Monday, January 28, 2008

The End of Canada's Space Program?

Imagine getting news that the space operations of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, including the shuttle and military space programs, had been sold to a corporation based in Europe. Imagine further that this startling news is followed the next day by the announcement that the administrator of NASA has suddenly resigned after just a few months on the job.

While such a scenario is unlikely, a string of events of similar magnitude has just rocked Canada’s space program, throwing into question the basic assumptions that have guided it for most of its 50-year history.

On January 8, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada’s largest space contractor, announced that it was selling all of its space operations to Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK) of Edina, Minnesota, for $1.3 billion. MDA is the corporate home of the shuttle remote manipulator system, known as the Canadarm, the ISS Mobile Servicing System, including Canadarm2, and much of Canada’s communications satellite contracting work. More controversially, MDA operates the recently launched RADARSAT-2 under a joint agreement with the Canadian government.

The following day, the Canadian government announced that the president of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Laurier Boisvert, had resigned a few days earlier after just nine months on the job. Although the resignation was said to be due to personal reasons, speculation has suggested that it was related to the MDA sale.

If the sale is approved by shareholders and Canadian and American regulators, the core of Canada’s space business, supported by massive investments by the Canadian government going back to the early 1960s, will be under the control of an American corporation. While other Canadian space contractors continue to operate, notably Com Dev International of Cambridge, Ontario, the MDA sale encompasses the core of Canada’s space expertise.

Although Canada’s business-friendly Conservative federal government has remained quiet about the sale, leading members of Canada’s largest opposition party, the Liberal Party, have questioned the sale. Among them is Marc Garneau, Canada’s first astronaut and a former CSA president who is now a Liberal candidate in the next federal election, which could take place as early as this spring. The sale is also drawing fire from Canadian trade unionists and from peace activists, who are concerned about ATK’s role as a manufacturer of land mines and other arms.


If the MDA sale and the end of the shuttle program mark the effective end of Canada’s space program, much of the blame must go to the Liberal government that left office two years ago, which ignored calls by Garneau, then CSA’s president, for innovative policies that would have increased Canada’s role in Mars exploration, and the current Conservative government that continued the previous government’s neglect of space policy. The Canadian government needs to act soon to save Canada’s space program.

It would be a sad day if the Canucks left the space race to we Yanks. tsk. Such...slackers.

A bit more seriously, it is amusing that the Liberals, whom the author blames for the situation, are the ones complaining the loudest though. Ah, politics, thy odor is....hmmm...sweet is not quite the word...perhaps ironic is it. though I have never smelled something ironic before.

ObSnark: Now I am waiting for the inevitable comparisons to the Avro Arrow. 3....2....1....

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