Decision looms for Canada on big NASA project


November 12, 2018 – By Alexander Panetta. Originally published on POLITICO PRO Canada

This article is part of an occasional series, Beyond NAFTA, which explores the coming frontiers in the Canada-U.S. relationship.

NASA is embarking on one of its most ambitious projects ever, aimed at long-term exploration of the moon and an eventual pivot to Mars, and that means Canada has a decision to make.

Is it in or is it out?

The aerospace sector will be seeking clues this week, when NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine speaks at a conference in Ottawa, followed by the minister who oversees Canada’s national space agency.

NASA hopes America’s next-door neighbor could provide the robotics for the Lunar Gateway. To date, Canada has come across as eager without making any formal commitments.

Two Canadian officials tell POLITICO to expect additional signals of interest from Canada at this week’s event, without a firm financial commitment yet.

But preliminary work is already underway in Canada — with technical studies and contracts for companies to propose concepts for robots and lunar rovers.

What’s not yet known: Whether the Trudeau government will deliver the estimated C$1 billion to C$2 billion it would take to fund the robotics program over two decades.

The upcoming Canadian federal budget is key.

Like everyone else with a stake in that decision, Gilles Leclerc, director-general of the Canadian Space Agency, will be watching for clues at this week’s conference about whether political decision-makers will deliver those funds.

“I’m hoping for that,” Leclerc told POLITICO in an interview Friday. “We have submitted project proposals, budget proposals. We’ll see. … [But] we won’t know whether it’s on before the actual [Canadian annual federal] budget is tabled in Parliament next March.”

A major industry player also said Canada it sees the budget as a make-or-break moment to decide whether Canada will supply long-term funding for Gateway, a project to build a station in deep space, a thousand times farther from Earth than the current International Space Station. NASA wants to use it to explore the moon, examine its resource potential, and then turn to the Red Planet.

The budget announcement will govern whether Canada starts spending the funds to meet NASA’s aggressive timeline or if the government will shift into a yearlong election mode without a commitment.

The company issuing that warning has deep ties to Canada’s space history.

While now a subsidiary to a U.S. company, MDA owns the Canadarm, a national symbol so famous it’s on the C$5 bill; it already has the inside track on one piece of any potential Canadian participation in the Lunar Gateway.

If Canada doesn’t commit funding next year, the company says, the world will move on: It says NASA will look elsewhere for countries to build the Gateway robotics, and it will too.

“Our expansion for Lunar Gateway would happen outside of Canada,” said Mike Greenley, group president of MDA, now owned by Maxar Technologies based in Colorado.

“We would follow the money.”

The collective hit could be big: The subsidiary has 1,900 employees in Canada, out of 6,500 Maxar employees worldwide. He expects several hundred companies, plus academic institutions, would be involved with his company on the next NASA program.

The Canadian Space Agency already selected the company to submit proposals for a lunar rover as the agency considers its participation.

NASA wants a robotic arm up in space as one of the first deliveries to the station by 2024. It’s seeking an international partner, and robotics are a longstanding Canadian specialty.

A member of President Donald Trump’s transition team for NASA agreed there’s a hurry to launch the Gateway program.

“It’ll be hard to sell [politically] if it doesn’t get going [soon],” said Greg Autry, a professor at USC Marshall, who was also temporarily the Trump White House liaison to NASA.

“I think there’s a sense of urgency in this administration to actually do something in space … There’s a sense that we want to get it done, and see commitments, I would think in the next six months.”

But he scoffs at one sentiment being circulated in Canada: that the country is a necessary space partner.

Canada’s space industry has been running a lobbying campaign, including billboards on Ottawa-area buses, under the slogan, “The Universe Needs More Canada.”

That’s not technically true, Autry said.

Trump’s former space adviser says the U.S. doesn’t actually need other countries to build the Lunar Gateway. He notes that the vast majority of the International Space Station was funded by the U.S., and he expects it will be the same with the next project.

NASA spends nearly $20 billion annually. The funding requirement for the robotics piece, estimated by MDA, amounts to a fraction of 1 percent of that.

“Let me be clear: NASA does not need international resources,” Autry said.

“Calling [the existing station the] ‘International’ [Space Station] is almost a farce. … There’s no doubt we could do it by ourselves — because, basically, we have done it by ourselves.”

He said the U.S. could also easily build its own space robotics. As good as the Canadarm is, he says: “I really believe we could get some guys at Stanford to do the same thing if we had to.”

All that said, he would welcome Canadian participation.

Autry says Canada has been a good partner that has contributed more to space than just about any other country, and he says it’s desirable for countries to cooperate in space.

“The fact of the matter is they have that capability [on robotics in Canada], and we should use it, and if that brings a friendly nation closer to the U.S. … That’s good stuff,” he said.

Canada’s encouraging words so far haven’t assuaged Greenley.

What worries him, he says, is not whether Canada might declare itself part of this program. What worries him is whether the statements will be backed by long-term funding.

His company estimates that a federally led program would cost somewhere between C$100 million and $125 million per year, for the first few years, then drop to $50 million to $70 million per year, for a total cost of $1 billion to $2 billion over 15 to 20 years.

“If I had a concern … it’s that we make a token commitment … but not a fully funded [one],” he said. “What NASA’s … going to need is a hard, firm, fully funded commitment that says, ‘We’ve got this, we’re going to do the work.’…

“It allows NASA to know Canada’s got the ball for robotics on Gateway. And it allows companies like ours to know Canada’s going to do that, so we can co-invest.”

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