Monday, September 26, 2016

The REAL Reason Why Canada Won't Be Participating in the NASA Resolve Mission Anytime Soon, Probably!

          By Chuck Black

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has been looking for funding and partners for a planetary rover mission since Marc Garneau was CSA president from 2001 - 2005. By 2009 small amounts of funding for the project had begun flowing towards Canadian subcontractors.

An overview of the 2012 NASA RESOLVE mission simulation, one of three which were held in Hawaii and Utah between 2008 - 2012 to highlight the mission, the partners expected to collaborate on it and their technical challenges. To view the complete video, please click on the graphic above. Photo c/o CSA.

That trickle expanded with the 2009 - 2010 federal budget, which was presented to Parliament by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty on January 27th, 2009. The budget included $110Mln CDN over three years "for space robotics research and development," much of which quickly ended up funding research on Canadian rovers.

By 2012, at least as outlined in records received through a federal government access to information request for "All records related to the NASA invitation to provide (a) Deltion Innovation drill system for a proposed lunar prospecting (mission) in 2018," CSA involvement was considered "essential" to the success of at least one international plan to land a rover somewhere.

But then everything fell apart. What happened?

A two page letter dated March 30th, 2012 from William H. Gerstenmaier, the NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations to Gilles Leclerc, the CSA director general of space exploration. Gerstenmaier called CSA's continued participation in RESOLVE development efforts "essential, especially as RESOLVE moves into vacuum chamber testing. The vacuum testing phase, building on the lessons from the field test, will verify flight hardware and software in simulated launch landing and operating environments. In short, RESOLVE will be advancing towards flight readiness." Letter c/o Government of Canada.

As outlined during a September 23rd, 2016 phone interview by Gilles Leclerc, the CSA director general of space exploration, RESOLVE was "never a formal, approved project." According to Leclerc, "the object of our CSA program was to develop and utilize in future programs and to build a business case for initiating a formal project."

According to Leclerc, CSA had two major issues going forward with RESOLVE:
First of all, there was the lack of funds. In order to commit to a project of this nature, we needed to have in hand the full life cycle funding, which covers the actual mission, and not just the project planning and ground testing.
Gilles Leclerc. Photo c/o CSA.
For that, we need the appropriate instructions from the Federal government. Otherwise we simply can't move forward. 
Secondly, we found the original NASA project time frame to be too aggressive.
Evidently, NASA also found their original project plan to be too aggressive.

As outlined in the 2011 European Planetary Science Congress (EPSC) Abstracts document "RESOLVE for Lunar Polar Ice/Volatile Characterization Mission," the original plan was to test using Earth analogue missions between 2008 - 2012, move on to lunar environment simulation, or vacuum testing in 2014 and then launch in 2018.

The current plan, now under the title NASA Resource Prospector (RPM), is scheduled for launch sometime after 2021. Oddly enough, it's also tied to one of the early test flights of the proposed NASA Space Launch System (SLS), another problematic NASA program.

As for appropriate funding, the CSA did make at least one attempt to move forward with RESOLVE by diverting Canadian funding used to support the International Space Station (ISS) for a year or two just to get the rover development underway.

This was necessary to meet the aggressive NASA schedule and took consideration of the fact that it would be a year or two before CSA could get significant funding from the Treasury Board of Canada for a large rover program.

But that plan didn't work.

A two page letter dated April 1st, 2013 from Gerstenmaier to Jean Claude Piedboeuf, then the CSA acting director general of space exploration in response to an earlier query for International Space Station (ISS) Common System Operations Costs (CSOC) offset credits to help fund the CSA commitment to the RESOLVE mission. Piedboeuf eventually followed up Gerstenmaiers April 1st letter with a November 20th, 2013 response where he stated that "Unfortunately, based on our understanding that RPM (the Resource Prospector Mission, the program which grew out of RESOLVE) is currently not a priority for NASA and that our potential Canadian contributions are not eligible for credit to CSA under the Common Systems Operations Costs (CSOC) structure, CSA will not be able to seek authority to fully engage in RPM as a candidate flight mission." At the time of the first letter, Leclerc was acting CSA president. He was replaced on August 6th, 2013 by incoming CSA president Walter Natynczyk. Letter c/o Government of Canada.

"The original letter from Bill (Gerstenmaier) to Gilles (Leclerc) was optimistic and both parties anticipated a strong future working together," said Peter Visscher, the VP Engineering at Ontario Drive & Gear (ODG), one of the Canadian rover subcontractors who received funding from the 2009 Federal funding package. "There are still opportunities out there," he said, during a recent phone interview.

According to Visscher:
The Artemis Jr. rover, which was originally expected to be part of the RESOLVE mission has been slowly improved over the last few years. 
In 2012 we were a TRL-4 CSA program and the rovers demonstrated to innovation minister Navdeep Bains in May 2016 (as outlined in the May 6th, 2016 CBC News post, "Canadian Space Agency unveils lighter, less expensive rovers"), were TRL-6 in terms of drive-train and suspension.
Leclerc is also cautiously optimistic. "We keep the door open. We will continue to look for flight opportunities for the rovers we've developed and the technologies we've built, and support further development in this area."

Until then, time marches on.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

1 comment:

  1. I would note that since 2012 NASA has issued development contracts to US contractors to develop both a drill and a rover.

    See :

    Those are NOT Canadian drills or rovers.

    Still a chance to get on the mission, though. Hope we are not too late.


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