Saturday, October 06, 2012

The Last Days of the Current CSA President

The public (and likely unintentional) dismissal of comments made by Canadian Space Agency (CSA) President Steve MacLean, the day after he announced a continued Canadian government interest in the RADARSAT Constellation mission (RCM), could not have come at a better time for the Canadian government, or at a worse time for our current CSA president.

Steve MacLean.
It began with the October 1st, 2012 article "Canada Poised To Award RADARSAT Constellation Contract," which quoted Dr. MacLean as stating, "there has always been a plan to build (RCM), it just hasn’t been officially announced." MacLean was also quoted as expecting "a formal announcement soon," because “we have a commitment from the ministry, and a plan to proceed.”

Whatever that plan was, it seems to have fallen apart.

As outlined in the October 2nd, 2012 Canadian Business article "Satellite component maker Com Dev cutting 31 jobs in restructuring," RCM subcontractor COM DEV International (COM DEV) almost immediately laid off 31 employees working on RCM and "reassigned" ten more to other duties. In essence, COM DEV executives simply didn't believe the CSA president.

There are good reasons for that.

The article cited "uncertainty about the future of the Radarsat Constellation project" and quoted COM DEV CEO Mike Pley that "the funding situation on the CSA's Radarsat Constellation mission is still uncertain and, if not resolved in the near future, will result in further job losses once development funding runs out later this year."

  The original RCM timeline in 2004. CSA finally awarded the phase A contracts in March 2006. Phase D funding has not yet been announced. Chart c/o eoPortal Directory and CSA.

COM DEV follows along the same well worn path traveled by another RCM subcontractor, BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA), which expressed concerns over long-term RCM funding in the March 30th, 2012 company release titled "RADARSAT Constellation Mission update." According to the press release, MDA had "concluded that the (FY2012 federal) budget does not include the funds required to continue the RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM) as currently envisioned." 

As outlined in the May 14th, 2012 blog post "MDA & RADARSAT Constellation's War of the Words," a series of MDA layoffs, related specifically to a lack of RCM funding, began shortly afterwards.

RADARSAT Constellation. If built, it will consist of three satellites, each with a Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) sensor integrated into an Automated Identification System (AIS). The SAR payload is a 2-panel deployable antenna of approximately 7 meters.

At this point, it is unclear how quickly the RCM program can be brought back up to speed, even should funding become available. As outlined in the May 23rd, 2011 blog post "Nothing to See Here! Move Along Now" government funding delays generally drive up  the overall cost of a project since new (and often untrained) people have to be hired to replace the original, experienced staff. The current cost of the RCM program is estimated at over $1billion CDN, which is double the original estimates.

Of course, the federal government can plausibly deny that this is their fault since they've taken steps to engage an Aerospace Review (under former Minister David Emerson) to figure out what's going on and lay out a series of public recommendations for improvements, which will be presented to the federal Industry Minister in December 2012. At the very least, nothing needs to be done until then.

Which is perfect for the federal government, soon to begin the search for the next CSA president for when the current five year mandate expires in August 2013.

But it's a shame that our beleaguered current CSA boss is entering the final year of his five year mandate with very little to show for his efforts at persuading the Federal government to fund CSA programs in a timely and adequate fashion. Unlike the government, Dr. MacLean needs to start asking the money questions now, before the results of the upcoming aerospace review are publicly released, the government begins to act on the review and anticipation over the next, hopefully more successful CSA president, begins to take hold.

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