Sunday, March 06, 2016

Part 5: A Short History of COM DEV International


By Robert Godwin 
The COM DEV website on February 8th, 2016.
As outlined most recently in the January 24th,2016 post, "Did the Government Let COM DEV Go Because They Have Bigger Fish to Fry?" iconic Canadian space company COM DEV International has been purchased by US based Honeywell International
And that's not the only recent sale of an iconic and militarily significant Canadian company to the US. 
There were once limits to the types of sales we would allow. 
For example, we don't allow foreign ownership of our chartered banks and in exchange for that quasi-monopoly our banks have acceded to some relatively stringent regulations which were certainly useful for cushioning our economy from the worst vicissitudes of the global meltdown of 2008. And, in 2009, we refused to allow BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) to be purchased by US based Alliant Techsystems (ATK).
In this new age of mega-data, information and incessant global security fears, it would simply seem prudent to establish safeguards to protect our high tech industry...

Michael Valentine O’Donovan died in 2005 having earned the order of Canada. He became a valuable member of the Galt/Cambridge community as well as a generous philanthropist.

His $5000 bet on Hansen and Springer's little start-up provided him with the life he had dreamed of since he was a child reading Arthur C. Clarke novels. His technology is aboard more satellites in the "Clarke" or geostationary orbit than almost any other technology made by any other company.

It's worth noting that COM DEV's largest contract ($160Mln CDN spread out over a decade) is also a government contract for Canada's contribution to the James Web Space Telescope (JWST). Hopefully the Federal government will find some new Canadian company to fund the next time they wish to contribute to an international partnership. Screenshot c/o CSA.

Would he have approved of his company being purchased by American interests? We'll never know. But what we do know is that he wasn't averse to buying and selling American companies when it suited his purposes.

But you might ask, is it a matter of scale? America has something like 30 times as many defense contractors as Canada so they can afford to lose them more readily. But this argument makes no account of the human factor; such as the many benefits and good jobs brought to the community of Cambridge by the presence of such an accomplished company. We can only hope that Honeywell recognizes that a solid, smart and technologically savvy work-force is worth more than a string of patents.

The evidence would seem to suggest that COM DEV was built on the back of no small amount of government largesse in its early years. Many millions of tax payer dollars, both directly and indirectly, have slipped into the COM DEV coffers since O'Donovan cut his deal with RCA in 1974.

But this is a game played by almost every country. You're either "in" or you're "out."

Being "in" doesn't just mean you get lots of grants and contracts, it also means you get to sit at the grown-ups table and learn the wiles and tricks of the trade. Governments don't like to give money to start-ups, but if you are useful and reliable then they don't like to miss out.

Being "out" means you aren't taken seriously. If your own government doesn't think you are worth supporting, what foreign government will?

COM DEV isn't the only Canadian company which has been sold to Americans since the current Federal government took power in November, 2015. As outlined in the January 27th, 2016 Globe and Mail article, "Liberals criticized for not conducting security reviews on foreign takeovers," the recent sale of the Allstream fiber-optic network to the US based Zayo Group also raised concerns over Liberal party policies in this area. As outlined in the article, in 2013, the Harper government blocked the sale of Allstream to an Egyptian telecom group on the grounds that it provided “critical telecommunications services to businesses and governments, including the government of Canada.” But that was then and this is now. Graphic c/o Globe and Mail.

Val O'Donovan was a dreamer. He was a history, Latin and English literature graduate who wanted to do something cool in outer space. So he forced himself to learn mathematics and engineering.

Canada proved to be a worthy host for his ambitions. He invented something clever and unique which could be applied to the technology invented by his hero Arthur C. Clarke. He likely would have enjoyed the irony of his company being purchased by the same company who designed all of the controls and systems for the spaceships seen in Clarke's greatest work, the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Robert Godwin.
At the end of the day COM DEV’s story carries many lessons that are relevant. It includes hard working immigrants, cutting edge dreams, government competence and incompetence, foreign investors, foreign purchases, political shenanigans and high achieving young people with dreams.

Like any true story there is always another chapter still to come.

Robert Godwin is the owner and founder of Apogee Space Books. He is also the former space curator at the Canadian Air & Space Museum and the curator of the The Space Library, an online repository of 30,000+ pages of space information and papers. 

Please consider subscribing to the library for only $5. Your contributions help to support new research and the maintenance of the existing repository.

Last Week: Into the 21st Century as part 4 of "A Short History of COM DEV International" continues!

To Start at the Beginning, check out John Hansen, Samuel Singer and Michael Valentine O'Donovan in part 1 of "A Short History of COM DEV International."


  1. NASA budget ~$16 B
    US NOAA space budget ~$2 B
    US DoD space budget ~$20 B
    CSA budget $300 M
    Radarsat budget ~$150 M
    Canadian DND space budget ~$7 M

    Canadians spend about 1/10th what Americans spend on space per capita.

  2. How about I agree with the numbers you've provided, Mr. (or Ms.) Anonymous.

    But the Canadian Space Agency doesn't really have a mission and was only ever really supposed to manage the Canadian contribution to the International Space Station (ISS). They picked up a few extra missions over the years (like RADARSAT), but don't really seem to have one now.

    Perhaps the real problem is that, without an actual mission or goal to accomplish, the Canadian Space Agency is simply irrelevant compared to far more worthy Canadian programs in NRC, NSERC and private industry.

    Canadians have been known to listen to compelling stories (like Telesat and RADARSAT) for the creation of space based assets to solve Earth based problems.

    But everyone wants government money and only the ones presenting a compelling case are likely to get it. It's gotta be more than "capacity building" or "but the other space agencies get more more money."

    For more on the history of the Canadian Space Agency, check out the October 3rd, 2011 post on "A Short Canadian Space History Lesson" at


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