Monday, April 22, 2019

Second Thoughts About Bolting Canada's Space Future to the US Lunar Gateway

          By Chuck Black

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may have formally announced Canada's multi-billion dollar commitment to the proposed US Lunar Gateway in the weeks leading up to the release of Budget 2019, but that was before domestic pundits began expressing their reservations.

Space policy isn't the only area where Canada's PM is facing an uphill battle. As outlined in the April 21st, 2019 CBC News post, "With 6 months to go, Justin Trudeau is up against history," incumbent governments "usually lead in the polls this far out from an election," but Trudeau isn't and is struggling in the run-up to the next Canadian election. It's also worth noting the widely held, bipartisan consensus throughout government that MDA is the only company capable of building a Canadarm, a categorization which puts the firm on much the same indispensable government procurement list as Montreal PQ based SNC-Lavalin. Whether or not this is a shrewd place to park over the long-term is problematic. Photo c/o Christopher Katsarov/CP.

Then mercurial US President Donald Trump seemingly abandoned the Gateway in favor of a far more aggressive proposal to return US astronauts to the Moon by 2024. As noted in the April 17th, 2019 Space News post, "Op-ed | Lunar Gateway or Moon Direct?," no one is really sure if some sort of Gateway is even necessary under the revised plan now being developed by NASA.

Given that, much of the second guessing currently winding it's way through the public conscious suddenly takes on a far more reasonable air. Since the US plan is being revised, maybe Canada should also have a second look.

Here are a few recent editorials on the topic:
According to the March 28th, 2019 Policy Options post, "Ask Canadian's what kind of space Program they want," polls show that "Canadians would rather spend public money on other priorities, like education and health care. Similarly, sending an astronaut to the moon may not be what Canadians would prioritize from their space program, compared with the myriad of other aspects of space exploration where we could be investing." 
The article went on to state that, "space policy-making is dominated by technical and industry perspectives."
The Canadian government "needs to ensure that the space policy framework creates an environment which presents a level playing field for all companies, and stimulates true key industrial capabilities for Canada; intellectual property which resides here, and jobs and profits that remain in Canada," according to an undated post on the Future Economy website under the title "Spotlight on the Space Economy; Positioning Canada for Success in the Future of Space,"
The post also included interviews with retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, current Canadian Space Agency (CSA) president Sylvain Laporte, ADGA Group CEO Françoise Gagnon and Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) Assistant Deputy Minister Glenn Mason
Future Economy is "a multimedia publishing house that builds on over two decades of international media and events experience," so it's possible that they are in the midst of organizing a conference on this topic.
A Canadian robotics expert, who initially believed that he should welcome Trudeau's new space plan is no longer quite so certain. 
As outlined in the April 18th, 2019 The Conversation post, "Canada’s approach to lunar exploration needs to be strategic or we’ll be left behind," Carlton University assistant professor Alex Ellery called the Lunar Gateway "an incremental progression from the International Space Station (ISS) that has dominated American (and Canadian) human spaceflight for the past few decades. 
Of course, the history of the ISS has been mired in controversy — it was expensive, purposeless, took decades to design, re-design and finally build. It has neither yielded any great scientific advances nor has it advanced human Mars exploration as originally proposed."
Ellery noted that Canada's contribution to the Lunar Gateway will be funneled through a single company. According to Ellery "the Gateway promises to be another white elephant like its predecessor the ISS."
And finally, the April 20th, 2019 Advocator post, "Canada Has to Revamp the National Lunar Exploration Strategy," noted that:
Voices are already raising against this plan. A few condemn the fact that the Canadian Space Agency continues to use the services of a singular company instead of looking at other enterprises which should be able to provide competitive alternatives. Others criticize Canada’s minor ambitions as a country. 
While the other participants in the project are working hard to develop strategies which will allow them to build a veritable lunar colony Canada seems content to remain a mere observer. 
Unless our strategy is revised and improved, we will remain a witness to the greatness of others, while paying for the privilege.
He might be President and CEO of the Canadarm's ultimate prime contractor, but Maxar CEO Dan Jablonsky isn't willing to bet his company on Trudeau government largess. As outlined in the April 10th, 2019 Space News post, "Maxar’s path to growth runs through Worldview Legion," Jablonsky is currently hunting options to keep his core, corporate assets from being broken up and sold. According to the article, all Maxar business units, except for MDA in Canada, have been integrated into a single corporate entity, which kinda suggests that MDA could be sold. An MDA sale for a reasonable amount of money (say, half a billion dollars) could potentially end up being the single best option to raise enough money to insure the funding of the WorldView Legion Constellation, which Maxar management considers essential to future profitability, while retaining core assets within a single, US based corporate entity. This would also allow the company to retain its highly profitable US military contracts. Photo c/o Keith Johnson/SpaceNews.

As outlined in the February 28th, 2019 post, "Canada Becomes the First Nation to Formally Commit to the NASA Lunar Gateway Plan," Trudeau's initial announcement committed Canada to becoming the program's first international partner and allocated $2.05Bln CDN over twenty-four years to fund the program.

Most of the new funding would go to the design and development of a "3rd generation" Canadarm for the Lunar Gateway, which would serve the same function as earlier Canadarm's installed on the ISS and on US space shuttles.

Brampton ON based MDA Corporation, a subsidiary of Westminster CO based Maxar Technologies, will almost certainly receive the lions share of the new funding as the prime contractor for the new Canadarm.

MDA and Maxar both know this.

As outlined in the January 1st, 2019 post, "2018: The Year in Space for Canada," both organizations spent large portions of 2018 lobbying the Trudeau government to support and fund the US Lunar Gateway.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog. 

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