Monday, July 28, 2014

Customers vs Project Managers: The Real Truth about NEOSSat

          by Chuck Black

Beleaguered Mississauga based space contractor Microsat Systems Canada Inc. (MSCI) has lashed out at Canadian Space Agency (CSA) allegations that the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat), built by MSCI under CSA supervision, is "underfunded" and not working properly by suggesting that the space agency was a lousy project manager.

The MSCI logo, presented without sarcasm, from the MSCI website.  

They may have a point. As outlined in the December 5th, 2012 post "What the Space Volume of the Aerospace Review Actually Says," even the David Emerson led Aerospace Review noticed ongoing procurement problems at the CSA and recommended its removal from the direct involvement in the design and manufacture of "space assets purchased by the government" such as NEOSSat. 

So what's the real story?
CEO Cooper in 2011. Photo c/o CNW.

Well, as outlined in the July 27th, 2014 Ottawa Citizen article "Satellite company blames Canadian Space Agency for some cost overruns," the NEOSSat problems began with the "poorly written system requirements" provided by CSA employees and CSA mentoring/ supervision from people "who generally got in the way."

The article included direct quotes from both MSCI president and CEO David Cooper and MSCI director of micro-satellite programs Ross Gillett. 

Cooper and Gillett's comments were in made in reaction to the public release of the February 2014 CSA report, "Evaluation of the Near Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat) Project For the period from February 2005 to December 2013," which blamed "a lack of capacity on the part of the prime contractor (MSCI)" as the reason for the cost overruns and problems which have bedeviled the project.

The report also highlighted the role of Dynacon Systems, which won the original NEOSSat contract on the basis of its successful Microvariability and Oscillations of STars (MOST) telescope but unexpectedly sold its satellite business to MSCI in 2008, as being one of the reasons for MSCI's lack of expertise. 

Director Gillett. Photo c/o Linked-In.
According to the report, the perceived lack of capacity/ expertise "meant that the CSA and DND were faced with a choice of (either) cancelling the project or taking a calculated risk and continuing to work with the (new) contractor."

But CSA eventually decided to continue on with MSCI as the new NEOSSat contractor and this is where the story gets interesting. 

Dynacon, the original contractor, built MOST on the basis of a strategy described in a fourteen year old paper written by then Dynacon employees Peter Stibrany and Kieran A. Carroll called "the Microsat Way in Canada."

This strategy focused on inexpensive, quickly constructed components used frequently to build up a body of expertise before locking in the design, because of the usefulness of the real world knowledge gained.

It also suggested that space agencies should act as end-user "customers" interested in low cost and practical results rather than as project managers interested in the maintenance of processes and procedures focused around defining (and locking-in) system design before real world validation and testing.

But while the paper included many of the core concepts in what would later become the standard operating procedures at places like the very successful University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) Space Flight Laboratories (SFL), these methodologies were not a part of the CSA's standard operating procedure.

And the original Dynacon authors never went to work for MSCI although both remain in the industry. Stibany now works as a director of strategic development for MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) while Carroll is currently an adjunct professor at UTIAS and CTO for Mississauga based Gedex Inc, according to their Linked-In profiles.

So it's only natural that the sale of the Dynacon space assets to MSCI allowed the CSA a chance to redefine its role in a more traditional fashion. The result was an initially confused but later annoyed prime NEOSSat contractor, which led first to misunderstanding and later to increased oversight, costs and irritation. 

At least one submission to the 2012 David Emerson led Aerospace Review dealt explicitly with procurement methodologies and how these methodologies affected project management and costs. The June 30th, 2012 Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA) position paper "Fostering Innovation, Creating New Markets: Novel Approaches to Space Policy and Programs," recommended that the Federal government explicitly encourage the development of entrepreneurial or "commercial space" industries and approaches using a variety of methodologies quite similar to those advocated in "The Microsat Way in Canada." Document c/o Aerospace Review

The CSA's focus on "system requirements," which MSCI perceived of as coming from people who "generally got in the way," certainly contributed to NEOSSat being delivered 41 months late and over budget.

Of course, this isn't the first time that dissatisfaction with CSA procurement policies and project management has led to a very public confrontation. As outlined in the February 6th, 2006 Montreal Gazette article "RCMP to probe space agency contracts," the CSA was once even subject to a law suit and police investigation from a former CSA scientist who successfully sued the space agency for falsely appropriating one of his inventions.

This latest CSA procurement crisis will likely not rise to that level, but only because the decision to divest the CSA of its direct involvement in the design and manufacture of "space assets purchased by the government," has already been explored by the Aerospace Review and implemented by the Federal government.

Nuff said!


  1. An article based on heresay and by itself inconsistent. What else should the CSA do but focus on System requirements? That's like saying that you get to pay for a new car but you shouldn't be too worried whether you get the AC or the Horse-power you are paying for.

    1. The statements made in the article are referenced from primary source materials and people who were directly involved in the project. It can hardly be considered hearsay.

      As for other ways of managing contractors, you should take a look at both the CSCA submission to the aerospace review and the paper titled "The Microsat Way in Canada."

      Both were referenced in the article.


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