Cold War, Bright Stars

Driven by military spending, Canada took a lead role in the early space race

It has been more than half a decade since the Liberal government of Paul Martin released its International Policy Statement. As the title of that document made clear, it differed significantly from its predecessors. It marked the first time that a Canadian government had undertaken an international policy review. In the 21st century, the thinking went, global relations could no longer be subdivided into neat files like defence or foreign trade. To understand Canada’s place in the world, the IPS implied, Canadians had to look at their relationships with the world more holistically.

When the Harper Conservatives took power in 2006, they quickly removed links to the IPS from the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. But beyond their efforts to erase references to what they perceived to be the Liberal brand, the Tories did little to suggest that they had abandoned the Martin government’s basic ideas about world affairs. Indeed, two successive minority Conservative governments championed a similarly comprehensive approach to international problem solving, one that rejected the idea that responsibility could be restricted to a single government department or non-state actor.

Whether such thinking reflected or stimulated similar changes in the academic community is unclear, but there is no question that professional historians and political scientists in Canada have reached similar conclusions. It has become increasingly rare to speak of diplomatic history, for example. International, if not transnational, studies are the new norm in course descriptions, textbook titles and conference themes.

With this shift has come an increasing openness among historians of Canada’s international past to welcome less traditional ideas to their understanding of world affairs. The evidence of the potential for new thinking first appeared 30 years ago when John Wendell Holmes, the dean of the study of Canadian foreign relations for much of the Cold War period, argued strongly for the greater integration of scholars of the physical sciences into the international affairs conversation. The scientists had perspectives and backgrounds, Holmes maintained, that were critical to serious discussions of arms control and global environmentalism, among other issues. Nevertheless, it has taken another generation of scholarship for books such as Andrew B. Godefroy’s Defence and Discovery: Canada’s Military Space Program, 1945–74 to begin to proliferate and take their rightful place as serious contributions to contemporary analyses of Canada’s place in the world.

In defence of the many excellent historians of Canadian international relations, I should note that the delay in recognizing the importance of the history and philosophy of scientific discovery is understandable. Much of the research that authors like Godefroy rely upon remains classified, and only those with exceptionally strong willpower and persistence have succeeded in conquering the access-to-information roadblocks that have become far too common in efforts to study these elements of Canada’s past. Readers of Defence and Discovery are therefore fortunate that, in Godefroy, they have an ideal navigator through what he calls “Canada’s role in the exploration and exploitation of the upper atmosphere between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and the ratification of the country’s first national space policy in 1974.”

Godefroy is a serious, well-published historian; he is a member of the Canadian Forces primary reserve and overseer of the army’s primary think tank, the Directorate of Land Concepts and Designs; and he is passionately curious about rockets, satellites and outer space in general. He brings to his work the academic historian’s dogged commitment to methodical research, the military professional’s superior understanding of defence operations and tactics, and the committed observer’s nearly obsessive interest in the scientific intricacies of space exploration and development. Perhaps most important for the study of international history, Godefroy is able, rather effortlessly, to integrate the story of the scientific and technological community into an account of policy development that has traditionally been restricted to political and defence actors in Ottawa.

The organization of the book is both a strength and a weakness. Godefroy has chosen a hybrid model, combining thematic divisions with an overarching chronological narrative. This method, which leaves the reader navigating back and forth through time, might appeal to specialists who already understand the context of Godefroy’s research and to professors who wish to include particular chapters of Defence and Discovery as readings in their courses. Indeed, the majority of the seven chapters are capable of standing alone as effective case studies of elements of the history of Canadian space policy and related technological implications. The organization is not as welcoming to casual readers most interested in following a single story from beginning to end.

Defence and Discovery begins in the aftermath of the Second World War. On the advice of Canada’s minister of national defence, Cabinet approved an order-in-council that launched what became the Defence Research Board. The board would be led by Colonel Omond McKillop Solandt, a defence analyst who also had medical training. Solandt worked with Canada’s incoming minister of national defence, Brooke Claxton, to develop what Godefroy describes as “a completely independent research capability in Canada.” But Solandt, like the vast majority of Canadian international policy operators at the time, was a pragmatist. It was clear that Canada was in no position to invest in research to the extent that its British and American allies could. It therefore made sense to pursue what historians of Canada’s international history might refer to as a functional, or niche, approach to space policy.

The basic idea was simple: since Canada stood little chance of making a significant impact in every element of defence research, Ottawa would concentrate its activities in areas where the country possessed global expertise and significant (wartime) experience: ballistics, radar, atomic energy and what became satellite technology. The pragmatism that underlined such functionalism also implied close collaboration with the British and, especially, the Americans with whom interoperability, research sharing and joint project development would be essential.

Godefroy’s account of the early history of missiles and rockets touches on similar functional themes. Thanks to a combination of scientific expertise, military interest and a lack of significant political interference (at least until the late 1950s), Canadians developed an indigenous capacity to launch vehicles into space that left their country in an exceptional position relative to other non-great powers. Those who share Godefroy’s passionate interest in the history of science and technology will particularly appreciate his detailed descriptions of the design and development of the Black Brant rockets, a project so successful that it attracted serious attention from the U.S. Department of Defense and from NASA. The photographs included by Godefroy also complement the descriptions effectively.

The end of the rocketry program in the late 1960s accords with Godefroy’s general analysis: given Canada’s justifiably limited enthusiasm for full-scale space exploration, the rocketry industry eventually moved on without Ottawa. Nevertheless, the achievements of Canadian scientists and defence professionals were real and impressive, and Canada’s contribution to early post-war rocket science was laudable.

The post-Solandt era—he retired in 1955—marked the beginning of what to Godefroy was a significant decline in Canada’s overall space program. Prime ministers John Diefenbaker (1957–63) and Lester B. Pearson (1963–68) neither knew enough nor cared enough to make scientific discovery a strategic priority. As a result, the research and defence communities never received the centralizing direction and support they would have needed to maintain Canada’s elevated status in the international scientific community. Unlike the situation in the United States—and this seems to be Godefroy’s greatest criticism of the practitioners in Ottawa—Canada missed an opportunity to develop an effective national space agency.

Considering the lack of direction from above, the September 1962 launch of the Alouette, the first Canadian satellite, is that much more impressive. At the time, only the Americans and the Soviets had demonstrated the equivalent scientific capability. Godefroy rightly describes the Alouette as “one of Canada’s most remarkable technological achievements of the mid-twentieth century,” one that deserved the acclaim it received from NASA and the National Academy of Sciences, members of which had previously questioned the Canadian plans. I would go even further: it was, in retrospect, a major event in Canada’s international history, one that I am ashamed never to have mentioned in my classes on the history of Canadian external relations. It did not just illustrate the potential of a middle-sized power to establish an international presence in the defence and security fields; given the importance of Canada-U.S. cooperation in literally getting the project off the ground (the Alouette was carried into space by an American rocket), it was a critical example of North American defence cooperation, one that ironically took place just days before the Cuban missile crisis pushed the Canada-U.S. relationship toward its lowest point in years.

Godefroy’s description of the Alouette’s design and development is meticulous. Historians will marvel at the new material he has discovered through his innumerable access to information requests, while defence scientists will appreciate his efforts to make the technical elements of satellite production come to life.

Non-specialists will re-engage with the book when they reach chapter five, “Canada’s Militarization and Weaponization of Space.” In it, Godefroy argues convincingly that, in spite of recent rhetoric from Canadian foreign ministers and others to the contrary, Ottawa was not always a staunch opponent of national defence from above.

Canada’s early space research developed in a Cold War context. Certainly, there were individuals in the Department of External Affairs who expressed concern about the potential military applications of rockets and satellites. But preliminary attempts to establish an international regulatory regime to promote global cooperation in space were quickly abandoned when they were found to be both unrealistic and inconsistent with Canadian interests. Instead, Canada maintained a close, cooperative relationship with its U.S. defence colleagues. Washington gained access to missile launch facilities north of the border and Canadian military planners helped develop America’s early ballistic missile defence systems. Ottawa’s collaborative approach ensured access to American technology and know-how that was crucial to the continued development of a national space program. It was only after the decline of the space defence industry in Canada took hold in the 1960s that government attitudes began to evolve.

Again, Godefroy is disappointed with the decline, but he is also realistic. He understands that the Canadian tradition of applying the “just enough principle” to national defence spending and strategy—a principle that suggests that Ottawa should commit just enough to maintain a minimal degree of influence—has served the country fairly well over the years. Sure, one might characterize the 1960s space research experience as one of wasted potential and missed opportunities, but Canada’s national security was never overtly compromised, and Canadians remained fairly united behind their leadership’s approach to world affairs.

Defence and Discovery ends with the ratification of a national space policy in 1974. That policy was designed according to commercial and industrial interests. It was civilian-led and focused largely on satellite communications: a key goal was to connect Canadians across the country through their televisions. The reliance on the American scientific and industrial base was maintained, and Canada’s long-term strategic security interests—and the influence of Canadian defence scientists upon them—were further minimized.

Godefroy adds, as a postscript, a note to fellow researchers. It describes the challenges he faced gathering the data for his book, and cautions future scholars about how hard it will be to continue along the road that he has travelled. I am not sure that this final note is needed, but it does not detract significantly from the real story.

That this book is important is without question, and that it enhances the deserved reputation of the University of British Columbia Press for publishing well-produced, cutting-edge research on Canadian defence and security challenges is equally clear. Godefroy’s relentless pursuit of the details of the history of Canada’s military space program has resulted in a profoundly original work that makes a significant contribution not only to the history of science and technology, but also to international history more generally. Godefroy uncovers new evidence to support the importance of the Cold War in determining the development and implementation of Canadian national policies. He also adds to our understanding of the evolution of the Canada-U.S. relationship. His description of the success of the Alouette is a critical addition to the standard account of Canada’s worldly Cold War successes. And his description of the history of Canadian attitudes toward the militarization and weaponization of space will serve as an excellent reality check to romantics who subscribe to the notion of Canada as a peaceful kingdom.

That said, Defence and Discovery is regrettably unlikely to be for everyone. Godefroy has written an academic text. It is full of acronyms, it is meticulously detailed and it engages—albeit highly convincingly—in historiographical debates that will not interest the casual reader. At times, non–specialists will have to work to get through this book, and I fear that too many Canadians might not have the patience to do so.

That is a real shame, because if they were to learn even half as much as I have, they would be significantly better placed to participate in discussions of international policy in Canada in the future.