The tiny community of Canso sits at the easternmost tip of Nova Scotia’s mainland—the farthest end of a rocky finger pointing forty kilometres into the North Atlantic. Its claim to fame is folk singer Stan Rogers, who, after visiting family here during the summers in the 1970s, drew inspiration for songs about hard-luck communities enduring against the odds. And Canso today is about as hard-luck as it gets. In the 1990s, the Atlantic cod fishery—the area’s economic backbone since the seventeenth century—collapsed, and the town’s population followed, falling from 1,200 to just over 700. According to the latest census, the median age was fifty-four, the median income under $24,000.

Listen to an audio version of this story

For more audio from The Walrus, subscribe to AMI-audio podcasts on iTunes.

In the years since, the promise of economic salvation has appeared every so often in the form of ambitious—though uncertain—megaproject proposals. There’s been talk of a gold mine, a liquid–natural gas terminal, and a granite quarry, though none have come to pass. Then, in October 2016, a company called Maritime Launch Services (MLS) appeared in Halifax with an idea that sounded like the longest Hail Mary of them all: Canso, it said, is the ideal site for Canada’s first commercial spaceport.

The idea wasn’t as far-fetched as it may have seemed. Up until recently, companies seeking to launch satellites have almost exclusively relied on government-run spaceports, like Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. But, over the next few years, commercial satellite launches are set to increase drastically. Today, there are a little more than 2,000 active satellites orbiting Earth, and nearly half were sent up by private parties ranging from telecommunications companies to research organizations monitoring greenhouse gases. Some industry watchers are projecting that, by 2025, there could be more than 1,000 new satellites launched every year—a technological revolution made possible by the proliferation of smaller, less expensive satellites dubbed “smallsats.” MLS’s pitch is that, if Canso commits to a spaceport, it can capture some of this burgeoning smallsat market, which, according to one report, was worth $3.63 billion (US) globally in 2018 and is estimated to reach $15.69 billion (US) by 2026.

MLS CEO and president Stephen Matier, a former NASA contractor-engineer from New Mexico, has said that Canso’s remoteness—generally an economic liability—makes it an ideal location for rocket launches. Anything lobbed into the sky will, within moments, be soaring over the open sea. He’s predicted that the spaceport could create up to 150 full-time jobs in Canso by the mid-2020s, employing everyone from electrical engineers to security guards to office workers—jobs that could transform a community where unemployment was recently measured at over 12 percent.

MLS has announced that it’s already working closely with Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye Design Office and its associated Yuzhmash factory, which will respectively design and build the rockets that MLS plans to launch near Canso: a new model called the Cyclone-4M. If everything goes as planned, the company will begin launching Cyclones by 2022 and aims to eventually send into space up to eight rockets per year.

The spaceport seems to have progressed further than any of Canso’s earlier prospective megaprojects. In April 2017, after meeting with Matier and other MLS representatives, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil declared the province “fully behind this exciting and innovative development.” Global Affairs Canada has been in talks with the US State Department to permit American payloads and vehicles to launch out of Canso. And, last June, the province gave MLS conditional environmental approval to begin building, which means the company has cleared its biggest regulatory hurdle. All that’s left for MLS is to raise the money needed for the project, which is estimated to be $210 million.

Last year, when the province solicited community feedback as part of its environmental assessment process, local reaction was overwhelmingly positive. One typical response argued that, “without our government support for megaprojects such as MLS . . . this community we love so much will surely die.” George Hart, sixty-seven, works much of the year in Edmonton and spends the rest in the once-grand Victorian house that’s been in his family since 1893. He seems to represent many of the spaceport supporters when he says MLS “may be the last opportunity Canso will get to become a vibrant community again.”

More recently, though, the conversation has started to change. As the spaceport moves from pitch to reality, skeptics have emerged, dividing Canso into opposing blocs. Some have questioned the wisdom of launching rockets so near the edge of town and the effects of toxic rocket propellant on the community. And, lately, the anti-spaceport faction has begun questioning MLS itself, whose state-owned Ukrainian partners have spent the past thirty years dogged by business missteps and implications of scandal as they struggled to gain a foothold in the modern space economy.

Residents may be right to worry about rushing into an unproven venture. “The idea of a space-launch facility in Nova Scotia is great,” says Michael Byers, a professor at the University of British Columbia and co-director of the international Outer Space Institute. The problem, he warns, is the specific proposal that is now before them.

During the Cold War, the industrial metropolis of Dnipro (then called Dnipropetrovsk), Ukraine, produced weapons of mass destruction for the USSR the way Detroit manufactured cars. Two of the companies at the heart of this economy were the Yuzhnoye Design Office and the Yuzhmash factory. The latter employed more than 50,000 people at its peak, earning Dnipro the nickname “Rocket City.”

When the Soviet Union collapsed, in 1991, the closely entwined companies and Dnipro went into an economic nosedive. Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash have survived to this day thanks to contracts for agricultural equipment and trolleys, all the while trying, with mixed success, to become players in the modern space industry.

In 2009, a much-hyped partnership between Yuzhnoye and Boeing to launch rockets from a floating sea platform entered bankruptcy protection, with the aerospace giant suing Yuzhnoye for breach of contract. In 2015, a decade-in-the-making deal with Brazil to launch the Cyclone rocket’s predecessor, the Tsyklon-4, collapsed amid uncertainty that the project could ever make money. That failure came at the worst possible moment: the previous year, Russia invaded Crimea, an autonomous republic in Ukraine, and lucrative contracts between Russian clients and the Ukrainian companies fell apart. Employment at Yuzhmash fell to barely 5,000 people, and Dnipro was among the fastest-shrinking cities on Earth.

Then, in 2017, nuclear nonproliferation expert Michael Elleman authored a report suggesting that North Korea had used Ukrainian engines in its ICBM tests. Elleman has a theory that underpaid employees helped smuggle Yuzhmash parts into North Korea and, in doing so, violated a raft of international sanctions and United Nations resolutions aimed at curbing nuclear-weapons development. “I’ve spent a good amount of time in Dnipro,” Elleman says with a chuckle. “I know what the security procedures are around there.” Yuzhmash has denied any connection to North Korea.

After Yuzhnoye’s Brazil deal imploded, the company needed new markets. It hired Matier—who, after his work with NASA, ran a US aerospace consultancy—to assess prospective launch locations in North America. The Canso area was ultimately chosen thanks to its sparse population, edge-of-everything location, and good connections to road, rail, and sea. As Ukrainian state-owned enterprises, Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash couldn’t set up a launch site in Canada on their own. But Matier could. As a result, MLS was born.

The Ukrainian Cyclone-4M rockets, which are central to MLS’s spaceport plan, have been promoted as a brand-new product, but a significant portion of the design is more or less a tweak to Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash’s decades-old Tsyklon rocket lineage. Matier prefers to call it “heritage hardware”—sturdy and reliable. It’s true that Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash still enjoy a good reputation among some aerospace wonks: Elon Musk has called their Zenit his favourite rocket (besides his own), and even Elleman praises its engineers, noting, “You’re going to get quite a good product from them.” But the dated tech used in the Cyclone comes with a major liability that has become a sticking point in Canso: a highly toxic fuel source, for the rocket’s second stage, called unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH). A space-industry mainstay for decades, UDMH is still used in many satellites and capsules, but it’s fallen out of favour as a rocket fuel due to its extreme toxicity. In Canso, UDMH has led to worries about impacts to water, air, and soil.

Some residents, including fifty-year-old Marie Lumsden, have serious concerns about launch-pad disasters and poisonous plumes—anxieties that, she says, are heightened by the injustice of the project being “forced” on Canso. “I had this conversation with my partner,” Lumsden says. “I think he’s found it difficult because it’s completely taken over my psyche, you know? I wake up at night and it’s there . . . I feel my blood pressure rising at the thought of something happening in those woods.”

The province’s environmental approval for the spaceport was conditional upon MLS providing more information about its handling of dangerous goods and developing worst-case-scenario analyses for launch failures. That hasn’t assuaged critics. “Hydrazine is so twentieth century,” says Byers from the Outer Space Institute. “If we’re going to build a launch facility in Canada, let’s do it with modern technology.”

MLS and its supporters have positioned the spaceport as a technological leap forward for Canso, a twenty-first-century equivalent to the town’s old commercial-telegraph industry. As the closest point on mainland North America to Europe, Canso made a convenient landing point for subsea cables, and residents say that, from the 1880s onward, its cable industry was second only to its fishery. It’s fitting, suggests Matier, for the town to embrace a spaceport and once again be at the forefront of globe-spanning communications technology.

Today, since MLS has environmental approval, the backing of government officials, and is in negotiations to lease Crown land for the launch site, the only thing it needs is money. Matier says that, so far, MLS has stayed afloat through several modest rounds of private fundraising. But MLS has also lobbied federal and provincial ministries, and in 2018, Matier appeared before the House of Commons standing committee on finance to make a case for government investment in Canada’s launch industry—which so far consists solely of MLS.

According to Leena Pivovarova, a space-industry analyst with Cambridge-based Northern Sky Research, there’s little question that the next decade will see ramped-up demand for satellite launch sites, but she warns that the spaceport boom may already have entered the irrational-exuberance phase. “There’s a lot of money being poured in, from government to big institutions to venture capital,” she says. “We already have a spaceport glut now, to be perfectly honest.”

The United States has eleven licensed commercial spaceports, and only six have actually seen a launch. More are in the planning phases, including Georgia’s Spaceport Camden, the Colorado Air and Space Port, and farther afield, Space Hub Sutherland, near Scotland’s Atlantic coast. Spaceport America, one of the biggest and best-known commercial ventures, has been in the New Mexico desert since 2011. It’s seen launches but has been waiting for Virgin Galactic, its long-promised anchor tenant, to begin offering the world’s first suborbital passenger flights. It, too, is looking into the satellite market.

The unknowns around the long-term viability of the satellite market may be why spaceports have been a tough sell to private investors—which is one reason so many flashy new projects, from SpaceX to Blue Origin to Virgin Galactic, are the respective pet projects of billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson. It’s unclear whether MLS, a small startup relying on distressed partners, will have the means and reserves needed to succeed in a crowded market. Matier says that MLS has already received several expressions of interest from companies seeking to launch satellites from Canso, but he refuses to divulge any specifics.

A small text box with a purple celestial background. The text says, "click here to read more from "In Other Worlds: A Space Exploration"

MLS initially planned to break ground in fall 2018. That date has now been pushed back twice. As MLS waits to move forward, it seems that the divide between townspeople for and against the spaceport continues to deepen. Some Cansonians told me that only one other schism in living memory comes close: a particularly vicious 1970s labour dispute in the fishery that pitted family against family, many of which could trace their Canso ancestries back centuries. “There are families in this town who still don’t speak to each other because they were on opposite sides of that,” says eighty-three-year-old June Jarvis. Likewise, she says, “if these [MLS] people fold up their tents and go away, there will be a lot of rancour.”

Jarvis promises that, if the spaceport is built, she’ll leave town and “buy, steal, or rent a little shack” close to her daughter’s home, in Nova Scotia’s more prosperous South Shore. She doesn’t believe in the rosy economic forecasts that MLS has promised. Nor does she believe that the province’s environmental assessment sufficiently addressed the community’s concerns. Like Lumsden, she has fears of toxic contamination and exploding rockets.

Her vision for Canso is one of incremental recovery: building up the annual Stan Rogers Folk Festival, growing the outdoor tourism sector, even a “pet dream” of building an observatory on one of the high granite plateaus near Fogarty’s Head. “People who think that someone from away has the answers,” she says, “don’t stop to think that, however industrious this person may be, he’s not here to look after us. He’s here because it serves his own interests.”

Matthew Halliday
Matthew Halliday is a writer and editor in Halifax. He has written for the Globe and Mail, Hakai Magazine, and Chatelaine.
Aimée Henny Brown
Aimée Henny Brown is an interdisciplinary visual artist living and working in British Columbia.