Sunday, October 31, 2010

Robot Wars II: MDA Attacks!

Its audio track still hasn't been posted on the MDA website, but the Wednesday, October 27th,  Macdonald Dettwiler (MDA) third quarter conference call did occur as planned and certainly seemed full of surprises.

The biggest surprise on the call, according to the October 28th, 2010 Space News article "Robotics Business Clouds Otherwise Bright Outlook at MDA," is that the company shows strong growth right across all business units with the single exception of space robotics. According to the article:
With the coming retirement of the U.S. space shuttle and its Canadarm, MDA’s space-robotics business, one of the company’s signature product lines, will drop unless it lands a customer for its proposed satellite in-orbit servicing project...

Without a satellite-servicing contract or some other new work, MDA’s space robotics business will have to shrink in 2011 once Canadian economic-stimulus funds run out, despite the expected extension of the international space station’s operations to 2020, (MDA CEO Daniel E.) Friedmann said.
These statements seem to fly in the face of recent public comments by members of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) indicating that commercial robotics sales derived from space activities are a highly profitable and growing business.

For example, the October 31st, 2010 Canadian Press article "Canadian astronauts reflect on 10th anniversary of human life aboard space station" quotes Pierre Jean, the CSA's space station program manager as saying that Canada's investment in space robotics has already resulted in a "$5 billion dollar export business."

The Space News article then goes on to further quote MDA CEO Friedmann as stating:
The mainstay of the division is to develop new technology for space and at the moment, Canada has not come up with anything there. Without the government taking some leadership in robotics, we’ve got a problem. We’re going to shrink there next year, and we’re going to have some layoffs.
The conference call also came only one day after Christian Sallaberger, VP and Director of Space Exploration at MDA was quoted in the Hill Times policy briefing on aerospace as stating that "it’s the time to make sure that we’re not missing the boat of the next phase of space exploration” and caps a week of speculation that MDA is considering selling "all or part of the company" as outlined in my October 22nd, 2010 post "Unattributed Statements, Denials, Counter Claims and the Upcoming Conference Call."

Of course, threatening to sell portions of MDA brings back memories of 2008, when the company announced that it was selling it's space focused business to US firm Alliant Techsystems (ATK).

That sale was eventually blocked by the federal government of a variety of national security and domestic reasons and no one seems to want to go through the process again. But the current rumors, coupled with the recent statements of MDA executives do seem designed to encourage "something" to happen.

Perhaps that something is related to the CSA budget which MDA uses to fund their robotics research. According to the Hill Times article, the CSA core budget remains stable at $300-million a year which funds existing programs.

However, new programs are either funded through an additional package with $397-million allocated over five years specifically for earth observation satellites (which already mostly goes to MDA for the Radarsat program) or through a second, $110 million economic stimulus package intended to support new space exploration technologies, the next generation Canadarm and pretty much everything else that isn't already funded.

This existing $110 million economic stimulus package will also end in March 2011 and it is not expected that the federal government will allocate additional funds to extend the program. This is also where future funding for an MDA derived satellite in-orbit servicing project would likely need to come from.

But it won't, unless new funding is allocated by the federal government. 

It's possible that MDA executives have begun a semi-public lobbying effort designed to encourage the federal government to allocate further funds for MDA's newest project.

If this is true, then I guess the robotics wars have begun.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Large R&D Spenders Not Whole Story: Garneau

Canada's largest corporate research and development spenders have cut back their R&D investment by almost two per cent in fiscal 2009 from the year earlier, according to the October 27th, 2010 CBC News article "Companies cut R&D spending."

The article references data from a report titled "Canada’s Top 100 Corporate R&D Spenders 2010" which was compiled by Research Infosource Inc, a unit of Toronto-based consult firm The Impact Group.

Aerospace companies on the list include Pratt & Whitney Canada (listed as 7th in total expenditures with 13.4% of total company revenue used for R&D), Bombardier (14th in total/ 0.7% of revenue R&D), CAE (18th in total/ 7.3% revenue R&D), Honeywell Canada (38th in total/ 5.4% revenue R&D) and HĂ©roux-Devtek (98th in total/ 4.0% of revenue R&D).

Two of the "Three Kings of Canadian Commercial Space" are represented on the list with MacDonald, Dettwiler (45th in total/ 4.4% of revenue R&D) and Com Dev International (84th in total/ 7.3% of revenue R&D).

Also included on the list are quite a number of telecommunication equipment and service provides (which could reasonably be a legacy of the work started by Telesat Canada in the late 1960's) and a large number of pharma/biotech companies.

However, according to Liberal MP Marc Garneau (Westmount-Ville Marie), we shouldn't be only focusing on the big players. We should also be focusing:
... more on the R&D that is necessary in the small- and medium-sized enterprises. They're the ones that have less capital available to develop their products. They're the ones that are really trying to do serious research and development to develop a product that can be a winner.
Garneau is quoted as part of the October 25th, 2010 Hill Times article "Feds should boost R&D investment, tax incentives, to keep Canada's aerospace industry globally competitive." The article also quotes extensively from a variety of other sources, including industry and labor on the slowly declining Canadian capability to compete in the international aerospace market.

Of course, Garneau is right in his assessment that Canada concerned about innovation shouldn't be focusing only on R&D for big companies. He knows, based on his experience at the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and Carleton University, that we also need to support universities where the basic research is done and smaller firms looking to commercialize truly revolutionary ideas plus make ongoing assessments of the tax code in order to provide incentives not just for foreign companies to locate here, but also to local firms so they don't end up moving somewhere else.

With all due respect to larger companies like MDA and Com Dev, most firms currently bidding for CSA contracts are far too small to show up on any list of top R&D spending but I'm betting that quite a few of them have the potential to contribute far more to Canada's future wealth than just about anyone on this years list of Canada's top corporate spenders.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Overnight Success Plus IP Rights

You might not know it by looking at the website, but Toronto based Engineering Services Inc. (ESI) has a Canadian space focused pedigree going back to the 1970's.

In fact, from 1975 until 1981, ESI founder Dr. Andrew Goldenberg was an employee of SPAR Aerospace Ltd. which built the first Space Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (or Canadarm). Goldenberg worked mainly on the control, analysis, and design of the Canadarm and on satellite controls according to his bio on the University of Toronto Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering website, where he is now a Professor and the Director of the Robotics and Automation Laboratory (RAL) and Mechatronics Laboratory (ML).

He also remains at ESI, where he serves as CEO.
Photo: NASA (19 July 2009)
Knowing this helps to provide a little context for the recent awarding of three Canadian Space Agency (CSA) contracts to the scrappy little firm. The most recent was the October 25th, 2010 CSA announcement "Canadian Space Agency awards contract for exploration technologies" which states:
The Canadian Space Agency has awarded a contract valued at $3 million (CAD) to Engineering Services Inc. (ESI) of Toronto, Ontario, to develop prototypes of a robotic arm, control stations and exploration tools. In the coming months, these technologies will be integrated into terrestrial prototypes of lunar or martian rovers. The contract also includes an option for a second arm worth $500 000. The investment is part of the Government of Canada's 2009 Economic Action Plan and aims to accelerate the research and development of new technologies for space exploration.
The company has also been awarded two other CSA contracts for the development of a micro-rover platform with tooling arm and a small manipulator arm as outlined in this December 14th, 2009 ESI press release.

It's interesting to note that the final paragraph of the ESI press release states specifically that:
...new technologies and intellectual property retained by ESI over the course of the work will be put to new and challenging uses both in space and on the ground, strengthening ESI's position as a leader in the transfer of robotic technology to the marketplace for the benefit of Canada.
Intellectual property (IP) developed as a result of CSA contracts has traditionally not remained with CSA contractors but is instead normally assigned to the CSA Commercialization Office which provides intellectual property management and supports technology transfer.

However, this policy has generally been a failure and very few CSA advances have ever ended up being repackaged and sold commercially.

But as originally outlined by Marc Boucher in his April 28th, 2010 article "Canadian Space Agency Gives Green Light to Build Prototype Mars Rover" the intellectual property developed through this specific series of contracts will remain with the contractor and therefore could end up being be of substantial benefit to ESI as the company moves forward.

Kudo's to the CSA for making this change. Canadian companies are best positioned to commercialize any intellectual property developed from Canadian space contracts and should be allowed to do so.


COMMENTS:

From: Daniel Faber

Hi Chuck,

I hope things are well in Canada? It's good to see the blog posts again :)

Regarding your story "Overnight Success Plus IP Rights", you mention that "Intellectual property (IP) developed as a result of CSA contracts has traditionally not remained with CSA contractors". It is my understanding that this policy changes back and forth on a 5-10 year cycle.

Kieran will have more experience in this but my understanding is that sometimes they let the contractor have it (and retain a right to use it and give it to others if they don't like the work of the first company), and sometimes they keep it all in CSA.

On another note, I was in Europe recently (unfortunately I didn't get to jump over to Canada on this trip) and did the rounds of the ESA Business Incubation Centers (BIC), the ESA Investmet Forum, the IAC Entrepreneurship & Investment Committee (which I am now a member of), and the Open Sky Technology Fund (http://www.esa.int/esaMI/TTP2/SEMTZNRMTWE_0.html). There is some very interesting stuff happening over there. The basic message is 2-fold:
  1. If you want start-up money and don't mind moving to Europe & putting up with their bureaucracy, there is money attached to the BICs, and 
  2. If you have revenues of >$500K and want to expand there appears to be a LOT of money available. Having seen pitches from several start-ups there, they are about the same quality as in Canada so Canadians are definitely not at a disadvantage.
CSA should set up an ESA BIC! Worth disucssion, and might get ministerial support given what appears to be a recent push to support innovation by the govt now that most Canadian VC firms have disappeared.

Regards,
Daniel

Editors Note: I'm still having trouble posting comments and I'm not sure how to go about fixing the problem. Anyone able to assist (especially someone who knows HTML) is more than welcome to give me a call and we'll see what can be done.

Otherwise, I'll be posting comments manually so don't be shy. Send your questions, queries, concerns and comments to mr.chuck.black@gmail.com.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Unattributed Statements, Denials, Counter Claims and the Upcoming Conference Call

According to the Wednesday, October 20th, 2010 Bloomberg BusinessWeek article "Canadian Stocks Rise as Metals Rebound; Teck Resources Gains" BC business icon and Canadarm builder MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) gained 3.9 percent on the Standard & Poor’s/TSX Composite Index Wednesday after "two people with knowledge of the matter" said MDA is exploring the sale "of all or part" of the company.

By Thursday, the Vancouver Sun had taken up the story under the title "MDA stock soars on sale speculation." According to the article, MDA had issued a press release indicating that the company "is not evaluating a sale of its Systems division or any portion thereof."

The article then went on to state that "MDA also has a products group, which distributes legal, real estate, satellite and aerial data. The statement did not address the products group, nor did it address the notion of the company as a whole being sold."

But by Friday, the Vancouver Sun had announced that the iconic "Canadarm maker announces sale of service contracts:"
One day after denying rumours the company was on the block, Richmond based MacDonald Dettwiler announced the sale of 11 long-term managed-service contracts for $4.7 million. The contracts operate MDA-delivered solutions that deliver back office service for the provision of land and property data to United Kingdom Local Authorities, the company reported in a media release.
Oddly enough, very few people seem to have picked up on a second MDA story of the week. As outlined in the October 21st, 2010 Commercial Space Watch article "MDA expands RADARSAT-2 information solution with operational customer:"
MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (TSX: MDA), a provider of essential information solutions, announced today that it has signed two contracts in excess of $3 million (CAD) with Collecte Localisation Satellites (CLS), France, to provide RADARSAT data and ground information solutions.
Even odder is the fact that there is not just one but multiple stories covering recent MDA Product division activities including "MDA to deliver land information to confidential customer" from CWN and "MDA to provide property claims information solution to a Top 5 Homeowners Insurance Underwriter" from the Digital Journal website that the traditional media sites seem not to have picked up on.

If I had to take a guess at what was going on (and could keep a straight face while typing "two people with knowledge of the matter") I might even suggest that MDA is dealing with under performing assets in their Products division (which distributes legal, real estate, satellite and aerial data) by selling them off and then focusing on new opportunities with a better potential return on investment.

This approach contrasts with ComDev International ex-CEO John Keating who responded to his firms revenue shortfalls earlier this year by doing nothing and getting fired.

While the federal government previously blocked the sale of the MDA Systems division (which sells satellite, robotics and defence technology) to Alliant TechSystems (ATK) in 2008, it seems to have no particular attachment to the MDA Products division as a whole or to any specific activities within the division.

It's also worth noting that the two contracts just announced with CLS will likely be booked as revenue for the MDA Products division as will the $4.7 million sale of 11 long-term managed-service contracts which should help shore up the divisional bottom line.

Whatever else we might think, it's reasonable to expect real information and some context for the events of the last few days to come out next week when MDA plans to release its third quarter 2010 financial results as part of their quarterly earnings conference call.

MDA president/ CEO Daniel Friedmann and Executive Vice President/ CFO Anil Wirasekara are both expected to be on the Wednesday, October 27, 2010 call which will be Webcast live and then archived at:
http://www.mdacorporation.com/corporate/investor/events.cfm.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Ideas on Canada's Future in Space

For those of us needing a quick reminder, the 2010 Canadian Space Summit is being held at the Lord Elgin hotel in downtown Ottawa, Ontario from November 19th - 21st and will focus on "2010: A New Canadian Space Odyssey."

Mark Boucher, my editor over at Space.ref.ca (where I write the "This Week in Space for Canada" column) is running the commercial space activities track and has promised me that a fascinating group of present and future space industry movers and shakers will be in attendance.

He's also convinced me to put together a presentation for the summit which I've tentatively titled "Two Billion Dollars for the Canadian Space Agency: Historical Antecedents, Available Options and a Realistic Appraisal of What Can be Done."

My starting point will be a comment Canadian Space Agency (CSA) president Steve MacLean made on May 12th, during a presentation to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology (INDU) where he said:
“You know what? If you want to do a first rate (job) on some of the examples (of potential CSA projects) I gave you, you are looking at an additional budget of $2 billion over five years. That will put us at the table. That will drive innovation."
My intent is to put a little bit of context around just what that $2 billion could actually buy for Canada. I'll talk about where that money might come from, the chances of it being allocated by the Canadian government and how our current challenges compare with those surrounding previous Canadian long term space plans (after all, there have been several, starting with the original Chapman Report).

Of course, there are probably others with better qualifications to engage in this sort of dialogue and one of those experts is certainly Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who is scheduled to to be a part of International Space Station (ISS) Expedition 34 crew and will be commanding Expedition 35 in 2012 and 2013.

Here's what he has to say about our space future.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Perils of Being a Niche Player

No one in Canada knows the essential tools of crafting public policy better than the "aero" component of the Canadian aerospace industry. Just take a look at how they've defined the current big, sexy industry story which, oddly enough, has absolutely nothing to do with rockets, Radarsat's, Martian rovers or long term space plans.

Instead, it's all about sixty-five "first-strike shock-and-awe" Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter jets the Stephen Harper government committed to buying back in July 2010 to replace Canada's aging fleet of McDonnell Douglas CF-18's.

The final decision over whether to move forward with this purchase will be almost entirely a political decision, heavily dependent on who wins the next election and fueled on all sides by financial arguments wrapped around tedious Canadian tax code provisions, various regional economic development programs and potential "hi-tech" employment opportunities.

From http://gizmodo.com/5021998/build-your-own-f+35-lightning-ii-fighter-jet

Absent from the debate will be any substantive discussion of the F-35 capabilities and whether the purchase is appropriate for Canadian requirements.

For example, the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (AIAC) pointed out in their October 15th, 2010 press release subtly titled "Cancellation of F-35 purchase threatens Canadian jobs" that:
The AIAC disagrees strongly with the claims made today by critics to the effect that Canada has nothing to lose in cancelling the current deal. According to Dr. (Claude) Lajeunessse, President and CEO of AIAC: “The contracts signed by our companies for the F-35 make it clear that countries must buy the planes if they want to participate in supplying, building and sustaining the entire production of the F-35.”
The AIAC isn't stupid.

They care about our military having the right tools for their mission just as much as any of the rest of us but they also understand the simple fact that Canadian's are niche players in the F-35 project. Our role is to come on board for subcontract work after the project requirements have been set by the prime contractors and to buy the plane when it's ready.

So it doesn't really matter whether the F-35 fulfills our military needs just so long as AIAC members specifically (and Canadian in general) get the jobs and the economic advantages that act as selling incentives for project participation.

And these incentives are indeed, quite substantial.

According to the paper "Reinventing Canadian Defence Procurement: A View from the Inside" by Alan S. Williams, $490 million USD in contracts have been awarded to 144 Canadian companies, universities, and government facilities for the period 2002 to 2012, as a direct result of Canadian participation in the project. This total is expected to grow to $1.1 billion USD in the period between 2013 and 2023, with a total potential estimated value to Canada of between $4.8 billion to $6.8 billion USD as a direct result of Canadian participation in the project.

Of course, total Canadian government costs for the acquisition are expected to total in the area of $16 billion over the life of the F-35, which doesn't work out to a net financial positive for Canada, but the financial incentives are expected to come early in the program and should lead to new capabilities and opportunities which can be used later to develop new markets and perhaps offset some of the long term costs.

At least, that's what the advocates of the program are hoping.

Canada a small player in the much larger field of F-35 partners. The program has three levels of international participation with the United Kingdom participating as the lone level one partner, Italy and the Netherlands contributing as level two partners and Canada, Turkey, Australia, Norway and Denmark committed to level three partnership. Other participants in the project include Israel and Singapore who are formally committed as security cooperation participants.

Canada does have the advantage of participating in the program from the start and likely does have some small input into design and capabilities but the F-35 is built to US specs for a US mission using (mostly) US money. It's unlikely that the American's will make significant modifications in response to Canadian requirements.

For those of us who would like to focus, at least a little, on the reasonable questions regarding F-35 capabilities, it's worthwhile checking out the Airliners.net Military Aviation and Space forum under the topic "F-35 a possible CF-18 replacement for Canada" or the Air Power Australia article "F-35 JSF: Can It Meet Canada's Needs?"

But for those of us more interested in how the debate is framed by the decision to be a niche player, here's a second example from the October 14th, 2010 Canadian Press article "Purchase of F-35 fighter jets a bad idea, says policy centre" which states that:
"A report released by the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says the multibillion-dollar purchase isn’t based on the country’s real needs. Liberal MPs agreed, saying they will kill the deal if they get the opportunity."
According to the article, Industry Minister Tony Clement said the liberal promise to kill the deal threatens jobs and the well-being of the aerospace industry. “What aerospace workers in Canada need is a government committed to securing their jobs, not putting those jobs at risk with partisan antics” he said in a statement.

Notice again how the actual F-35 capabilities and Canadian military requirements are of only secondary importance to the industrial and job related needs in much the same way that the discussions around canceling the (still not quite dead yet) US Constellation human spaceflight program never really involved actual requirements for human spaceflight.

There's nothing essentially wrong with being a niche player or focusing on economic development. It builds good relationships with your neighbors, creates jobs and capabilities plus helps you learn things from others which you might not otherwise pick up. Sometimes, but not always, there are even tangible financial benefits.

But it doesn't always move forward Canadian interests and it might not be our role of choice in every instance.

Canadians on the "space" side of the aerospace industry know that, someday, someone, somewhere is going to begin moving forward again to define Canadian space interests either through a new long term space plan or through some other mechanism.

The present Canadian Space Agency (CSA) policy seems to want to position Canadian companies as niche players with narrow, specific expertise useful for larger, collaborative projects.

This role is not the only choice for Canada? It may not even be the best.

Monday, October 11, 2010

NASA Authorization Bill Signed

It's Columbus Day in the USA and Thanksgiving in Canada but neither one of those holidays seems to have deterred U.S. President Barack Obama from finally signing into law a three-year NASA authorization bill on October 11th.

The bill, formally known as the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (S. 3729), is widely acknowledged as setting a new course for the American human spaceflight program according to the October 11th, 2010 Space News article, "President Obama Signs NASA Authorization Bill."

However,  according to the October 8th, 2010 article in the Bay Area Citizen titled "NASA bill almost didn’t pass," it took an intense 72-hour Texas based bipartisan drive to muster the 2/3rd vote necessary in the US Congress to pass the legislation so the US President could sign it into law. The article states that the focus of this last minute congressional drive was the need to avoid massive Texas aerospace industry layoffs.

But of course, everyone knows that the final financial battles are still to be played out.

Although the bill is considered to have passed overwhelmingly and received broad bipartisan support with the budget mandate covering the next three years, there are a great many gaps in the final document still to be dealt with. For example, according to this October 11th, 2010 post on the Space Politics blog:
... the fact that the president is signing the bill isn’t surprising, but what’s important in the near term is that it starts the clock on a number of studies due over the next several months, even as the agency waits for appropriators to act on funding the agency for FY11.
The Huntsville Times is a little more blunt with their October 11th, 2010 article titled "Obama signing NASA law today, but funding still isn't assured" which states that funding this new vision:
which includes a new heavy-lift rocket to be developed in Huntsville, is anything but assured, according to a press conference today. Funding still has to pass in what NASA supporter Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., predicted will be a "tough" lame duck session of Congress after the November midterm elections.
Smart Canadian space focused companies are going to be watching the next session of congress very closely indeed in order to see the way the wind is blowing over our long term and (up until recently) quite reliable space traveling partner.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Funding "Rocket Science"

As outlined in my June 19th, 2009 post "Venture Capital and New Space Investments" the venture capitalists who provided seed funding for so many other industries have so far stayed away from commercial space activities (with the notable exception of Space-X).

Part of the reason for this, according to the July 26th post on the Space Busine$$ Blog titled "5 out of 100 - Deal with It!" is that for every 100 companies a venture capital firm invests in, only five or so ever make a profit and most of the rest will be total write offs (the VC's will still make money overall despite the fact that 95% were losers but need a minimum of 100 companies within the portfolio in order to mitigate risk).

With so few quality space firms in which to invest, the author suggests structuring companies less like defense contractors and more like Silicon Valley start-ups (or film and video production houses) by establishing separate companies for each product or service.

But in Canada, that strategy might not work because our venture capitalists are staying away from everything, not just the space focused firms.
No one really knows why but it's so bad here that venture capital firms are in danger of becoming an "irrelevant source of financing" according to the October 8th, 2010 post on the Canada.com website "Weakness in Canada's venture-capital system at `crisis levels.'" The article quotes John Ruffolo, with business consulting firm Deloitte as stating "This persistent weakness in the country's venture capital ecosystem has now reached crisis levels and it has serious implications for the future of our technology sector and the future of Canada."

According to the Deloitte website, the firm sponsors a variety of entrepreneur awards including the Deloitte Technology Fast 50 technology awards, Canada's 50 Best Managed Companies which focuses on Canadian-owned and managed private companies with revenues over $10 million and Canada’s Outstanding CEO of the Year so you'd think they know what they're talking about.

But it does sound grim for Canadian companies and innovation.

Even in the United States, the venture capital industry is in the midst of massive changes as outlined by entrepreneur Naval Ravikant in his recent keynote presentation at the Capital Factory’s demo day.



Ravikant's primary point is that venture capital industry is a business, open to pressure from clients and attack by start-ups with disruptive new business models and technologies just like any other business. Ravikant also suggests that traditional VC firms are likely to respond to these business pressures by splitting into service organizations (similar in size and function to the members of the Canadian Association of Business Incubators or the Alliance for Commercialization of Canadian Technologies) and smaller pocketed angel investors (which in Canada, are mostly members of the National Angel Capital Organization) who will combine into groups to fund new projects.

These service models also mimic software and media focused industries (where masses of separately incorporated individuals with specific expertise come together to create films under the banner of small firms often acting as agents for a other firms in order to multiple investors from losses). They are also in stark contrast to most of our aerospace industry where larger firms depend on one or two "anchor" clients to fund ongoing operations.

This might be the secret to future Canadian entrepreneurial success. We should follow in the footsteps of our fleet footed American cousins by breaking up both our start-ups and support and financing mechanisms into smaller and more nimble components.

And some of them can even be space focused.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

DEXTRE Corner Cutting, Com Dev Deal Making and IAC Storytelling

Anyone who works in space focused industries has just got to know that more time, effort and money is spent proposing scientific experiments and making proposals about how things should be done than is ever spent on the actual doing of things.

That's why we have organizations like the International Astronautical Federation which just finished up their 61st International Astronautical Congress (IAS 2010) through the Czech Space Office of the Czech Republic.

IAC events provide a chance for people with ideas and airfare to peer review their projects and plans, which mostly means that they run their ideas up the flagpole to see if someone able to fund them will stand up and salute.

Here are a couple of quick Canadian focused commercial space news stories percolating about and among the IAC 2010 attendees:
"the Hisdesat investment is the second trans-Atlantic tie-up on space-based Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) in less than a week. On Sept. 28, Orbcomm of Ft. Lee, N.J., announced it had contracted with OHB Technology of Germany and OHB’s LuxSpace subsidiary of Luxembourg to provide two small satellites for Orbcomm’s AIS service, which is expected to accelerate with the launch, set for 2011, of Orbcomm’s 18 AIS-equipped machine-to-machine messaging satellites."
  • And finally, according to the September 30th, 2010 Space News article "Common Exploration Plan will be Slow in the Making" the worlds principal space-faring nations, which have spent the past three years talking about a common exploration strategy through their activities in the International Space Exploration Coordinating Group (ISECG), seem to have very few actual activities or accomplishments they can attribute to those conversations, except perhaps for one Canadian based bright spot in the form of Gilles Leclerc, director-general for space exploration at the CSA. Leclerc is quoted in the article as crediting the ISECG with helping to shape the Canadian government’s decision to invest $100 million over three years into robotic technologies. According to the article, Leclerc also said the ISECG work on lunar exploration has helped Canada to position itself as “a niche player” in future space exploration missions.

I'm not so sure that I totally agree with Monsieur Leclercs comments (and I'm actually rather hoping that he was misquoted by Space News).

My understanding has always been that the Canadian government decided to put extra money into space activities specifically to maintain Canadian access and control over the Radarsat I, Radarsat II and the follow-on Radarsat Constellation program when Canadian prime contractor Macdonald Dettwiler (MDA) attempted to sell the space components of it's business to US based Alliant Techsystems (ATK) in 2008.

Perhaps our traveling CSA director-general for space exploration will provide a little more context on his comments over the next little while.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Man Builds Spacecraft, Takes Pictures!

It's not difficult to build a spacecraft and if you don't believe me, just ask Luke Geissbuhler. He even took pictures.


Homemade Spacecraft from Luke Geissbuhler on Vimeo.

Geisbuhler is a photographer who used commercially available camera equipment, an I-phone and a hand-warmer to film what happens in space according to the press release "Go Pro Hero HD camera used to film outer space" on the Prokit video production website.
Luke Geissbuhler created a miniature spacecraft in order to view footage, using the Go Pro Hero HD camera placed in a Styrofoam box as his recording tool.

The photographer put an iPhone within the box in order to trace the device with its GPS facility and a hand-warmer to keep the equipment working in sub-zero temperatures when he launched it via a helium-filled balloon in August 2010.
Geissbuhler admits that he's not the first person to do this. He also concedes that there is quite a bit of terrestrial paperwork involved in the attempt. On his Vimeo hosted website, titled "Homemade Spacecraft" he states:
You do need FAA approval and notification. The craft was built within FAA regulations for weather balloon payload which I highly recommend adhering to. We also made sure to launch out of city air space.
Paperwork or not, Geissbuhler has given us a really good example of what can be done working from a small budget with off the shelf components. Larger organizations performing scientific research and complaining about the lack of funding might just want to take note of this little experiment.

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