Thursday, February 28, 2019

Canada Becomes the First Nation to Formally Commit to the NASA Lunar Gateway Plan

          By Chuck Black

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced that Canada will become the first international partner to join the US led Lunar Gateway program, a plan promoted and managed by NASA but expected to be partially funded by multinational contributions from countries such as Canada.

Trudeau's announcement is the first formal statement of commitment to the program from another nation.

The NASA Lunar Gateway is intended to serve as a follow-on program to the current International Space Station (ISS) and will serve as a stepping stone for NASA's deep space exploration plans.

NASA's newest best friend. Canadian PM Trudeau explaining that "Canada is stepping up" to build another Canadarm for the US Lunar Gateway and also contribute in other ways. According to Trudeau, the new Canadarm "that will repair and maintain the Lunar Gateway" will be "built in Canada by Canadians," although he didn't say which domestic (or foreign owned) company would build it. As always, space politics (even in Canada) is mostly about jobs, not science. The full press conference is available online under the title, "LIVE NOW – Watch Prime Minister Justin Trudeau make a historic announcement about Canada in space!" on the CSA Facebook page. Screenshot c/o Facebook. 

Although the fiscal specifics are unclear and likely won't be known until after the 2019 Federal Budget is tabled on March 19th, 2019, Trudeau did make a verbal commitment of $2.05Bln CDN over the next twenty-four years to contribute to the NASA program.

That's less than $100Mln CDN a year, which isn't a lot and could certainly end up being far less depending on whether or not this announcement refers to new funding or is simply a reallocation of existing funds.

Trudeau also announced several smaller space focused funding programs, including $150Mln CDN for a CSA administered Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program (LEAP) to assist small and medium Canadian enterprises (SMEs) to develop new AI, robotics, and health technology for use in lunar orbit and for a Junior Astronauts program.

The LEAP program is expected to appeal to the majority of Canadian space focused companies such as Bolton ON based Canadensys Aerospace, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia based Leap Biosystems, Moon Express Canada and others who aren't as politically well connected as Westminster CO based Maxar Technologies.

Although not noted explicitly during the press conference, Maxar's Brampton ON based MDA Space Systems subsidiary will almost certainly receive the lions share of the new funding as the prime contractor for the "3rd generation Canadarm" needed to support the Lunar Gateway.

In response to Trudeau's announcement, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine issued this February 28th, 2019 NASA post, "Canada Commits to Joining NASA at the Moon," which called Canada:
... a vital ally in this lunar journey as they become the first international partner for the Gateway lunar outpost with their 24 year commitment to deep space exploration and collaboration.
Inflammatory twitter comment. Graphic c/o @Canadainspace.
As outlined on the February 28th, 2019 Justin Trudeau Prime Minister of Canada website post, "Historic investments in Canada’s space program to create jobs and new industries," Canada will:
... develop and contribute a smart robotic system – Canadarm3 – that will repair and maintain the Gateway. Canada’s partnership in the Gateway ushers in a new era of Canadian excellence in space, and will be the cornerstone of Canada’s new, ambitious space strategy. 
The Government of Canada will invest $2.05 billion over 24 years for Canada’s space program. This investment will create hundreds of good, well-paying jobs over the next ten years – from scientists and engineers to technicians and computer programmers – and will contribute $100 million annually to Canada’s gross domestic product.
The Canadarm program has historically served as a wedge for Canadian access into other facets of the US space program such as transportation to the ISS for Canadian astronauts and enjoys a wide, bipartisan support across party lines.

But some have already categorized the new funding as a political issue. For example, the February 28th, 2019 SpaceQ post, "Canada is Going to the Moon," categorized the Trudeau governments announcement as being:
... designed to send a message before the budget comes out on March 19. 
The commitment means that come election time, if the Liberals are not re-elected, that a plan and some funding will in place, making it harder to renege on the commitment."
SpaceQ is funded in large part through advertising revenue provided by Canadarm prime contractor  Maxar/ MDA.

With its strong Liberal party connections, it's also evidently in Maxar/MDAs best interest to suggest that politics is at the core of any positive government decision going into the next election. Maybe Spaceq is simply acting in the best interests of its sponsor instead of its readers.

And maybe SpaceQ has a point. As outlined most recently in the January 9th, 2019 post, "Why did Maxar Subsidiary SSL "Terminate" its Participation in the DARPA GEOsynchronous Satellite Servicing Program?," Maxar has been having troubles lately and is looking to the Trudeau government to commit to new funding for the Lunar Gateway program to pull its fat out of the fire.

On the other hand, Canada is now a preferred partner for the NASA program. Canadians can now lobby NASA to ask Canadian companies to contribute to the Lunar Gateway program and be funded by the Canadian government. Several companies have confirmed that NASA will soon begin asking for contributions which are completely independent from Maxar/MDA which relate to unmanned Lunar rovers and in-situ resource utilization.

It's useful to note that Trudeau finished up his Thursday morning press conference without being asked any questions on his space policy. He was instead asked questions relating to the SNC Lavalin affair. Maybe everything is indeed eventually boiled down to politics, especially when an election is expected in the fall.

Has the Trudeau government picked Maxar/MDA as the Canadian lottery winner for Canadian space funding for the foreseeable future?

We'll know more when the 2019 Budget is tabled in Parliament on March 19th.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog. 

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