Thursday, May 09, 2019

Procurement is How Governments Reward NASA and CSA's Subcontractors, Domestic Shipbuilders and SNC Lavalin

          By Chuck Black

It's worth noting that the current US plans to return to the Moon by 2024 are being held up more by procurement issues and whether cost-plus pricing or fixed cost contracts will provide the best combination of jobs and off-sets to the powerful than by any lack of willpower, technology or scientific knowledge.

The US Congress grilled representatives from NASA earlier this week over the agency’s "failure to deliver a plan for getting back to the Moon within five years."

As outlined in the May 8th, 2019 The Verge post, "NASA’s plan to get to the Moon by 2024 isn’t ready yet," the plan "was supposed to be ready by mid-April but NASA officials say it’ll probably be a couple more weeks until the details are finalized and delivered."

That time-line is likely a little optimistic. The program won't be ready to fly anytime soon, unless a great deal of new money is set aside to fund it.

As outlined in the March 27th, 2019 Forbes post, "'Get Americans On The Moon In 5 Years' - VP Mike Pence Challenges NASA," the US VP called for "American astronauts to be back on the Moon within the next five years," during a speech at the Huntsville AL based US Space and Rocket Center on March 21st, 2019.

At that time, it was also expected that the White House would be able to present a budget for accomplishing the goal within a few weeks.

Time flies when you're having fun.

Of course, the US has a history of funding space programs such as the Space Launch System (SLS) which, while highly expensive, never really seem to get off the ground. The latest attempt to cancel or wind-down that program was rolled out as part of the March 2019 NASA budget request.

At one point, as outlined in the March 16th, 2019 post, "Bridenstine Reassures SLS/Orion Workforce That They're Still Needed," the White House even considered using the far less expensive (and mostly operational) commercial crew rockets to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024. NASA backtracked only a few days later under pressure from SLS contractors and a variety of others.

In Canada, government procurement from the space industry is a little more subtle.

Graphic c/o
The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) generally prefers not to use pay-for-performance contracts, a situation which has historically allowed our larger space firms to make money throughout the prototyping and life-cycle phases of a program by recording normal changes and improvements to the design and charging extra to make those changes.

But the case of Canadian Admiral Mark Norman, as recently noted in the May 9th, 2019 National Post article, "In an inspired performance, Norman lawyer Marie Henein did incalculable damage to the Trudeau brand," does suggest a large political component associated with winning large Canadian procurement projects under the current government.

If nothing else, it seems obvious by now that the Federal Conservatives under then Prime Minister Stephen Harper favored a different Federal contractor for shipbuilding in 2015 than the Justin Trudeau Liberal government favored in 2016 and Admiral Norman suffered for this.

The current Federal government also seems to have preferences in other areas of procurement, as the recent stories about Montreal PQ based SNC Lavalin illustrate.

It's also worth noting the general consensus in Ottawa that there are procurement contracts relating to the 3rd generation Canadarm which will likely be won by Brampton ON based MDA, a subsidiary of Westminster CO based Maxar Technologies.

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, governments used procurement to purchase services useful to its constituents. Maybe they still do, somewhere.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog. 

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