After reading over a draft of the transcript of the workshop, and seeing the mention of the Polaire proposal, Peter Forsyth was moved to write the following recollections of his own.
The Strange Affair of Polaire
by Peter Forsyth, 2003
In the autumn of 1976, NRC, in a burst of well intentioned enthusiasm, established the Space Science Coordination Office and I, in a very naive burst of enthusiasm, agreed to become its first Director. There was no doubt about our objectives. We had the task not only of putting together a comprehensive space science program covering everything from medicine to solid state technology, but we also had a few very specific, very ambitious, projects which had been proposed in the run-up to the formation of the Office. The most important of these was the proposal for a Small Scientific Satellite.
The work of generating space related interest in the Astronomical, Biological, Medical, Meteorological, Atmospheric Chemistry, Solid State Physics, Metallurgical, Pharmaceutical Processing and the Engineering communities went ahead from the very first month. Strangely, this activity, which required lengthy briefings of the various government departments, later interacted with the satellite proposal.
The actual preparation of proposals was carried out by an unprecedented (at least since W.W. II) coming together of Canadian scientists from both universities and government labs. Just five months after the formation of the Office, I was able to brag "we have had some twelve committees, working groups or task forces involving a total membership of some seventy scientists and have for presentation tomorrow six reports, some containing very sophisticated proposals. Most of the groups were formed in November and asked to report by February 1. That kind of enthusiasm is hard to match and hard to stop!" The Small Scientific Satellite proposal was produced by a committee led by Gordon Shepherd. At that stage, in early 1977, all was going well. I had already undertaken to "sell" the project within other government departments. The major selling point was that the Scientific satellite was so "cheap and dirty" that it would not interfere with the funding aspirations of other government departments. The initial proposal in the report which preceded the formation of the Office had contemplated a commitment of $15 Million per year to the satellite program. The satellite was to be built in about three years (at a cost of about $45 M). (Incidentally, when I say "we" in the present context I am referring not only to me but to the amazingly hard working and creative group of people who helped me and advised me during the writing of the ACSR report.) We hoped to use this first satellite program to re-establish a continuing series of scientific satellites, possibly using a common "bus" design so that each new satellite involved hanging new experiments on a space "bus" for which the design and components already existed. The figure of $15 M/year had been chosen to slip unnoticed under the radars of the finance officers of competing government departments.
Unfortunately, the actual planning of the satellite did not go forward in the same spirit of give and take which had marked the initial proposal. The staff of the SSCO found themselves constantly trying to resolve questions of priority and to mollify the players who felt themselves excluded from the program and fearful of losing whatever existing funding they had. We were able to tell such people that the money for the physical spacecraft was "new" money but, of course, we were not able to assure them that they would benefit to the same extent as those who were participating in the program.
And then came the march of the empire builders. Within the government personnel – not the scientific but the administrative personnel – there was a perfectly natural ambition to participate in big, and expensive, projects. The very first criticism we heard was that any self-respecting government employee would surely be ashamed to be associated with the "cheapest" scientific satellite in (or should that be, out of) the world!
And then came the scientists themselves. Given what appeared to be the first opportunity in many years to do space science on their own satellite, they wanted to do it well. I tried to persuade them to limit the scientific objectives if necessary to keep the cost of the satellite down but some of them really felt that this was likely to be the only chance for a satellite in their scientific lifetimes and were not prepared to compromise the scientific integrity. We wound up with a requirement for one part of the satellite to be spinning and one part to be constantly earth looking. While this was deemed to be possible from the engineering point of view the consequent cost increase was substantial.
And then came the industrial community, or perhaps this was just another manifestation of "civil service" aggression. The care and feeding of Canadian Industry was always a major consideration in the spending of tax dollars. I had considered ourselves to be very clever, or perhaps very lucky, in putting forward a proposal for a satellite just when the satellite construction industry in Canada was about to experience an hiatus in satellite building which would last two or three years. Imagine my consternation when I heard the following persistent, and widely accepted, rumour. A senior executive of the SPAR company was quoted as saying that the SPAR corporation would not be bothered to quote on a satellite that cost only $45 M. It would simply not be worth their time and would do nothing for their reputation. I accepted the rumour as fact. I launched a campaign to convince the SPAR people that they were wrong to adopt such an attitude. I tackled everyone that I knew in the company, including the man who was purported to have made the initial statement. All denied any knowledge of it. I was left with nothing to which I could object. Government employees continued to quote the "statement" and give me knowing looks whenever I contradicted them.
And then there was the Department of National Defence. I knew that the Defence Department was interested in participating in some way in space programs. The Defence agencies of most other major nations were actively involved in space programs. I would have liked some endorsement of our program but would happily have settled for an agreement to not oppose. There was some preliminary thinking going on for RadarSat and the military was keeping in touch with the plans. Defence also had a major continuing interest in radio communications and earth surveillance. Our satellite had a small beacon experiment which had been proposed by my colleagues at Western. The experiment was designed to measure ionospheric properties and detect ionospheric structure in the North. When it suited our purpose we emphasized the insights it would provide into satellite-ground communications in the auroral regions. I spent two long half days in the Defence Headquarters talking to military and scientific personnel. In the end I spent a lot of time with Eddie Bobyn, another good graduate from U. of Sask. He had, by this time, risen to the rank of Chief Scientist. I came away with the strong impression that someone from Defence would be keeping an eye on the Polaire plans. While no direct support was likely, we could probably count on assistance with the operation of ground stations if we needed it in out-of-the-way places. Most importantly, there would be no opposition to the satellite at the Interdepartmental level as long as it was relatively cheap and had the beacon experiment aboard. I had barely got back to my office before I was informed that our Satellite Planning Group had decided to drop the beacon experiment from the payload.
And then, finally, came the governments accountants. I learned that in putting forward a Treasury Board submission the costing must include all costs, not just new costs. If some civil servant was going to be required to give up reading the morning issue of the Ottawa Citizen before his morning coffee break in order to "manage" some part of the Polaire program, the cost of his salary for that time must be included. This was a big change from my time with DRB when only additional personnel, required by the project, needed to be included in the cost analysis. Naturally, this encouraged the government "mandarins" to offload as much of their regular costs as they could onto each new Treasury Board proposal. And this made the projected cost go even higher. There were even suggestions that we should, somehow, include the costs of the university scientists who would take part. There seemed no reasonable way of doing that without severely restricting university participation. Finally, a kind of partial solution was worked out in which temporary positions would be "given" to each of the participating universities to "compensate" them for the "loss" of regular faculty time.
In the end, we had a satellite proposal that was going to cost well over $100 M. That caused the other departments to sit up and take notice. The Inter-Departmental committees started collectively to shake their heads. A "small" satellite at $45 M was one thing – a "real" satellite at $100 M was quite another. Each department looked hastily for projects that could compete with Polaire for tax dollars. It was clearly in the best interests of them all to stop the wasting of tax dollars on another scientific satellite. The Department of Communications was chosen as the most credible challenger. Communications had been working for some time at a very laconic pace on a satellite which they hoped to define over the next four or five years. It was hastily dusted off and brought forward. The proposal was just a very sketchy outline and had a cost estimate of, guess what, just over $100 M. The attitude was; now that Treasury Board is prepared to consider new satellite programs it should be asked to choose between a purely scientific satellite and a real "working" satellite. Of course, there was no way that the Treasury Board could actually have approved the sketchily outlined satellite proposal from Communications. Its presence would merely give Treasury Board the opportunity to say "not yet" to both proposals.
I met with my boss, Bill Cumming, Vice President (Laboratories). He seemed quite willing to continue the battle to put the proposal, which had the approval of the Council, before Treasury Board, but neither he nor I saw any hope of success. Indeed, some substantial harm could have been done to the NRC and to the Space Science community by forcing the other Departments to take sides. I gave a great sigh and proposed that we drop the submission "for now". Bill gave a great sigh and agreed that we might bring it forward again, perhaps in some less costly form.
There was great disappointment amongst the space science community. There was no greater disappointment than my own. Nevertheless, I was aware, even then, that some good was bound to come from the enormous amount of work that had been invested in the Polaire project. It turned out that many of the participants developed their instruments for flights on foreign spacecraft. I even benefited from my earnest briefing of the Defence Department. A few years later the US military sponsored a scientific satellite program to investigate the auroral regions. The satellite, called HILAT had a beacon experiment aboard just like the one Western had proposed for Polaire. Oddly, HILAT made use of the "bus" principle and was brought in at an incremental cost which was reputed to be about $30 M. The Western group was invited to participate and to lead the Canadian effort. The Canadian participation in the HILAT series of satellites was supported by NRC but, most importantly, by substantial financial and logistical support from the Canadian Department of National Defence.
The failure of the Polaire project had one long lasting effect on me, personally. Just after it happened I was called upon by the Canadian Association of Physicists, as part of my Vice-Presidential duties to write a sample abstract for the Notice of Annual Meeting issue of Physics in Canada. The object was just to illustrate an acceptable form and layout for abstracts. Each Vice-President was free to make the abstract funny or serious as he chose. Steaming from the recent demise of Polaire I wrote a highly allegorical offering about the strange disappearance of two satellites. I thought only that it would provide a brief smile to those most closely associated with Polaire. For some reason CAP continued to use that same abstract year after year, reminding me, each time it appeared, of a major disappointment. Finally, in the middle nineties, I wrote to them asking that they terminate my annual humiliation. They did. Peace at last.