Sunday, April 20, 2014

CSA President Walt Natynczyk Pops-up and Looks Around

          by Chuck Black

Nine months after formally stepping into the role of Canadian Space Agency (CSA) president in August 2013, retired Canadian Forces (CF) Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) General Walt Natynczyk has finally begun providing details on the direction he's been tasked to take the agency. But the media response to this new openness suggests that there are many questions still to be addressed.

"The General" highlighting important drivers behind "Canada's space policy framework" in Montreal on April 15th. As outlined in the April 15th, 2014 article "Walter Natynczyk à Montréal: avenir du Canada dans l’espace et Russie," these drivers include sovereignty, security and  national prosperity, plus the creation of a "vigorous" economy derived from space sector innovation and international collaboration. Photo c/o Nicolas Laffont/ 

In a series of articles related to coverage of his April 15th, 2014 appearance at the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations (MCFR) to speak on the topic of "A Strategic Vision for the Future of Canada in Space," Natynczyk responded frankly and publicly on a variety of topics.

But the specifics of the answers aren't entirely a glowing endorsement of the CSA or of its ability to follow-through with its proposed role as outlined in "Canada's space policy framework," the Federal government position paper announced by Industry Minister James Moore on February 7th, 2014 and most recently discussed in the April 13th, 2014 post "Power-Points from the February 25th Canadian Space Agency Meeting."

For example, the April 16th, 2014 Canadian Press article "Tensions with Russia not affecting space station: Canadian Space Agency," quoted Natynczyk as stating that Canada continues to work with "all its partners involved in the space station," which include the United States, Russia, Europe and Japan without noting that the final decision to continue on with International Space Station (ISS) activities is primarily a political decision, which likely won't be made at the CSA level.

As outlined in the April 7th, 2014 post "The Crimean Crisis and Canadian Aerospace Activities," other Canadian aerospace and space partnerships have indeed been derailed or curtailed due to the Crimean crisis. The April 19th, 2014 NetNews Ledger article "Canadian businesses should prepare for broader sanctions against Russia" has suggested that further sanctions and more disruption could be around the corner.

International relations might not be the only external constraint on CSA activities. There might also be budget concerns.

For example, the April 15th, 2014 QMI article "Canada to focus on payloads, not rockets, says space boss" quoted Natynczyk as stating that it's cheaper to rent rocket rides from corporations or other space agencies rather than start a launch program from scratch and that "the CSA's budget isn't the only federal money that can be used for extra-terrestrial projects."

The article also quoted Natynczyk's boss, Industry Minister Moore, who said that the CSA has "more than enough money to move forward," but the overall focus of the article on CSA budget concerns suggests that there are those who doubt the official statements in this matter. 

The most wide ranging interview was the April 20th, 2014 Canadian Press article "Canadian Space Agency boss insists his appointment does not spell militarization," which focused on Natynczyk's previous military job and the effects it could have on his current appointment. According to the article, the government retains full confidence in Natynczyk and his abilities to manage the CSA.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Commercializing the Winners of the Space Apps Challenge

          by Brian Orlotti

In its first two years, the Toronto Space Apps Challenge, held this year at the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, ON from April 11th - 13th and part of the larger NASA International Space Apps Challenge, has established itself as a crucible for the commercialization of applications leveraging NASA's extensive collection of spacecraft and science data.

The great hall of the Ontario Science Centre (OSC), home of the 2014 Toronto Space Apps Challenge. Photo c/o Brian Orlotti.

Now, one of the space hackathon’s NASA liaisons, in town over the weekend to attend and judge the Toronto event, is seeking a way to take things to the next level.

First held in 2012, the International Space Apps Challenge brings together coders, makers and entrepreneurs from around the world to form teams and solve various "challenges" developed by NASA. Over 48 hours, teams create software and hardware solutions to these challenges by leveraging NASA science data (be they from satellites, space probes or other assets).  In 2013, over 9,000 people in 83 cities across 44 countries took part. Through the challenge, NASA strives to foster innovation and make space exploration more visible and engaging to the public.

Challenges worked on this year by Toronto teams include:
  • Gravity Map - This challenge involved creating an app that shows the gravity force for any location on Earth, utilizing data from the European Space Agency (ESA) gravity field and steady-state ocean circulation explorer (GOCE). The Toronto team, composed of undergrad University of Waterloo students, decided to code their app for the Pebble smartwatch platform, which seemed appropriate since Pebble sponsored the Toronto event and provided loaner units for teams to develop on. The completed application would enable the Pebble watch to show how high you could jump at a particular spot on Earth vs other planets as well as how fast you could fall.
  • Asteroid Imagery Sharing - In this challenge, the teams designed an open-source platform for sharing crowd-sourced asteroid imagery and observed near Earth objects to enable ordinary people around the world to identify and characterize potentially dangerous asteroids. The Toronto team tackling this challenge, made up of web developers and York University Business students, developed an "AstroMap" application to harness data taken from different sources including Google Sky (which utilizes data from NASA plus amateur astronomers) and the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Minor Planet Center. The team envisioned their application as an educational tool for use in schools.
According to NASA open innovation program manager Beth Beck, who attended the Toronto event as a judge, the Space Apps Challenge was created by former NASA Open Innovation Program members Nicholas Skytland, Ali Llewellyn, and Sean Herron to fulfill a White House mandate (later extended to other US agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency), to make US government data available to the public for use. This released data, when promoted through mechanisms like the Space Apps Challenge, would encourage the development of a global community to drive innovation and create new uses for NASA derived data. Beck and her bosses at NASA anticipate that this "solver" community would give rise to new companies and industries, but could also be incorporated back into NASA’s own programs.

Beth Beck with author Brian Orlotti at the OSC on April 13th. 
In an interview during the Toronto event, Beck said that since the contest’s global success has proven the effectiveness of the open innovation program model, she wants to add layers of complexity to the event in order to achieve more.

For example, the length of the contest could be extended from three days to a week in order to give the teams more time to develop their projects. In addition, NASA is developing an open source software portal, similar to the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) open catalog as described in the March 13th, 2014 blog post "DARPA Goes Open Source as Others Beg for Government Assistance," in order to provide a central location for the projects created by Space App Challenge teams.

Beck was asked if there was any mechanism in place to connect the winning teams with investors and intellectual property experts so as to enable them to bring their innovations to market. She stated that although NASA does not directly perform such services, NASA does send team videos to investors, provides contact lists to all contest participants and gathers the top teams to pitch their ideas on stage (“TED with teeth” as she called it). Beck also said that NASA was open to working with Canadian investors and IP experts.

She also spoke about a related initiative. Called LAUNCH, it's a partnership between NASA, the US Department of State, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and Nike. LAUNCH’s purpose is to serve as a global incubator for ideas, technologies and programs that make tangible impacts on society by connecting innovators with investors. “Innovator Speed dating,” is what Beck called it.

Drawing on her PhD studies in the ‘practice of collaboration,’ Beck provided perhaps the best insight into the Space App Challenge’s success.
Brian Orlotti.
We are messy people…creativity is messy. Order doesn’t always get you where you want to go.
Chaotic creativity and orderly execution. The International Space Apps Challenge is artistry and engineering both.

Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and the treasurer of the Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA).

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Power-Points from the February 25th Canadian Space Agency Meeting

          by Chuck Black

The Concordia Institute of Aerospace Design and Innovation (CIADI) has posted presentations from what the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has billed as its 1st "Annual Space Summit," which was held at CSA headquarters in Longueuil, PQ, on February 25th.

As outlined on the March 24th, 2014 post on the CIADI website, the CSA event focused on the specifics of the Federal government strategy to implement Canada's space policy framework, first announced by industry minister James Moore on February 7th, 2014.

But while the broad outlines of the day's activities were well known and previously discussed in a variety of publications (including the February 24th, 2014 blog post "the Casablanca of Space Conferences"), the devil is always in the details.

Walt Natynczyk. Photo c/o CSA.
Fortunately the people responsible for filling in those details were present for the event. They included Col. Andre Dupuis, the director of space development at the Department of National Defence (DND), who spoke on the topic of Integrating Space in Canadian Forces Operations; John T. Weaver from the Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) Ottawa research centre who discussed the DRDC Space Science and Technology Program; Prashant Shukle, the director general of the Canada Centre for Mapping and Earth Observation, who assessed issues involved with Innovating to Increase the Impact of Earth Observation (EO) & Geomatics in Canada; Michael Manore, the director of monitoring strategies for the Meteorological Service of Canada (MSC) who assessed the Space Activities and Priorities of Environment Canada and even Walter Natynczyk, the generally publicity shy CSA president who dropped in for an overview of how the CSA intends to Implement Canada's Space Policy Framework.

The day also included workshops on a number of themes including the commercialization of government funded technologies, the development of innovation processes and key industry capabilities, the future of Canadian contributions to the International Space Station (ISS) and other space exploration initiatives, how the Federal government perceives its role in Earth observation and satellite services, how the Federal government perceives that government, industry and universities will work together to encourage innovation plus the role of stakeholder in the process and how to manage them.

A cursory reading of the day's presentations suggests an almost complete acceptance of the recommendations of the David Emerson led Aerospace Review as outlined in the December 12th, 2012 post "What the Space Volume of the Aerospace Review Actually Says." 

But there is also at least the suggestion that CSA still perceives itself as being able to manage and influence the processes related to Canadian space activities.

As outlined in the February 15th, 2010 post "Ottawa Citizen: "Where did that Long Term Space Plan Go?" that perception might just be an artifact of an earlier era.