Tuesday, October 27, 2015

What About all those Cheap Rockets and Spacecraft?

          By Brian Orlotti

As the dust settles from the recent federal election and the public awaits the Trudeau government's unveiling of its space policy, it is timely to examine a key question facing Canada's space sector: that of Canada acquiring its own space launch capability.

It not as if Canada doesn't build its own rockets. Seen above is the September 19th, 2009 launch of the NASA Black Brant XII / CARE rocket from Wallops Island, Virginia. The Black Brant is a family of Canadian-designed sounding rockets built by Bristol Aerospace in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Over 800 Black Brants of various versions have been launched since they were first produced in 1961, and the type remains one of the most popular sounding rockets ever built. Screenshot c/o NASA.

On October 16, the National Research Council published a contract tender, under the title "Advance Contract Award Notice – 15-22108 – International Spacecraft Consultant (15-22108)," for an "international spacecraft consultant." The tender, open only for a very short two week period and scheduled to close on Friday, October 30th, contains key wording which includes:
The consultant will be responsible for the provision of technical support including advice and review of spacecraft related activity for the Aerospace Portfolio of the National Research Council Canada...
This expertise will primarily be applied to mechanical systems of spacecraft programs including spacecraft design and development, interfaces to launch vehicles and launch vehicle environment on the spacecraft design.
For decades, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has claimed Canada doesn't want or need its own space launch capability, yet other elements of the federal government appear receptive to the idea.

As recently as June of this year, at the 2015 International Space Development Conference (ISDC2015), which was held from May 20th - 24th in Toronto, Ontario, former astronaut, CSA president and current member of parliament for Westmount—Ville-Marie, Marc Garneau publicly spoke out against a Canadian microsat launch vehicle. With rumours circulating of the creation of a new federal Science/Technology ministry with a mandate and budget that could dwarf the CSA's and with Garneau speculated to be anointed its leader, would his stance change? Screenshot c/o CSCA.

For decades, the CSA's main justification for not pursuing a home-grown Canadian space launch capability has been cost. The CSA has repeatedly claimed that the cost of a Canadian space launch vehicle would be far beyond its resources, costing in the hundreds of millions. This attitude is both politically and technologically tone-deaf, utterly ignoring the rise of the NewSpace industry and the advent of more cost-effective space technologies both in the US and around the world.

Even NASA is jumping on the bandwagon.

As outlined in the October 16th, 2015 SpaceFlight Now article, "NASA to fly CubeSats on three new commercial launchers," the US space agency has announced its awarding of $17.1Mln USD ($22.67Mln CDN) in contracts (as part of its venture class launch services program) to three firms developing new low-cost (less than $10Mln USD apiece) rockets designed to lift lightweight cube-sats into orbit.

One of these firms, New Zealand-based Rocket Lab Inc., has pioneered the use of 3D-printing and use of carbon composites in both the structure and engine of its 'Electron' rocket to reduce its price to a very competitive $5Mln USD ($6.63Mln CDN).

Rocket Lab also recently signed a contract with Moon Express, a California-based firm competing for the Google Lunar X-Prize, to launch its robotic lunar landers on Electron rockets, with the first launch scheduled for 2017.

"Bureaucracy destroys initiative. There is little that bureaucrats hate more than innovation, especially innovation that produces better results than the old routines. Improvements always make those at the top of the heap look inept. Who enjoys appearing inept?" Frank Herbert, Heretics of Dune.

It is a well-worn cliche that post-election periods are times of hope and great expectations. Despite this, the opportunity for genuine change is real. Canada now has the chance to uproot its timid, out-of-touch space bureaucracy and walk a bolder path.

The new government could lead the charge or it could step out of the way and let the private sector do what we now know is possible. Perhaps, if the CSA or some other government agency wanted to launch something, they'd even consider a potential Canadian supplier.

Brian Orlotti.
Either path would let Canadians honour a rightly proud past and build a future that remains so.

Brian Orlotti is a network operations centre analyst at Shomi, a Canadian provider of on-demand internet streaming media and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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