Nova Scotia fishing community divided over proposal to build Canada’s first commercial spaceport
CANSO, N.S. — When Merle Munroe pulled into his driveway, an RCMP officer was waiting for him. “To what do I owe this pleasure?” Munroe asked the officer. “He said I shouldn’t be up there causing trouble.”
The day before, Munroe had gotten a call from a neighbour, letting him know of a petition that might be of interest to him circulating in Guysborough, N.S., the next town over from Munroe’s home of Canso. People at a gas station there were signing a document in support of a proposal to build Canada’s first commercial spaceport. In a few years, rockets carrying cargo into orbit could be blasting off about five kilometres from Munroe’s home. Munroe didn’t think people out in Guysborough should have a say in the project, so he drove the nearly 50 kilometres to let them know it. “Say No,” he scrawled below the signatures. “No One up here away from the polution & Chaos of a Rocket launch Should have any thing to Say.” By the time he was done writing, the man collecting signatures had become “irate,” by Munroe’s description. “I could tell he was getting pretty hot, so I wished him a good day and I left.”
Nearly three years ago, an American-backed aerospace company called Maritime Launch Services (MLS) swept into Canso with plans it promised would attract clients from around the world to launch satellites into space and breathe new life into the town’s shrinking economy. Much of the projected boom in the space economy — anticipated to grow from about US$400 billion today to more than US$1 trillion by 2040 — is pegged to the satellite-launch business; fuelled by demand for omnipresent internet access, the industry’s leading companies are expected to launch some 46,100 satellites into orbit over the next few years, over five times the number launched in the past six decades combined.
Tensions have ratcheted up in recent months, after the provincial government granted MLS conditional environmental approval for the project, setting it on the path to launch rockets from the shores of Chedabucto Bay as early as 2022.
Its backers see it as an opportunity for Canso, with an employment rate and median income well below national average, can leverage into a local aerospace industry.
“When I started working in economic development here in 1995, the median age in Guysborough was 45 years old. Now it’s 55,” said Gordon MacDonald, the economic development director for Guysborough County, Canso’s governing municipality, and one of the spaceport’s biggest proponents. “Our school enrollment is dropping; our population is aging. It’s clear that in the absence of some development, if you simply fast-forward another 10 years, the picture becomes pretty bleak.”
But some Canso residents fear rocket launches will erode their community’s tranquil appeal — and worry their elected officials and bureaucrats aren’t doing enough to ensure MLS and its rocket technology are credible.
The Cyclone-4M — standing nearly 40 metres high and with a payload capacity of 3,350 kilograms — was never meant to take off from Canso; rather, a series of international conflicts and bureaucratic mishaps put the Nova Scotia town on the map for the rocket’s developers. Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash, the Ukrainian designer and manufacturer behind the rocket, formerly had close commercial ties with Russia. But Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 saw economic relations sour with the rest of Ukraine, and cut the company’s access to its Russian rocket-launch site and equipment.
Ukraine had been in discussions with the Brazilian government about having a version of the Cyclone launch from that country’s Alcântara spaceport, but Brazil kiboshed the project in 2015 after a decade of planning, citing concerns around its cost and commercial viability. The rocket’s developers were eager to find another client, and set their sights on North America, where they teamed up with Santa Maria, Calif.-based aerospace company United Paradyne, aerospace parts and service firm RDO and a consultancy company, SilverWing Enterprises, led by an aerospace engineer named Stephen Matier. “My colleagues in Ukraine, they had a virtually complete rocket ready to go; they just didn’t have any place to launch it from,” Matier told The Logic. After considering 14 potential host communities, including some in Quebec, Mexico and Hawaii, the group settled on Canso and, with seed funding from United Paradyne, spun out MLS with Matier as its CEO.
Matier, who said he has uprooted his family from New Mexico and moved to Halifax to be closer to the Canso project, has won over factions of the community through public and private meetings with politicians, business owners and law enforcement.
A confluence of factors make the Nova Scotia site ideal for a spaceport, Matier said. Despite its remote location, the 340-acre site on a swath of provincial Crown land between the communities of Canso, Little Dover and Hazel Hill is well-serviced with access to water, electricity and paved roads nearby and, thanks to a wind farm recently built in the area, the company had an up-to-date environmental assessment to reference — all of which could save MLS ample time and money. Overlooking thousands of kilometres of open ocean, it is far from large populations that could be affected by a launch failure.
Critically, though, according to Matier, the project had early support from politicians and the community. “Even before announcing that we found the spot, we went to meet with the fisheries association, with the Guysborough municipality, with people in the community to find out whether any of this stuff would make sense in their backyard, so to speak,” he said. “It was because of their embrace and support of this initiative that we went forward.”
That support hinged largely on the promise for employment in the county. Matier estimates the spaceport itself will generate about 120 jobs, of which 60 will be permanent and the other half a transient workforce coming in for the eight launches MLS is planning each year. “We’ll be directly employing people in the community, by and large, but it’s what’s outside the fence — that’s where the real opportunity is for the community,” he said, painting a picture of a booming tourist town replete with bustling hotels, restaurants and fishing boats chartering tours to ocean views of rockets blasting toward outer space.
The vision won over local politicians. “This project is an example of the optimism and hope I have for the future of all Nova Scotia, in particular my belief that we can reinvigorate and rebuild communities in rural Nova Scotia,” Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil wrote in a letter of support a month after the project’s March 2017 announcement and a year before the company submitted its environmental assessment (EA) report.
Many Canso residents didn’t take the spaceport seriously at first. Rocket launches and a high-tech space industry seemed far-fetched for the fishing community that has scarcely changed since its incorporation nearly 120 years ago. “Then June 4 happened, and I stopped sleeping,” said Marie Lumsden, a youth educator in town who lives about three kilometres from the proposed launch site.
That was the day Nova Scotia Environment Minister Gordon Wilson granted MLS approval to move forward with its plans, on the condition that it provide more detail on a list of concerns like its emergency response plan and public consultation process. Soon afterwards, signs began appearing in windows and on lawns throughout Canso, urging the community to oppose the spaceport.
Lumsden and other MLS critics worry the EA wasn’t adequate. Internal communications viewed by The Logic show Matier had pushed hard for a provincial EA rather than the more robust federal assessment, which he warned MacDonald would lead to MLS finding another community to host the spaceport. “I think this confirms the importance of having a good Environmental Engineering firm engaged early to communicate with the Fed / Provincial regulators,” MacDonald advised Matier in a November 2016 email. “They will push to minimize the scope of the review and challenge the bureaucrats that will want to broaden.”
Jaclyn Sauvé, a spokesperson for the federal environment department, told The Logic that then-environment minister Catherine McKenna had decided against a federal assessment after “analysis of the project and a consideration of the regulatory mechanisms in place to evaluate and mitigate the potential environmental effects of the project.”
But the limited EA process has left some in the community with lingering concerns about the implications for the health of the people of Canso and the fisheries that sustain the community. In particular, they have questions about the technology and fuel MLS plans to use — its rockets include dimethylhydrazine as a propellant in the second stage of launch, a fuel the United States Environmental Protection Agency has deemed a probable carcinogen, and that has been phased out in North America — and they fear the province isn’t equipped to answer them, or to hold the company accountable in the event of an accident.
At an open house in March 2019, Jim Geddes, a local shrimp fisherman, raised concerns about the fuel, to which an MLS representative simply told him not to worry. “The response I got was ‘We’re professionals; we know what we’re doing,’” said Geddes. “I took that as being patted on top of the head as a stupid villager.”
Canada nearly had a commercial spaceport once before. In the 1990s, a conglomerate of 21 firms, collectively called Akjuit Aerospace, set out to launch rockets from the northern town of Churchill, Man. The company’s pitch was similar to that of MLS: the facility, dubbed SpacePort Canada, would capture business in the then-emerging small-satellite launch market and in the process generate economic spinoffs for the Hudson Bay community. The group raised over $8.5 million for the initiative and broke ground on the site in 1994. It even managed a test launch in April 1998, but still $250 million short of its financing requirements, SpacePort Canada shuttered later that year.
Despite the recent space economy boom, Marshall Kaplan, an aerospace engineering professor at the University of Maryland, is skeptical that anyone — whether MLS, the government or residents — will profit from launching rockets from Canso. “It’s true that there’s been a lot of excitement about launching stuff into space because of the current rush to get broadband satellites up,” said Kaplan. “This is why they’re building spaceports — they anticipate getting some of that business. But unfortunately, a lot of these things don’t come to reality.”
Kaplan is one of several consultants warning many launch companies operating today have oversold cities on their power to attract aerospace businesses and other economic opportunities to their regions. In 2017, for example, just three of the 10 active U.S. spaceports actually launched anything. “It’s a very competitive market and a risky investment,” he said. “There are already so many launch sites to choose from, so unless they have some unique advantage, it’s going to be tough doing business up there.
“There’s an old saying,” Kaplan added: “If you want to be a millionaire in the launch-vehicle business, start out with a billion.”
Matier rejected doubts about the viability of the launch business. “Our model is unlike other U.S. spaceports because we are using proven launch technology with minimal development and labour costs,” he said (the Cyclone-4M has never been launched). “It’s not at all like any spaceport in the U.S.”
Matier originally pitched the Canso spaceport as a privately funded endeavour. He estimates the capital cost to build the facility will be close to $300 million, with each rocket launch costing another $45 million. The company’s internal communications with government officials, viewed by The Logic, show MLS had trouble attracting early investors.
“Yes, we are struggling a bit with the investment part, but remain highly confident this will happen,” wrote United Paradyne CEO Joseph Hasay in a March 2018 email to MacDonald, the Guysborough economic development director.
Around the same time, the company was lobbying the federal government for funding, and a year before that, Matier had requested the municipality cover the land-lease costs for the first five years of the project, suggesting MLS would pursue a different site if incentives weren’t available in Guysborough, as first reported by the Halifax Examiner. “In the U.S., the sites looking to bring spaceport clients to their area can and do make those kinds of offers,” Matier wrote. “Our one main competing site to Nova Scotia is in Mexico and the Space Agency there is working to put together an infrastructure package that would benefit the spaceport.” MacDonald rejected the request, citing municipal law. Matier told The Logic that several investors — whom he declined to name — have committed financing to MLS, and that he plans to go ahead with the project, with or without government financing.
Funding aside, the project still needs regulatory approval from the province and from Ottawa, including Global Affairs and Transport Canada. “Transport Canada and the Canadian Space Agency have met with [MLS] regarding the construction of their spaceport in Canso, Nova Scotia, and are closely monitoring the project’s development,” said CSA spokesperson Audrey Barbier in an email to The Logic. “The Government of Canada will continue to work with MLS and other interested commercial space launch proponents to ensure the safety and advancement of this growing industry in Canada.”
MLS, which originally planned for a 2020 launch date, has pushed its timeline to 2022 and pared back its business case for the site: rather than launching rockets for international clients, as it had originally pitched, it now plans to only launch its own vehicles, eliminating a potential source of revenue for the facility.
By the time the town of Canso was dissolved in 2012 and absorbed into Guysborough County, its population had contracted to 806 people, less than half the size it was a century earlier. Proponents of the spaceport worry the trend will continue if the community resists opportunities for what they see as economic progress. “You can’t add industry without negative effects, but the cons don’t outweigh the pros,” said Judy Cook, an owner of Harbour View Bakery, a cafe in Canso, and a member of the community liaison committee for the spaceport. “For me, it’s having another industry here. It’s the possibility of jobs, of growth, of keeping our kids from moving away. I see it as a valuable way to bring Canso back to the way it used to be, when its industries were vibrant and lively.”
But Lumsden and others opposing the spaceport worry that Matier and local governments have sold the community on a fantasy. “He says we’re going to be NASA North,” she said. “He talks about this workforce we have, but we don’t have two electricians in Canso; we might have one plumber; we can’t fill job vacancies at the hospital. We don’t have the workforce to even do this.
“So who is this going to benefit?” she asked. “It’s [government] appeasing foreign companies. It’s doing what it can do for them and not for the people of the province.”