Wednesday, May 01, 2019

The Canadian Space Agency has Begun Issuing Millions of Dollars in New Canadarm Contracts for the US Lunar Gateway

          By Chuck Black

If the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) really wanted to build a new "3rd generation Canadarm" for the NASA led US Lunar Gateway, then it might want to wait until someone figures out if and/or when the US wants one.

After all, as outlined most recently in the April 22nd, 2019 post, "Second Thoughts About Bolting Canada's Space Future to the US Lunar Gateway," the US has already moved away from its original proposal to build the Gateway by 2028 and embraced (at least for today) a far more ambitious plan to return American astronauts to the surface of the Moon by 2024.

No one is sure if the new plan would even need another Canadarm, although its expected that the usual contractors will argue that jobs, corporate profits, the upcoming election and an intangible "Canadian pride" all depend on continued Federal funding for every existing component of the original plan along with additional funding for all the hoped for new components.

The Federal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to have embraced the contractors perspective. As outlined in the April 26th, 2019 request for proposal (RFP) on the Federal government BuyandSell procurement website under the title, "Gateway External Robotics Interfaces (GERI) Large and Dextrous Arms Interfaces - Phase A (9F052-18-0865)," the CSA has has issued a $2.7Mln CDN Phase-A RFP for a "Lunar Gateway External Large" plus a $3.8Mln CDN Phase-A RFP for "Dextous Arms Interfaces."

The RFPs are a follow-up to the January 29th, 2019 BuyandSell procurement website request for information (RFI) under the title, "Gateway External Robotics Interfaces - Large and dexterous arms interfaces (9F052-18-0648)." Both the original RFI and the current RFPs were issued under the CSA Deep Space Exploration Robotics (DSXR) initiative.

Conventional wisdom expects Brampton ON based MDA, a subsidiary of Westminster CO based Maxar Technologies, to receive awards under both parts of the contract, unless the election is called before the awards can be announced.

Both RFPs close on June 13th, 2019 and call for work to be completed before August 31st, 2020. The next Canadian Federal election is scheduled to take place on or before October 21st, 2019 and will likely be called three months before hand, to allow appropriate time for a proper campaign.

The problem with this sort of procurement is quite simply that, once the project is in the funding funnel it's very difficult to cancel the program, even if the customer requirements change.

A good example of this are the various iterations of US space shuttle derived launch vehicles which, since 1991, have been consistently been rolled out under promises to retain existing expertise at a lower cost, but eventually outgrew their budget and were scaled back and canceled before ever actually flying.

The component parts of the program were then repackaged under a new name and refunded, at least until they also spent too much money and got canceled.

As outlined in the May 1st, 2012 post, "Media Reports: CSA "Lost in Space," RADARSAT "Over Budget" & UrtheCast "Hyped Vaporware"," Canada has also come across one or two of these types of programs.

Most were never really meant to create usable technology. Instead, their intent was to achieve political ends and preserve local jobs and existing corporations which would continue to support the incumbent governments in a variety of ways.

PM Trudeau at CSA headquarters in PQ on February 28th, 2019 during a presentation announcing that Canada would allocate approximately $2Bln CDN over the next twenty four years to support the US plan to build a Lunar Gateway by 2028 as a preliminary step before returning astronauts to the Moon and Mars. But in late March, the US publicly pivoted away from that plan towards a new plan to land astronauts on the Moon by 2024. As outlined in the May 1st, 2019 Space News post, "NASA outlines plan for 2024 lunar landing," the current version of the plan calls for a "minimal version of the Lunar Gateway" with power, propulsion and "some kind of docking/ habitation small module." No word on whether any of those modules will need an arm. Photo c/o Adam Scotti/PMO.

And this specific Canadarm funding program, as noted in the  February 28, 2019 post, "Canada Becomes the First Nation to Formally Commit to the NASA Lunar Gateway Plan," was personally announced by the Canadian Prime Minister, so he's likely to double down on his commitment, even if there is no immediate customer requirement.

Given that, it looks like the new Canadarm program is at risk of becoming the latest in a series of expensive government procurement boondoggles.

It might even end up like CSA Moon rover program, where Canada spent a lot of money and hype beginning in the early 2000's to design, test and build demonstrators, but never got around to actually landing one on another heavenly body.
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog. 

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