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This Week in Space for Canada

The Canadian Press quotes Canadian Space Agency (CSA) president Steve MacLean as stating that Canadian astronauts could end up riding to the International Space Station (ISS) on board commercial vehicles but forgets to ask why or how. Former Optech International Director and current Google Lunar X-Prize competitor Robert Richards dodges the fictional Kobayashi Maru test of character by moving to the US, plus potential Telesat buyers refine their bids as they move to purchase the Canadian telecommunications icon. All that and more, this week in space for Canada.


Our first story comes to us via the December 28th, 2010 Canadian Press article “Final frontier going commercial” which quotes our normally shy and conditional CSA president as stating “If you were to ask me to be a betting man, when the time comes, that (the choice of transport for Canadian astronauts to the ISS) will be a decision that I could see that could happen… If everything goes well, and if it shows that to our satisfaction everything is OK, everything is safe and secure, yes, it’s possible.
According to the article, Canada helped build the ISS using the space shuttle based Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (Canadarm 1) and the ISS based Mobile Servicing System (Canadarm 2). For helping to build the ISS, Canada was “paid” with multiple free trips to the ISS (with the US picking up the tab) and has one “credit” left.
The article, provides three Canadian options after our credits run out when Chris Hadfield concludes his six-month stay on the ISS and returns to Earth in late 2012.
The options are the US based commercial sector (which seems to have the most options all by itself with the Space-X dragon capsule, the Bigelow/ Boeing CST-100 capsule and the recent Orbital Sciences Corporation winged landing vehicle among other options), the European Space Agency‘s (ESA) Automated Transfer Vehicle (which has been flying supplies to the ISS since 2008) and the existing, Russian built Soyuz capsules.
Left unsaid by the article is the rational for any final choice of vehicle to use. That rational (no matter how many times someone might say something else) is actually money.
The CSA and it’s predecessor government agencies spent money on robotics and Canadarms back in the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s and has been living off that legacy ever since. If we can find a new customer that needs what is essentially a “space construction crane” then perhaps we can live off that legacy a little longer. Otherwise, their ain’t going to be many more CSA astronauts after 2012.
The CSA simply doesn’t have the money to send Canadians into orbit if they have to pay.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to get into space or participate in the upcoming next great space race. We’ll just need to start getting a little creative and that brings us to our second story this week.
According to comments made during the December 21st, 2010 edition of the Space Show with Dr. David Livingston, a long term Canadian space entrepreneur is relocating to Silicon Valley.
Dr. Robert Richards feels that “the place to be for commercial space is the United States at this point in time and the epicenter of commercial space is the west coast of the United States.” According to Richards, the “mind-set” for funding and implementing space focused activities is migrating north from southern California into the cradle of the tech revolution.
He does say that one of his most rewarding times was made possible through the backing of the CSA for his work on the Phoenix Mars Mission but “if you take a look at the (CSA) budget, it’s only a minute fraction of what NASA gets.” As well, according to Richards, Canada is “not a good place” to build a commercial space company.
Richards recently left Isle of Man based Google Lunar X-prize competitor Odyssey Moon to form a second, American based competitor, Moon Express, which is competing for for the same prize.
According to Richards, there are several NASA contracts available for US based X-prize competitors that Odyssey Moon was not eligible for and the creation of the US based Moon Express allowed Richards to solve his own personal Kobayashi Maru test of character (although, for those of us who aren’t up on our Star Trek terms, he’s not all that terribly clear on the specifics of his challenge).
All in all, it’s a fascinating interview and well worth listing to for insight on the business and scientific environment in Canada and the US.
Global Canadian satellite provider Telesat also looks set to move south over the next little while according to the December 15th, 2010 article on the Advanced Television blog titled “Intelsat and Eutelsat want Canada’s Telesat.”
According to the article:

(US based) Intelsat is now the front runner in the bidding battle to buy the Canadian satellite operator, and is seen to be ahead in the process thanks to a complex restructuring which will therefore comply with US anti-monopoly regulations.

It was only 18 months ago that I suggested that “Telesat HQ Likely to Remain In Ottawa Just Down the Street from Golf Course” so I guess changes are happening at a fast and furious pace these days.
Anyway, that’s all for this week in space for Canada.

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  • Marc Boucher

    A couple of points: When Canada decides to put up another astronaut there might be up to three options; US commercial as you’ve stated, Russia and NASA via Orion. The later two options will be more expensive than the US commercial options. The Russians are currently charging $56 million per seat on the Soyuz and although there is talk that will go down a bit, it’s still the most expensive option. What a seat will cost on NASA Orion is TBD but you can bet it won’t be cheap with all the bureaucracy involved. Just reading the just released “Commercial Crew Transportation System Certification Requirements for NASA Low Earth Orbit Missions” for any commercial entity performing a NASA mission and you will understand why it will not be cheap. However US commercial entities like SpaceX don’t have to adhere the NASA certification requirements when performing non-NASA missions. The FAA will no doubt impose their requirements but it will most likely not be as burdensome as NASA’s. This translates into a cheaper cost for the customer, how much cheaper is to be determined, but Bigelow Aerospace is offering with Boeing a seat to the future Bigelow space station for $25 million. That’s half the price of a Soyuz flight and you can bet that’s cheaper than NASA will be able to offer. SpaceX pricing is still to be determined but it will be most likely be equal to cheaper than what Bigelow/Boeing are offering.
    With respect to Bob Richard’s remark that is Canada is “not a good place” to build a commercial company I would disagree to some extent. Any commercial space business must compete on an international market unless it’s business geared solely to the domestic market working primarily for the government. Having said that a Canadian business can setup a US corporation to do business there, which is what successful companies like Neptec, MDA, COM DEV etc. have all done.

  • Dave Huntsman

    I also took note of Bob Richards’ comment on Canada during the interview. I think maybe before defending the current environment, our Canadian friends should be asking specifically: Is he right? How can we improve?
    These aren’t trivial questions. For example, one reason Orbital Sciences gave for investing in a launch infrastructure in Virginia is that Virginia has explicitly passed laws making Virginia a more space-development friendly place. In different ways so has Florida and New Mexico. So has the Isle of Wight. So an honest question might be: What has Canada done, explicitly, to help encourage space entrepreneurship lately? Or is it just going to let things coast, and Assume everything is fine?

  • Marc Boucher

    You make a good point Dave. The answer is not a simple one. Canada has the Space Technologies Development Program run by the Canadian Space Agency but it is limited.
    Provinces sometimes make sweet deals as Quebec did recently for MDA. They provided a grant and loan in return for MDA expanding their Ste. Anne de Bellevue facility. This will create many new engineering jobs.
    More could be done and in a future article I will address this.

  • Dave Huntsman

    I hope you do come back to it, Marc. There’s little enough true investigative space journalism going on in our countries as it is. Something that looked at what places like Isle of Wight, Virginia, Florida, New Mexico, etc.; trying to intelligently draw some lessons from them (not a trivial task in itself!!), and see what might be appropriate to Canada – and what might not be.
    My only caution is that when the Development Departments of States and Provinces are doling out incentives to existing big companies, whether it be an auto plant in Ohio or MDA in Quebec, that’s different than trying to attract folks who will help to create a new industry. Virginia, Florida, New Mexico- those folks aren’t ‘just’ pro-job creation; they actually are pro-space development as well. And that leads to looking at the question in a different way.
    Within NASA we’ve got a team who has worked with industry to explicitly define what are explicit barriers to developing several different new space industries; e.g., space servicing; propellant refueling; etc. Most of the most interesting observations we’ve gotten have come from inviting companies in, one by one, to give their honest opinion to our government teams, confidentially if need be.
    I think Canada could do something similar, in its own way. Show the Elon’s and the Bigelows – and the nascent Elon’s and Bigelows in Canada – that Canada, both Federal and provincial level, are truly interested in hearing about what space entrepreneurs think Canada could do differently to home-grow its own more than they are; rather than the standard attracting current big industry. Just a thought.

  • Chuck Black

    Hi Dave and Marc,
    I’ve done some previous articles on what the Canadian Space Agency could be doing and how it compares with other jurisdictions starting with “Canadian Space Agency Provides “No Dedicated Programs” to Support Small Aerospace Firms” at http://acuriousguy.blogspot.com/2009/07/canadian-space-agency-provides-no.html and the follow-on article “OK, So Maybe the CSA Does Provide Some Support for Small Aerospace Firms…”
    The general consensus of the people I know in Canada seems to be that we could put together a Canadian equivalent of the US Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and this would help Canadian space focused start-ups and plus serve as a reasonable starting point to encourage increased Canadian innovation.
    However, as for the broader issues of Canadian science and technology strategy a lot of that is wrapped up around Canadian policy decisions made back in the 1960’s.
    For a bit of background in this area, you might want to take a look at “The “Three Kings” of Canadian Commercial Space” at http://acuriousguy.blogspot.com/2010/05/three-kings-of-canadian-space.html.
    I agree that we need to start comparing jurisdictions and approaches in much the same way as the aerospace industry or any other business does before locating a facility.
    I hope this is helpful.

  • Chuck Black

    My apologies,
    The link for the article titled “OK, So Maybe the CSA Does Provide Some Support for Small Aerospace Firms…” is at http://acuriousguy.blogspot.com/2009/07/normal-0-false-false-false.html

  • Bob Richards

    Marc, Dave, Chuck et al…
    I knew I’d ruffle some proud Canadian goose feathers when I stated that Canada was not a good place to build a commercial space company.
    My comments weren’t intended to be derisive but a wake up call to the bureaucratic types in Montreal and Ottawa who take sleepy refuge in the status quo and blame a lack of funding for lack of progress. The Canada space program is threatened by a dangerous complacency with outdated models.
    As NASA’s move toward commercial partnerships have shown, it doesn’t take much funding to leverage a lot of progress from the entrepreneurial private space sector. The U.S. tax payer is being rewarded handsomely for NASA’s innovative contracting models. NASA’s COTS, ILDD, CCDev and SBIR programs are all proving to be hugely successful at leveraging the U.S. tax payer dollar with private capital and displaced risk. These programs will continue to embarrassingly out-pace any cost-plus contract model that favors politics over productivity.
    It’s encouraging to see Steve MacLean not ruling out the role of commercial space transportation for CSA astronauts. Otherwise the future could see private Canadian astronauts travelling to space on commercial providers while CSA astronauts remain grounded.
    But Canada has a long way to go to attract (or keep) its own commercial space entrepreneurs. Marc’s argument of access to international markets has some merit, implicitly citing the constrictions of U.S. export laws. However, at this early stage, you first need access to a dynamic coupling of motivated capital and incentivized markets to get your commercial space enterprise off the launch pad. In the realm of commercial space culture, the U.S. is the friendliest place on Earth, giving birth to the now lucrative model of commercial satcom. (Canada played an important role in this history… perhaps food for thought.)
    As NASA’s commercial crew & cargo and lunar data buy programs are showing, there is a lot that can be done with public-private partnerships in space development. What you need is the legal structure for a true partnership, and CSA doesn’t have much latitude here – current programs are chained to old models and not able to excite the private risk capital necessary for real growth (at least in my experience).
    A good partnership between government and commercial space entrepreneurs begins with mutual respect and needs to start at the top, as it did with the White House space policies that gave rise to NASA COTS and new investment capital responding to incentivized commercial space markets.
    In 2011 we will see the momentum of this model grow while valuations increase, breeding more excitement in the angel and VC investment communities and opening up new opportunities for more entrepreneurs… it’s an exothermic reaction that has unlimited potential once sparked.
    ~Bob

  • Brian Feeney

    Canada has somewhere between 80% to 100% of the engineering and management talent to carry out the development of just about any space technology program, private commercial, manned flight or otherwise. That is not enough though and as Bob Richards put it, “…you first need access to a dynamic coupling of motivated capital and incentivized markets to get your commercial space enterprise off the launch pad.”
    What Canada should have done already that was done years ago by NASA et all, was to get publicly behind the emerging “New Space” sector and their (then) lofty goals which included human spaceflight, space stations etc.
    NASA et all did this without first putting up any funding. The hard slugging US space entrepreneurs either dug into their own pocket books (some quite deep) or pounded the pavement for investors as was and still is the case with the growing and successful thus far, XCOR – other examples are not listed for brevity.
    That initial unfunded public support for the industry helped to reduce fears that the private sector could not do what NASA typically does for several multiples the private sector cost.
    The CSA, Ministry’s of Industry, Commerce et all have been all but silent on the topic for years. We don’t need money from the government. What we need is the Prime Minister on down to stand on high and declare megaphone in hand the New Space industry to be one of the important and vital parts of Canada’s future technology growth and manufacturing sector (read jobs, capital inflow, paying for health care…).
    Follow that up with CSA leadership and Minister’s pounding out the importance of grabbing a foothold in this new industry through our emerging young companies. Savvy entrepreneurs will find the capital. The business environment is as important to fund raising as is the business plan.
    For the moment there is little reason to be in Canada for such a venture when capital won’t listen. With all the US company progress in this area, there is more than enough to go on to “get behind it”.
    All that said and I didn’t ask the government for a nickel, just public support which is what I’ve been saying for years. IMHO the Canadian Space Commerce Association – CSCA – should have one and only only goal for 2011, that being to accomplish the loudest and widest possible government support for this new industry.
    “The 21st Century is the Century of Space”. If Canada does not act fast it will lose its chance to be on the leading edge of the wave.