Port Alberni, Tofino and Ucluelet eyed as possible space launch locations

Space launch facilities on Vancouver Island would bring new sectors to towns like Port Alberni, generate economic impact and aid in Canada’s northern sovereignty claim.

The successful launch of the Canadian Space Agency’s MOST

The successful launch of the Canadian Space Agency’s MOST

A Canadian astrophysicist says the Alberni Valley or West Coast would be an ideal place for Canada’s first rocket launch facility.

The idea was broached at a space conference held at the University of British Columbia on March 30. Academics, students and members of the public listened as Redouane Al Fakir pitched the idea of building Canada’s first space launch facility on Vancouver Island.

Al Fakir doesn’t just have a passing interest in space.

He has a PhD in astrophysics and works as an astronomer at UBC.

He’s also president of Space Launch Canada—a firm dedicated to developing Canada’s first space port capable of launching space missions.

The idea is still being fleshed out, but a launch date of 2015 is planned, Al Fakir said.

In an interview this week, Al Fakir said that a space launch would bring new sectors to the Island, generate economic impact and aid in Canada’s northern sovereignty claim.

Presently, Canada has no space launch facility of its own, and it depends on countries like India and China to launch space hardware such as satellites.

Vancouver Island, including the Port Alberni-Ucluelet-Tofino area, is an ideal location for a space launch, Al Fakir said.

“You have to look at the Island from the point of view of space, not from the view of a roadmap.

“Its separation from the mainland and close proximity to the Pacific Ocean make it a natural gateway to space.”

The exact location for the launch pad would be determined through detailed land study.

The facility would at first launch unmanned vehicles, but manned missions would be planned later on.

The facility wouldn’t be as massive as the one in Cape Canaveral, Fla., which has a 1,325-acre footprint.

Instead, any launch facility on Vancouver Island would be comprised of several micro footprints spread across different communities.

“The launch pad would be compact like the one on Kodiak Island, Alaska – about the size of an elementary school,” Al Fakir said.

“And laboratories that support the launch site with research and education could be built in other communities like Port Alberni, Campbell River and others.”

The facility would cost approximately $200 million to build, but he cautioned it must be looked at in context.

“Two hundred million dollars is half the cost of a jet fighter, and half of what it cost to build the BC Place roof,” Al Fakir said.

The real money to be made is in launching other countries’ hardware, like satellites.

“Look at this way – Canada pays hundreds of millions of dollars to other countries to put their hardware into space,” Al Fakir said.

“The dream scenario is to make the money that we’re now spending elsewhere.”

The facility would bring a whole new series of sectors to the Island, Al Fakir said.

There’s research, creating inventions and software development that supports launches.

As well, education institutions would be enriched with research projects, high quality jobs and program development, which would attract grants and bursaries.

And a type of space tourism—which Fakir compared to storm watching—would grow as well. “Space attracts more tourism than that.”

The space launch facility would in effect create a community within a community.

“It’s much bigger than just a launch installation.”

The launch facility presents safety and environmental concerns.

Transport Canada is responsible for rocket launch activities by virtue of the Aeronautics Act.

Rocket fuels are regulated under the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act, agency spokesperson Sara Hof said.

The Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act, sets out specific requirements for the safe handling, offering for transport and transport of these goods via  land, water, air or rail transportation, she said.

But those regulatory and logistical challenges aren’t insurmountable.

“The fuel is transported in a truck much like those that transport gasoline, not in an oil tanker that comes up the Inlet,” Al Fakir said. “And there’s been no incidents with it that I’m aware of.”

As well, when a rocket launches it produce exhaust, but it’s not an environmental threat, he said.

“The lift-off is over in seconds, and the exhaust it produces is less than that of a car or truck.”

The Canadian Space Agency is responsible for Canada’s space program, and coordinates all civil space-related policies and programs.

The agency is involved with space data information, space exploration and future Canadian space capacity.

The CSA is aware of Al Fakir’s space launch idea.

“But it’s a private initiative and we have no comment,” spokesperson Carol Duval said.

Canadian Aviation regulations require an application for authorization to launch high power and advanced rockets.

While other countries have their own regulations “..dozens of them routinely launch every day of the week,” Al Fakir said.

The West Coast of Vancouver Island is often foggy, but rainy weather doesn’t dissuade from it being considered a good location for launching rockets.

Launches would take place year round and during ideal weather windows — which  Al Fakir defined as no wind, no precipitation, and moderate temperature.

“The things that go on at the labs would go all year round though.”

The launch site would have a broader impact than just in the communities in which they are located.

Canada is engaged in asserting its sovereignty in and around its most northern border, and it has a competitor in Russia to name one country that is probing the north.

A Canadian launch site would help Canada assert its territorial claim.

“The only way you’re going to have information about what goes on up north is to have eyes and ears in space,” Al Fakir said.

Having a Canadian launch facility would also maintain the integrity of Canada’s northern claim.

“When we want to launch hardware that collects data about the north it doesn’t make sense to rely on a country that has a competing claim to launch it for us,” Al Fakir said.

The prospective location is within the jurisdiction of the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District.

But ACRD chief administrative officer Russell Dyson said that he wasn’t aware of the plan, and that no one there had yet been approached.

Al Fakir plans to pitch the idea to local government bodies and First Nations in the coming months, he said.

But he wants to discuss the idea with academics and others first. “Afterward we’ll have a stronger project and plan to present to local government bodies,” he said.

Meanwhile Al Fakir has informally toured Tofino, Ucluelet, and Campbell River and was in Port Alberni recently at a fishing lodge down the Alberni Canal.

“Vancouver Island has a lot more potential than being just a cute place to visit,” he said.