Sunday, March 19, 2017

American MDA Subsidiary Promotes "DEXTRE" for US as NASA RESTORE-L Satellite Servicing Budget Slashed

          By Chuck Black

Richmond, BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) is having a bad week. The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) "2018 Budget Blueprint," has slashed funding for the NASA RESTORE-L on-orbit satellite servicing mission from $133Mln USD ($178Mln CDN) to $45Mln US ($60Mln CDN) for fiscal year 2018.

The cutbacks reflect the fact that there is at least one other major corporation competing against MDA (and its US based surrogates) for multiple US government on-orbit satellite servicing contracts.

This competition will also affect how MDA treats its crown jewels, the legacy Canadian government funded Canadarm derived technology generally considered essential to any realistic on-orbit satellite servicing development program. Until now, MDA has insisted that technology hasn't been used to support any new US contracts.

As outlined in the July 21st, 2009 post, "Even Werner von Braun was Wrong Once in a While...," the driving personality behind our first great space race once laid out a plan to send men to the Moon and Mars, using reusable spacecraft and a space station big enough to sustain and pay for itself plus support the extra repair/ refueling capacity needed to construct a lunar and planetary expedition fleet. Unfortunately for that plan, printed circuits superseded the fragile and short-lived vacuum tube used in the 1950's and we ended up building much more durable and capable satellites which didn't require the additional on-orbit satellite servicing capabilities envisioned by von Braun. But this situation might be changing. Two companies are currently battling over a variety of US government contracts related to on-orbit satellite servicing and more are waiting in the wings to see which way the wind is blowing. Graphic c/o Commercial Space blog

Here's what we know so far.

The 2018 US Budget Blueprint cites the "duplication" of effort between NASA and other agencies, the need to keep costs down and to "better position" NASA "to support a nascent commercial satellite servicing industry" as justification for the RESTORE-L cutbacks.

The cutbacks directly effect MDA partner/subsidiary Space Systems Loral (SSL). Late last year, as outlined in the December 12th, 2016 post, "Will the New Space Systems Loral $127Mln NASA Space Robotic Servicing Contract Help Canada?," SSL announced that it had been awarded a $127Mln US ($170Mln CDN) contract to build components for the NASA RESTORE-L mission.

The current cutbacks, although not yet formally approved by the US Congress, will likely spread out disbursements on the RESTORE-L program over multiple years, slowing down progress, cutting into SSL's bottom line and adding administrative costs to a program which will remain in existence, but do less and less each year.

RESTORE-L is currently scheduled for launch in "mid 2020."

As outlined in the September 18th, 2016 post, "Rocket Companies, But Not SpaceX, Are Collecting Rocket Patents," nations with active manned space programs, such as the United States, China and Russia, "represent three-fifths of all patent protection with a worldwide total of more than 4,300 patented space innovations filed since 1960." The only real exception to this concentration of space focused patents is Canada. As outlined in the article, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) possesses substantial patents related to its Mobile Services System (MSS), which includes the Canadarm2 and the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM), also known as DEXTRE, which currently performs a variety of functions on board the International Space Station (ISS). MDA has served as prime contractor for Canadian government contracts related to the SPDM for most of its existence. Graphic c/o Commercial Space blog.

The 2018 Blueprint also reflects the fact that there is at least one other major corporation competing for US government on-orbit satellite servicing contracts. As outlined in the February 12, 2017 post, "Look Ma! No Canadarms!!! MDA & Orbital ATK Battle for US On-Orbit Satellite Servicing Contracts," the very competitive Virginia based Orbital ATK, might slowly be gaining the upper hand.

For example, as outlined in the December 16th, 2016 post, "MDA says No Sale of Canadarm Technology to the US Government in NASA RESTORE-L, DARPA RSGS or "Any Other" Project," the official MDA position has been that no Canadian derived technology has ever been used in any US based projects.

But that position seems to have been reversed with the release of the March 15th, 2017 SSL press release, "MDA Recognized by NASA for Robotic Servicing of International Space Station,"

The SSL press release explicitly references contributions made by the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM), also known as DEXTRE, during "a robotic upgrade to the International Space Station’s (ISS) power system which took place in January (2017)."

The press release also quotes SSL senior vice president of government systems Rich White as stating that the "team," at SSL and MDA US Systems, a division of MDA specifically referenced as being "managed by SSL," was honored "to be recognized by NASA for its contribution to this mission.”

According to White “SSL and MDA have a long history of collaboration in robotics work for NASA and we continue to work together to design innovative advanced robotic augmentation and servicing systems for future missions.”

A short video highlighting SSL capabilities and competencies in June 2012, about the time when then MDA CEO Dan Friedmann announced that MDA would be acquiring SSL for $875Mln US ($1,169Mln CDN), plus a further $112Mln US ($150Mln CDN) in dividends and other payments from SSL. As outlined June 27th, 2012 post, "MacDonald Dettwiler buys Space Systems Loral for $875M," SSL was purchased by MDA in order to "buy a space company with US roots to gain a foothold in the lucrative US market," and not because of any space robotics expertise possessed by SSL. Screen shot c/o SSL.

According to the press release, "SSL and MDA have the ability to build on robotics technologies proven on the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station (ISS), and Mars landers and rovers."

Canadian contributions to the space shuttle, the ISS and the various Mars landers and rovers are not mentioned once in the press release. The press release closes out by mentioning that "as a Silicon Valley innovator for more than 50 years, SSL’s advanced product line also includes state-of-the-art small satellites, and sophisticated robotics and automation solutions for remote operations."

That may be true now. But it wasn't true four years ago when MDA purchased SSL.

And it's also not totally clear why MDA needs to hide the Canadian origins of the technology which is seemingly becoming more and more critical to a successful SSL bid on US government satellite servicing contract. No doubt that information will come out over time.

But as for now, e-mail requests for clarification to both MDA corporate communications manager Wendy Keyser and SSL director of communications Wendy Lewis have gone unanswered.

According to Lewis, "We appreciate you giving us the opportunity to respond to your inquiry (but)... We need to gather the facts to make sure we provide an adequate explanation."

This post will be updated as that "adequate explanation" becomes available.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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