Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Meanwhile, Back in the Real World: Seasoned Entrepreneurs are Jockeying for Position in the Fast Growing NewSpace Economy

          By Brian Orlotti

Another quote attributed to Laurence Peter. Graphic c/o AZ Quotes.
Laurence J. Peter, the Canadian born developer of the "peter principle," who made a career out of studying hierarchical organizations, is generally credited with the saying, "Lead, follow, or get out of the way." 

Federal politicians, running for public office by promising yet another complex deliberation on what was once known as a long-term space plan (the most recent of which is the 2012 Emerson Aerospace review), might want to study both Peter's principles and the recent actions of actual entrepreneurs (some of whom are even Canadians) to get a sense of what real entrepreneurs need...

For example, on September 14th at the World Satellite Business Conference in Paris, SpaceX announced two new contracts for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

Elon Musk. Photo c/o REUTERS/Stephen Lam.
These new orders, along with a well-received recent appearance by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, indicate that despite recent setbacks, confidence in the company and its founder have not waned.

The two contracts are for the launch of a communications satellite for Spanish satellite operator Hispasat, S.A on a Falcon 9 as well as the launch of a Saudi Arabian communications satellite (Arabsat 6A) on a Falcon Heavy.

The two missions are expected to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida between late 2017 and 2018.

With these additions, SpaceX now has over 60 missions on its launch manifest representing over $7Bln USD ($9.22Bln CDN) in contracts. Its continued ability to attract new clients as well as its founder's ability to evoke admiration from both audiences and notorious media personalities are testaments to the continuing strength of Elon Musk's enterprise.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk bantering with host Stephen Colbert on the September 9th, 2015 edition of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.  During the interview, Colbert questioned Musk's stated goal of settling Mars, citing the planet's inhospitable climate. Musk's reply was that Mars was “definitely a fixer upper of a planet” and suggested a fast way and a slow way to make Mars habitable. The fast way would be to drop nuclear weapons on Mars' poles, freeing the ice and water there. Musk's "slow way" to terraform Mars would be to introduce greenhouse gasses like CO2 into Mars atmosphere over centuries. Tellingly, Musk's statements weren't ridiculed by the notoriously snarky host who finished up the interview by stating that Elon Musk was definitely the man to change the world for the better and wished him the best of luck. Screen shot c/o

But Musk isn't the only entrepreneur in action this week. As noted in the September 15th, 2015 article, "Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin Will Launch Rockets and Spaceships from Florida," there is at least one other flush billionaire looking to make a bit of money off the high frontier.

Jeff Bezos. Photo c/o Getty.
According to the article, Jeff Bezos, the founder of private spaceflight company Blue Origin and founder and CEO of, has announced that Blue Origin will make Florida's Space Coast its home port for building and launching reusable rockets.

The company intends to lease the historic Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, in order to establish a "21st century production facility" to build a reusable fleet of orbital vehicles to launch from the refurbished site. Florida Governor Rick Scott, in attendance for the announcement, praised the venture, which he said will "invest $200 million locally and create 330 jobs."

Blue Origin will be sharing the complex with Mountain View, California based Moon Express, a company formed in 2010 by Canadian expatriate Robert Richards, Indian born Naveen Jain and local boy Dr. Barney Pell.

Robert Richards. Photo c/o Forbes.
But Blue Origin and Moon Express, along with SpaceX, are only three of the many private companies in the race to offer commercial trips to space for passengers and technology.

For example, as outlined in the September 5th, 2015 post "Boeing Opens Renovated Shuttle Facility for 'Starliner' Crewed Space Capsule," Boeing has just opened up a facility for its new CST-100 Starliner space capsule. NASA plans to use the Starliner capsule and SpaceX's Dragon capsule to launch US astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) beginning in 2017.

Others are also involved in the jockeying for position to reap the massive profits expected to accrue to the winning player.

The September 16th, 2015 Reuters post, "Boeing rejects Aerojet Rocketdyne bid for ULA launch venture," focused on a failed $2Bln USD take over of the 50-50 rocket launch venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corporation, which until recently had a monopoly over the lucrative US government market for military launches, is a recent example.

Screen grab from a 2011 MDA on orbit-satellite servicing proposal. As outlined in the March 11th, 2011 MDA press release, "Intelsat Picks MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. for Satellite Servicing," the company had originally entered into an open ended agreement with Intelsat S.A., then the world's leading provider of fixed satellite services, to commercialize Canadian technology developed through the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) as part of the Canadarm development program. But only nine months later, as outlined in the January 12th, 2012 post, "MDA Satellite Servicing Agreement with Intelsat Expires," the contract lapsed over concerns about whether or not the Canadian firm would be allowed to bid successfully on US government agency contracts. Six months later, as outlined in the June 27th, 2012 post "MacDonald Dettwiler buys Space Systems Loral for $875M," the beleaguered Canadian company created a second opportunity to resell the fruits of its previous projects and obtain compliance under the very restrictive US regulations governing the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). Screenshot c/o MDA.

Of course, not all Canadian individuals and organizations are completely locked out of US based NewSpace opportunities. At least one Canadian firm, or at least its US based subsidiary, remains in the race.

On Aug 26th, leading commercial satellite maker Space Systems/Loral (SSL) announced that it has been awarded a contract by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop on-orbit robotic assembly of communications satellites. The move comes on the heels of other recent initiatives to assemble satellites in space rather than on Earth, at lower cost and with faster deployment time.

The program, called 'Dragonfly,' is centered around the idea of satellite components being stored inside a standard rocket payload fairing and launched into orbit where they would self-assemble into a functioning satellite. By this method, Dragonfly would enable satellites larger and more capable than traditional ones that could not otherwise be launched.

MDA CEO Daniel E. Friedmann. As outlined in the May 12th, 2015 post, "MacDonald Dettwiler, Sherlock Holmes and Why "Daddy" Might not Love Either," the quarterly MDA earnings conference call is simply not complete until Friedmann has had the chance to complain about the lack of federal government support for his company. Photo c/o MDA

SSL, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Richmond, BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA), will leverage its parent company's extensive experience in space robotics and communications to implement the Dragonfly concept. Dragonfly's initial focus will be on the construction of large radio frequency (RF) dish antennas, which could enable communications satellites with dishes as large as Earth-based ones.

The Dragonfly program will have a five-month initial phase during which SSL will need to demonstrate how on-orbit assembly could lower satellite cost and mass while enabling higher performance. SSL is As part of this effort, SSL has submitted a proposal to NASA for collaboration on taking the Dragonfly concept to a ground demonstration and then a flight application.

The entrance of an established player like SSL/MDA into orbital satellite assembly is a recognition of the field's great potential. As competition increases, so too will innovation. The march of spacecraft and launch vehicles towards standardization and affordability will be the engine that propels the space industry forward.

Brian Orlotti.
But, of course, not a single one of the items presented above are dependent on generating another committee tasked with formulating government policy. The entrepreneurs and Americans are so far ahead that the only "real" option for any potential future Canadian government task-force is to "lead, follow, or get out of the way."

Of those three options, and especially given our lacklustre political leadership in all matters "space" up until now, the second and third are the only ones which currently seem feasible or of any use to the entrepreneurs.

Brian Orlotti is a network operations centre analyst at Shomi, a Canadian provider of on-demand internet streaming media and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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