Monday, August 01, 2011

MDA, Space-X, NewSpace 2011, EADS, Futron, Shuttle Slagging & Top Gear!

Most of our current crop of 21st century space leaders will spend the majority of the summer on vacation at the beach or somewhere else, perhaps just as relaxing. But a few won't, and here are some of their concerns, comments and public activities, as tracked by the Commercial Space blog:
    MDA President & CEO Daniel Friedmann.
  • As discussed during the MDA's Second Quarter 2011 results conference call on July 29th, BC based MacDonald Detwiller (MDA) has announced a $500 million dollar buyback to return to shareholders a portion of the $793 million CDN acquired through the January, 2011 sale of the MDA property-information business. According  to MDA President and CEO Daniel Friedmann, although the original intent was to use the cash to buy "a space company with US roots" in order to more effectively compete in the US market, there was "not a whole pile of candidates" possessing the appropriate size and capabilities, so the project has been dropped (although money remains to pursue smaller acquisition targets). As well, while the proposed $280 million dollar on-orbit satellite servicing project with satellite operator Intelsat is moving forward (as discussed in my March 15th, 2011 post "Macdonald Dettwiler gets "Anchor Customer" for Brampton Robotics Plant"), US budget constraints, a "slowdown in government decision making" and a dawning realization that the US government market was "smaller than anticipated" is also slowing down this project. According to Friedmann, NASA "needs to define it's territory" in order to allow MDA participation in future US space projects. This suggests issues relating to the recent ISS refueling tests and concerns over whether US based companies will receive preferential treatment for future NASA satellite refueling contracts as outlined in the July 25th, 2011 article "ISS Robotic Refueling Mission Problematic for MDA." The present expectation is for layoffs at the MDA Brampton robotics factory and flat earnings for 2012.
Space-X CEO/CTO Elon Musk.
  • Speaking of the US space program, there may be some light at the end of the budget tunnel. According to the August 1st, 2011 MSNBC article "'Red Dragon': A cheaper search for life on Mars," NASA has begun working with private spaceflight firm Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) to plan an unmanned mission to Mars using existing Space-X technology. According to the article, the NASA science hardware would fly to Mars aboard a Space-X Dragon capsule (which the company is currently developing to ferry cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station) for a substantially lower cost than the upcoming $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, which is presently scheduled for launch in November 2011. According to the article, the mission (called informally "Red Dragon") could be ready to launch by 2018 and would cost $400 million or less.
  • Speaking of change, most of the current and up-coming crop of space experts and entrepreneurs spent most of last week at the NewSpace 2011 conference, an annual event organized by the Space Frontier Foundation and video streamed live over Anyone looking to learn more about the event or the topics discussed should check out Hobby Space News where Clark Lindsey is keeping a timely record of activities. This, not NASA or another national government agency, nor any large defense contractor or even some sort of international regulatory agency is where our space future is going to begin. Here's an example of some of the discussions and proposals percolating through the conference from Forbes Magazine.

Futron senior analyst Jeff Foust.
  • Speaking of tracking change, the 2011 issue of Futron’s Space Competitiveness Index (SCI) has just been released and is available for download on the Futron Corporation website. According to the SCI, "global space activity drives a substantial economic engine, fosters national pride, and advances science and exploration." But while the US "remains the overall leader in space competitiveness" it's relative position "has declined for the fourth straight year as other countries enhance their capabilities." How does the SCI assess Canada? According to the report "Canada retains a skilled space workforce, and Canadian space companies did well in 2010. But delays in space policy refresh and implementation are offsetting these competitive advantages."
    Once a potential shuttle?
  • According to Scott Locklin in his July 22nd post "Good Riddance to the Space Shuttle" from the Locklin on Science blog, the recently retired NASA spacecraft is an object lesson in the sunk cost fallacy, which predicts that people who've spent money on some item or activity will continue to do so, even when this is no longer a sensible course of action, in order to protect their "original investment." Locklin reminds us that the shuttle was originally supposed to launch like an ordinary aircraft with a reusable first stage. He states "the shuttle could have been awesome; it could have used Scramjets instead of rockets. It could have used titanium instead of aluminum. It could have been designed incrementally, instead of being a multi-billion up front investment we really wish had paid off. The only reason the thing ever flew was politics; dump that much money into something, and it has to 'work.'"
    • While we're on the topic of alternative configurations for the space shuttle, here's a two year old reminder from the BBC series Top Gear that there is at least one other thirty year old, seemingly reusable transportation system that tapers to a point like a rocket. Gaze in wonder as Hammond and May attempt to turn a Reliant Robin three wheeled automobile into the largest and most powerful non-commercial, reusable space transportation system ever launched from Europe. It's 'mind-bogglingly complicated" just like the US space shuttle and very, very funny .

    By the way, has anyone, anywhere been able to figure out how a segment producer for a television series was able to build the largest and most powerful non-commercial rocket ever launched from Europe and still stay within his weekly program budget?

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