley. Perhaps later he’ll ask us to hold the tool box while he knocks together a few orbiting weapons platforms.

Typically, the correct Canadian response is all of the above. Torn as usual between our admiration for America and our nagging suspicion that she’s not quite right in the head, the Canadian joint venture with NASA is bold yet tentative, enthusiastic yet hesitant.

On the one hand, the opportunity is too important to pass up. On the other, the doubts are gathering about just what, exactly, we are becoming embroiled in.

Is space, as it was touted in the ’60s, a grand step in a heroic saga? Or, with Strategic Defence looming on the horizon, has it become a staging area for a repugnant ideology? Does the shuttle program represent the future of technological enterprise? Or will generations to come look back on it much as we view the dirigible airships of the 1920s, with the Challenger as its Hindenburg? Did you get a lump in your throat when you saw the maple leaf insignia plastered along the bicep of the Canadarm? Was it worth $800 million?

There’s no doubt which side Lydia Dotto is on. She’s just thrilled to bits that finally we have astronauts of our own and a stake in the coming space station. She is, and always has been, a big space booster.

Her enthusiasm is apparently shared by the Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council and the Ministry of State for Science and Technology, all of which doled out grants for her to write Canada in Space. (It would seem that like the space effort itself, books on the subject are not expected to turn a profit just yet.)

The glitch in the system, of course, is that the heady days of spaceflight are long gone, and the brave rhetoric about sailing uncharted seas is wearing a trifle thin. Marc Garneau is not Yuri Gagarin, Lydia Dotto is not Tom Wolfe and Canada is not a country given to exercises in self-congratulatory jingoism. The tone of the book – breathless with pride over the venture, misty-eyed with hero worship – is not only inappropriate but a good 15 years out of date.

As thrilled as she herself may be, Dotto is not altogether successful in orchestrating the excitement of the reader. She is a workmanlike journalist, relying on the grandeur of space to buoy interest in her story. (She writes, in short, the way astronauts speak: in flat, measured prose unadorned with narrative flourish and focused always on the matter at hand.) Nevertheless, there is much to be said for the talents of a skilled journeyman, and in many respects Canada in Space is a welcome volume.

Although she concentrates exclusively on manned spaceflight, in three years of research Dotto has peered into almost every nook and cranny of the Canadian effort. The finished product offers not only a comprehensive review of our research interests, but considerable food for thought about the way the future-according-to-NASA is shaping up.

She offers profiles of the Canadian astronauts (all admirable individuals, but let’s face it: selected by the state, trained by the state and offered to the public as models of character, they are the state’s idea of the perfect citizen – long on a sense of duty, short on a sense of irony); an account of their training (intriguingly, as “payload specialists,” not pilots, they are rather looked down on by the NASA career-types as not “real” astronauts); and a detailed description of Garneau’s mission.

There is a glowing account of the engineering triumph involved in the design of the Canadarm, and a blow-by-blow retelling of the political infighting between NASA, the National Research Council and their respective governments. (For $800 million, Canada wants more than a maple leaf on the side of the space station: the Yanks want the cash, but aren’t crazy about surrendering an area of potential industrial benefit to the Canucks.)

In that regard, the Canadian decision to build the station’s Mobile Servicing Center – fiercely opposed by various U.S. interests – is a calculated gambit. The MSC involves a good deal more than wiping the windshields and checking the oil: in space, construction and maintenance will be done with remote-controlled robots – the next generation of the Canadarm – and it’s hoped this will give Canada an edge in the development of earthbound robotics.

By the end of the book, however, it becomes clear that the much ballyhooed potential for profit in space (using the micro-gravity environment for materials processing and pharmaceutical production) is a long way off, if it exists at all. The actual space station will look nothing like the stately wheel in Kubrick’s 2001; it’ll resemble an ungainly cluster of scuba tanks on a H-frame. And its environment will be so harsh, and so dangerous, that most of the research effort is soaked up simply trying to figure out how it will be possible to stay there on an extended basis.

A quarter-century after Gagarin’s inaugural orbit, people still throw up in space for the first few days. It’s not known why, and there’s no known cure. On extended stays in free fall, calcium leaches out of the bones, making them brittle and fragile. It’s not known why and there’s no known cure. In low orbit – where the station will be located – construction materials decay with an alarming rapidity. It’s not known why.

Doubtless these problems will be solved, but it would appear that for the next 20 years or so, manned spaceflight will remain at the level of a gargantuan make-work project for the boffins. Perhaps a permanent human presence in space is inevitable, perhaps not, but it’s no longer something to get giddy about. In the meantime, it’s not too late to stop the countdown if we decide we want to get

  • Montreal Gazette February 28, 1987