Friday, August 17, 2018

Let's Pick a Canadian Contractor to Build the New Canadarm for the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway

          By Chuck Black

Brampton ON based MDA, the Canadian subsidiary of Westminster CO based Maxar Technologies, has come out in favor of Canadian participation in the proposed US led Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G), a space station designed to be the logical follow-on to the current International Space Station (ISS).

As outlined in the August 14th, 2018 Maxar/ MDA press release, "Group President of Maxar's MDA outlines opportunities, challenges for Canada's next role in space," MDA group president Mike Greenley discussed the topic in a speech to the 2018 Aerospace Defence and Security Expo (ADSE2018), which was held on August 9th - 10th, in Abbotsford, BC.

It's a proposal heavily favored by Canadian Space Agency (CSA) technocrats who, as outlined in the May 28th, 2018 post, "Minister Bains Promises "Canadian Space Strategy" Within Months... Again!," consider the LOP-G program to be their last real opportunity to "bend metal" and build hardware for the forseeable future.

It's also a proposal expected to benefit MDA, which could reasonably expect to become the prime contractor to build the new Canadarm required for the LOP-G.

MDA is considered to be the largest and most experienced company able to do the work and Canadian government employees hardly ever get fired for choosing the largest and most capable vendor.

If successful, MDA would end up much like its predecessor, the Richmond BC based MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, which acted as the prime contractor for the Canadarms used on the US space shuttles and the ISS.

But the first Canadarm was derived from a distinctly Canadian origin.

In the 1960s, Toronto ON based Dilworth Secord and Meagher Associates (DSMA), a small Canadian engineering firm originally known as Paul Dilworth & Company (named after Paul Dilworth, a Canadian engineer who also worked on the Avro CF-911, a predessessor to the Avro CF-105 Aero) developed a robot to load fuel into CANDU nuclear reactors. As outlined in the 2014 book, "Browsing Science Research at the Federal Level in Canada: History, Research Activities and Publications," by Brian B. Wilks, the robot attracted NASA's attention.

In 1975, NASA and the National Research Council (NRC) signed a memorandum of understanding that Canada would develop and construct the Shuttle Remote Manipulator system (or SRMS, which eventually became known as the Canadarm) using plans derived from the earlier CANDU manipulators. NRC, in typical cautious governmental committee fashion didn't give the full Canadarm build contract to the Canadarm designers but eventually awarded the contract to Brampton ON based Spar Aerospace, then considered the largest and most capable Canadian based company able to do the work, although DSMA received subcontractor work.

Spar was originally formed in 1967 via a management buyout of Downview ON based de Havilland Canada’s Special Products division and Toronto ON based Avro Canada's Applied Research unit.
But Spar, much like today's MDA, also possessed numerous US connections and business interests which influenced and effected its operations and sucked away much of its creative energy.

This "diversification" intended to smooth out the business cycle and develop a consistent revenue stream eventually destroyed Spar, which was locked out of the lucrative US market as the space industry underwent a period of intense consolidation in the late 1980's and early 1990's.

Eventually the contracts to build Canadarms defaulted to the much smaller and them almost completely Canadian MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, which leveraged the contracts into a period of intense growth.

It's not that there is anything with going with the largest and most capable vendor.

After all, a large company with a substantial foreign composition such as Maxar/ MDA today (or Spar in the 70's, 80's and 90's) can also promote local subcontractors to build Canadian capacity for future programs in much the same way as Spar promoted the Canadian owned DSMA (and MacDonald Dettwiler) capabilities under the original Canadarm programs.

It's almost certainly what Maxar/ MDA will promise to do in any future round of Canadarm contracts.

But that doesn't change the obvious fact that Maxar/MDA senior management energies, as outlined in recent articles like the August 15th, 2018 Business Wire post, "Maxar Technologies' DigitalGlobe Co-Founds and Leads New World Geospatial Industry Council," and the August 10th, 2018 post, "Maxar Technologies Might be Getting Paranoid," seem to be focused on financial and business areas outside of Canada.

On the upside, as a US based company, there is far less chance that Maxar/MDA will ever be locked out of the US aerospace market the way Spar was. Of course, the downside of that point is that most of the best and highest paying new Maxar jobs will end up in the US. Some Canadarm jobs may remain in Canada, but only if the Federal government insists.

Again, it's not that there is anything wrong with that. It's just that the next generation Canadarm deserves a comprehensive and distinctly Canadian approach to its design and construction. As our reward, maybe we'll even get a few new domestic jobs out of the contract.

You know. Like the last time.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog.

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