Sunday, March 04, 2012

Canuck ISS Commitment Now Backed with Cash (Sorta)

The March 2nd, 2012 press release on the 4-traders website might state in the headline that "MDA provides continued support for international space station," but it was really more about announcing a "contract amendment" worth an additional $14.7 million CDN to BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

CSA President Steve Maclean with JAXA President Keiji Tachikawa, ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and ROSCOSMO General Director Vladimir Popovkin at the ISS Heads of Agency meeting on March 1st.

These new funds will allow MDA to continue ongoing Canadian operations needed in order to support Canadian commitments to the International Space Station (ISS) but also provides an interesting hint regarding the true depth of the Canadian commitment to the ISS.

According to the article, the new payment will cover "additional logistics" and "engineering requirements" for the ISS Mobile Servicing System (composed of the Canadarm2, the Mobile Remote Servicer Base System (MBS) plus the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator or Dextre) which will extend the life of the program until March 2013 and bring the total value of the contract to $152.7 million CDN.

Industry Minister Christian Paradis.
This contracted CSA financial commitment to ISS operation is far less than other recent public announcements of Canadian ISS commitments as described in the March 2nd, 2012 Montreal Gazette article "Canada renews pledge to International Space Station until 2020" and the March 5th Space Travel article "Harper Government renews commitment to ISS" which proclaim an ongoing commitment lasting through 2020.

But while this amount is likely not sufficient to stem the ongoing layoffs at the MDA Brampton Robotics facility (which originally built and currently maintains the CanadArm components), it is likely enough to insure that no ISS docking or repair operations are disrupted and that no one complains publicly over the lack of CSA funding related for its ISS commitments over the next little while.

At least until March 2013.

To understand what's really going on, it's worth noting that long-term space policy initiatives are normally announced (at least under the current Stephen Harper Government) through either the Industry Minister (which is officially responsible for the CSA, but also the ministry well capable of relegating CSA President MacLean to a supporting role, which is what happened on Wednesday during the ISS extension announcement) or by the Office of the Prime Minister (which announced multi-year funding for the RADARSAT Constellation program in their 2010 budget).

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
Given the above, it's certain that some of the confusion has to do with the existing procurement process where budgets are allocated on a year to year basis, but policy is ongoing and defined at others levels and under different processes.

But some if this confusion also has to do with ongoing CSA procurement process, which tends to parcel out payment for long-term contracts into small, easily digestible bite sized bits as outlined in my May 23rd, 2011 post "Nothing to See Here! Move Along Now." This process makes it difficult to plan ahead for long-term CSA contracts and is an area where the CSA could legitimately take the lead without stepping on any federal toes.

Whatever the real reason for the dichotomy between the public announcement of Canadian ISS support and the actualities of the CSA contract issued to MDA this week, it seems sensible for the Federal government to give a long-term overview of their intentions regarding the ISS, either now or in the upcoming Federal budget scheduled for release on March 29th.

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