Shuttle and Avro Arrow. Credit NASA/DND Canada.

The Space Shuttle Retirement and the Avro Analogy

Last Thursday NASA held a series of media briefings for the upcoming launch on November 1st of the Space Shuttle Discovery, its 39th and final flight. After this launch there is only one scheduled launch left, tentatively set for late February. There may be an additional flight in June or next fall but not all of the funding has been appropriated. As the Shuttle program winds down, workforce layoffs have already started. It is in this context that John Shannon, NASA’s Space Shuttle Program Manager, made the following Avro analogy in responding to a question about the reduction in workforce;

When that program (Avro) was cancelled in Canada in 1959 probably the biggest beneficiary of that cancellation was the Space Task Group at Langley which eventually came to the Manned Spacecraft Center which is now the Johnson Space Center to execute the Apollo program. Some of the very highest leaders of that program came from the cancellation of that Avro Arrow program up in Canada. And I see the same thing happening here as we release this incredibly talented Shuttle workforce that has its background in operational spacecraft. It’s going to benefit commercial spacecraft companies, it’s going to benefit aviation companies, it’s going to benefit electronics companies. I think across the entire spectrum of industry, that folks are going to go out and benefit from it. And this workforce is greatly desired, they are finding jobs even in this incredibly difficult economy. So I would say this is not your typical workforce we’re trying to place.

Fast forward 50 fifty years from when the Avro program was cancelled to 2009 when the world’s economies were in their worst shape since the depression. Governments around the world were pumping money into their economies to stimulate them, Canada not exempted, even though our economy stood stronger than most. At a time when the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) was already seeing its budget shrinking came the one time $110 million stimulus money to spend over three years. It’s too early to know if this stimulus money will have a beneficial long term affect but in the short term it has helped.

One example is that of Engineering Services Inc. (ESI), a small technology company based out of Toronto. While ESI has been an innovator in several robotic technologies, working in the space sector was not among its areas of work. In the fall of 2009 ESI bid and won two contracts from the CSA for the development of a Micro-Rover Platform with Tooling Arm and the development of a Small Manipulator Arm (including visual servoing). Both of these technologies useful on planetary rovers. The stimulus money thus allowed ESI to do fundamental research and development (R&D) in the space sector, something they might not have done otherwise. The thought being that these R&D contracts would not only help ESI do business in a new industry sector but just as important, it could use the knowledge gained from this R&D to help its existing core products.

Many other small and medium sized companies have benefited from the stimulus money. And while the investment made in these companies and technologies appears to be helping the CSA better make its case that Canada can provide important technologies needed for future space exploration which might be done in greater collaboration with other nations, it is also helping develop technologies that will benefit other industry sectors.

The Avro Arrow program cancellation in 1959 immediately made over 14,000 Canadians unemployed and affected the aerospace and space systems sectors for decades. Many of Canada’s brightest science and technology minds of the day left the country for the United States. Canada’s loss was the U.S.’s gain. The stimulus money the government has provided to the CSA will run out by 2012. The Canadian Space Agency is a fundamental driver for science and technology development in Canada though its partnerships with Industry. Having planted the seed to help push industry along one can only hope that the government of the day will see that continued investments in the Canadian space sector will further benefit the economy and Canadians. The government should keep that in mind as it prepares the 2011-2012 budget and future budgets.

Editors Update: Shortly after posting our editorial we learned that ESI today received from the CSA a $3 million contract to further develop a prototype robotic arm and related technologies.

About Marc Boucher

Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactive LLC. Boucher has 20+ years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 30 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

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