Monday, November 18, 2013

Space Leaders in Ottawa: The 2013 Canadian Space Summit

Bill Gerstenmeier.

          by Brian Orlotti

On November 14th and 15th , individuals from across academia, business, government and the military gathered in Ottawa to connect with each other and help shape the future of the Canadian space sector.

The 2013 Canadian Space Summit, skillfully executed by the Canadian Space Society (CSS), was organized into two main tracks (Space Commerce/Law/Policy and Earth Orbit/Space Exploration). The session tracks were complimented by keynote speakers such as NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations William (Bill) Gerstenmeier and new CSA President Walter Natyncyk, as well as discussion panels and the Canadian Space leaders’ Roundtable.

Highlights from the Space Commerce/Law/Policy track included:
  • Thomas DeWolf of the Canada Commercial Corporation (CCC), who spoke about the crown corporation’s role as an intermediary between Canadian exporters and foreign governments and outlined the extensive contractual advisory services offered by the CCC to space/aerospace firms.
  • Chuck Black of the Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA), who spoke about current Canadian grant programs favouring large, established space firms rather than fostering the growth of small and medium sized ones. Black also discussed the Canadian Space Commerce Association’s role of enabling relationships between scientists/engineers and investors.
Wilfred So.
  • Wilfred So of law firm Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP, who discussed the differences between trade secrets and patents, their pros and cons, and how they can be utilized by newspace startups
  • Jean Yves Fiset of Systèmes Humains-Machines Inc. (Shumac), who talked about his company’s human factors software which models and predicts human behaviour in situations as diverse as automobile accidents and space missions.
  • Dale Armstrong of Carleton University, who spoke about his research into US and Soviet/Russian anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) development and policies through the Cold War up to the present day. Armstrong made the argument that anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons haven’t seen wider adoption not due to moral restraint but because of the disastrous consequences of their use.
  • Ottawa city councillor Maria McRae, who outlined Ottawa politicians’ plans to hold events where space professionals can talk directly to the public on the importance of space to Canada’s economy.
    Wade Larson.
  • Urthecast’s Wade Larson,  who outlined his company’s successful raising of $40 million in investment and a fascinating demo of a website that will give the public access to realtime HD video from cameras that will soon be placed on the International Space Station (ISS).
But the most memorable moments at the Summit however, could be found during the keynote speeches.

For example, a subtly revealing moment came during Bill Gerstenmaier’s speech.

During his talk, Gerstenmaier had repeatedly stressed NASA’s role in providing research and development services for Newspace firms. An audience member had posed the question of what NASA’s role would be in a SpaceX-led private mission to Mars (a goal repeatedly stated by Elon Musk himself). Gerstenmeier replied that he didn’t know what NASA’s role would be in such a mission or if SpaceX was even capable of doing it. Gerstenmeier then quipped, “they think they are,” which was followed by a considerable (and palpably indignant) silence from the audience. Sensing this sudden shift in mood, Gerstenmeier back pedaled, hastily adding, “and they may.” The gaffe was a subtle, but powerful, reminder of the bitterness no doubt felt by many at the decline of NASA and the rise of NewSpace.
Walt Natynczyk.

The star attraction, however, was retired general Walt Natynczyk in his first public appearance as president of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Within minutes, the former general made a massive impression on his audience. Natynczyk, in his thunderous (yet clear) voice, told a story about how he had decided to come out of retirement to lead the CSA after an epithany on a freezing February morning while walking three family member’s dogs. In a quote that will surely take its place in Canadian space lore, he stated:
As I’m stooping over to pick up another pile of doggie doo, a neighbor--that I love--sticks her head out the door and says, ‘Hello. How the mighty have fallen’”. Think about it. That’s when I thought it was time to do something different.
After the audience’s long laughter died down, Natynczyk spoke of how unfamiliar he was with the vocabulary of the space industry and would need the help of those in the space sector (while pointing to the audience) to help educate him. He related how he had been baffled when speaking to quantum researchers in Waterloo, Ontario:
The point at which you start losing me is like talking to my puppy; when I start doing this,” (tilts head to one side) “you’re losing me.
After talking about being fascinated with the micro and nanosatellites he saw in development at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS), Natynczyk cracked more jokes, comparing nanosatellites and microsatellites to “milk cartons” and “milk jugs.

Natynczyk then stated that one of his main goals is to make space comprehensible to the typical Canadian standing in line at Tim Horton’s. He made few concrete policy statements, other than to say that space research and development should continue to be done via universities with government funding rather than by government itself. Natynczyk also stated that the CSA is in discussions with various government ministries to implement his recommendations. What his specific recommendations are remains unknown. The space sector eagerly awaits more.
Brian Orlotti.

The 2013 Canadian Space Summit can be seen as a watershed moment. For the first time, the Canadian space sector is attracting significant levels of both investment and interest. A small space company like Urthecast raising $40 million in funding or a city council planning promotional events for the space industry would have been unheard of even five years ago. At last, we space enthusiasts have put the fringe behind us and come into our own.

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

1 comment:

  1. Good summary of the highlights, though I think the Gerstenmaier interpretation is perhaps a little biased. I saw no bitterness at all; rather a reminder that there are many scientific challenges to be overcome. Elon Musk is great at driving technology and business model development, but there is still much basic science to be solved such as biomass and psychological elements. Gerst is well aware of these. Musk has not solved any of them and has presented no plan on how he would, nor acknowledges the problems. Hence I think Gerst's first implication was entirely correct; they may think they can do it but we cannot evaluate such claims without more details. SpaceX most certainly isn't ready to go, but perhaps ready to start getting involved in the science and technology development that would allow them to eventually go.

    I'm also unaware of any bitterness at NASA. In fact, Gerstenmaier himself was involved in setting up the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program, in selecting SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (over established space companies in their PlanetSpace bid), and in announcing and promoting SpaceX. Part of Gerst's speech at the Space Summit even focused on the value of such private-public partnerships, where they work when there are spinoff markets, and where they might not work where there are "one of" type needs.

    I'm also not clear on what the rise/fall comment is supposed to mean. NASA still funds SpaceX most of their revenue. It's a $1.6B contract. NASA is their prime customer. SpaceX isn't replacing NASA; they are replacing Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and other major primes built around offloading all risk to NASA. The shift here isn't in NASA falling and NewSpace rising, but NewSpace offering a better value to NASA (so NASA can do more for less) by offloading cost risks through private co-investment based on achieving alternate revenue streams from the technology outside of NASA, something NASA cannot directly do and the large primes haven't done. They are complementary, not competing. Most NASA personnel I know are fully supportive of SpaceX. (In fact, most bitterness I hear about SpaceX comes from private industry trying to work with SpaceX who are notoriously difficult to work with and are often accused of learning solutions from others and then implementing themselves.)

    I agree with the Natynczyk comments though. Great speaker, little revelation. His admission of understanding very little about space might be fodder for more criticism of his appointment, but I applaud his goal to connect the space industry better with the public. I suspect he'll do a great job, but issues surrounding perceptions and trust might get in the way.

    I also came away feeling positive about the growth the Canadian space sector and I'm looking to support it as best I can, which I luckily get to do for SMEs.


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