Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Canadian Space Conference: When will it be loved?

A hit song from the 1970s, When Will I Be Loved, could be the theme song of the Canadian Space Conference (CSC).
I've been cheated, been mistreated
When will I be loved
I've been put down, I've been pushed 'round
When will I be loved
That’s been the fate so far of the poor CSC.

The Canadian Space Conference was created by the former Conservative government as a forum for people from industry, academia, and government to discuss space issues and plan for the future.

It hasn’t fared well in its short two-year existence. As outlined in an article at CTV News, What happened at Canada's first annual space conference?, the 2014 conference wasn’t exactly a barnburner.

About 100 stakeholders got together to discuss Canada's space policy framework, the government’s plan for the space industry that had been released by Industry Minister James Moore a few weeks before.

Other than a couple of articles in the media (the CTV article from Canadian Press and one at the Commercial Space Blog, The ‘Casablanca’ of Space Conferences!) there wasn’t much public information about it.

Lukewarm results aside, at least that event got off the ground. The 2015 event is in a protracted holding pattern.

This is what the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) website says about the 2015 event: “The Canadian Space Conference is postponed. A new date will be confirmed shortly.”

As reported in the Commercial Space Blog article, Our space agency dreams of going to infinity and beyond!!!!!, the original conference date was postponed to June 2015 and then put on hold. Since it’s now December, the only way to have a conference in 2015 would be to hold it on Mars, where a year is 687 Earth days.

Good reasons may exist for the delay. We just had an election and the new government is deciding what to do about our space program. They also have immediate problems to deal with, like the proposed sale of COM DEV International to American company Honeywell, as noted in the Commercial Space Blog article, Should the proposed COM DEV sale to US based Honeywell trigger the Investment Canada Act?

Then again, another reason may be in play.

The clue is in the Executive Summary of the Emerson Report, more formally known as the Aerospace Review Report. On page 2 of Volume 2: Reaching higher: Canada's interests and future in space, the second entry says this:
2. The government (should) establish a Canadian Space Advisory Council, reporting to the Minister of Industry, with membership from industry, the research and academic communities, provinces and territories, and federal departments and agencies.”
The Canadian Space Conference was a Conservative government initiative. New governments like a clean slate. The space advisory council would be a fresh start that Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, can put his own stamp on.

What’s more, Minister Bains clearly likes the Emerson Report and will follow through with it. As noted in the Commercial Space Blog article, Two New Government Players Looking to Prove their Usefulness, he said this at at the November 17th, 2015, Canadian Aerospace Summit in Ottawa:
I have the Emerson report on my desk. Rather than reading the 25 recommendations, I thought I would call Mr. Emerson instead.
I am aware of the work that the Association (Aerospace Industries Association of Canada) and its members did with Mr. Emerson on the Review of Aerospace and Space Policies and Programs.
I'm impressed by what has been accomplished, and I'll review what remains to be implemented...(emphasis added)
The CSC was a one-day event shrouded in secrecy. The word council suggests an ongoing dialogue, which fits in with the Liberal’s promised strategy of inclusiveness and consultation.

The Liberal government can continue implementing the Emerson recommendations, make the council more inclusive and open that the CSC was, and claim it as all theirs. Better than what those other guys did.

Poor Canadian Space Conference. When will you be loved?

If the Canadian Space Advisory Council is on the minister’s agenda, the answer to that question is never. The romance is already over.


Note: As of February 2, 2016, the CSA’s events web page no longer mentions the Canadian Space Conference.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

exactEarth’s big bet on the Internet of Things

Cambridge, Ontario-based exactEarth is thinking big and they aren’t shy about making their intentions known.

Currently, exactEarth provides satellite tracking services to the global maritime market. On November 23, 2015, they took a minority ownership position in Myriota of Adelaide, Australia, as announced in a press release, exactEarth invests in satellite 'Internet-of-Things' technology company. Myriota makes technology that connects devices globally.

This move is part of a strategy to get a piece of what’s predicted to be the next big technological development: The Internet of Things (IoT). Peter Mabson, President of exactEarth, confirmed the strategy in an article at The, ExactEarth investing in Internet of Things startup.

Many people don’t understand what the IoT is. Although at this point different definitions exist, Forbes magazine outlines one in A simple explanation of ‘The Internet Of Things’.

The key concept is this:

Simply put this is the concept of basically connecting any device with an on and off switch to the Internet (and/or to each other). This includes everything from cell phones, coffee makers, washing machines, headphones, lamps, wearable devices and almost anything else you can think of. This also applies to components of machines, for example a jet engine of an airplane or the drill of an oil rig. As I mentioned, if it has an on and off switch then chances are it can be a part of the IoT. The analyst firm Gartner says that by 2020 there will be over 26 billion connected devices...that's a lot of connections (some even estimate this number to be much higher, over 100 billion). The IoT is a giant network of connected "things" (which also includes people). The relationship will be between people-people, people-things, and things-things.”

If that explanation isn’t clear enough, have a look at the Forbes article with the accompanying video and graphic of what the advantages and potential dangers are.

It’s easy to see why a satellite data company like exactEarth would want a piece of the IoT. Why just monitor ship activity when you can get a piece of monitoring everything?

So how does exactEarth’s latest move fit in to what they’ve done up until now?

Currently, exactEarth is jointly owned by COM DEV International Ltd. of Cambridge, Ontario (they have 73% of the company), and Hisdesat Strategic Services S.A. of Spain (they hold the rest).

COM DEV, a hardware provider to the satellite industry, must spin off exactEarth into a separate company as part of its recent sale to Honeywell International. The details of the sale are outlined in the Commercial Space Blog article, Should the proposed COM DEV sale to US-based Honeywell trigger the Investment Canada Act?

Whether or not COM DEV will have anything to do with exactEarth going forward is unknown.

Hisdesat, on the other hand, remains part of the strategy. As described on their website,

Hisdesat Servicios Estrat├ęgicos S.A. was founded in 2001 as a government satellite services operator to act primarily in the areas of defense, security, intelligence and foreign affairs. Since 2005 we have been providing secure satellite communications services to government agencies from various countries, and we are currently developing new earth observation and maritime traffic information (AIS) satellite constellations.”

Another exactEarth partner, Harris Corporation of Melbourne, Florida, bills themselves as “a world leader in space, geospatial and remote sensing solutions.”

The connection between exactEarth and Harris is covered in the Commercial Space Blog article, The REAL story behind the upcoming (maybe) exactEarth IPO.

The 3 companies combine satellite constellations, data capture and management, data processing and delivery systems, and secure communications expertise. This is where exactEarth’s minority ownership of Myriota comes into play.

Myriota bills themselves as a company with “Global Reach for the Internet of Things.” Adding a system designed specifically for the IoT pulls everything exactEarth has together for that Next Big Thing.

The Internet of Things concept is a slow developing process that will take many years. Now is probably the best time for a company to build the structure needed to be a significant player in what could turn out to be the next revolution in technology.

The strategy is clear: exactEarth wants to be one of those companies.

Who says Canadian companies can’t think big?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

One shoe has dropped for Canadian space; Will the other shoe drop next week?

The first shoe dropped. Now we know who’ll be in charge of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

As predicted in the Commercial Space Blog article, A new era for Canadian space or more of the same?, Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development is the CSA’s new boss. The “Our Minister” link at the bottom of the CSA’s website leads to Mr. Bains’ government profile.

Maybe, just maybe, the other shoe might drop next week. We might find out what the government has in mind for the Canadian space industry.

Mr. Bains is scheduled to speak at the 2015 Canadian Aerospace Summit in Ottawa on November 18th. This conference, hosted by the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (AIAC), is billed as a meeting for “primarily C-suite executives and government officials.”

Space makes up a small part of the aerospace market for Canada, so it may not be a major topic here. Not unless one of the spacier attendees, like UrtheCast President Wade Larson, gets Mr. Bains in a verbal headlock and whispers in his ear about the joys of commerce in a galaxy far away.

Headlocks, verbal or otherwise, won’t be needed to get people talking about space at another conference that starts on November 19th in Vancouver. CSA President Sylvain Laporte will speak at the Canadian Space Summit, the yearly event put on by the Canadian Space Society (CSS).

It’s all space here—that’s what the CSS is about. Maybe Mr. Laporte will have something to say about the future of the space industry and the CSA.

Even if not much is revealed at either conference, there’s still reason to be optimistic about greater government support for Canadian space, and the hint comes from an unexpected source.

The government did something unusual. They released the Ministerial Mandate Letters for all of the ministers to the public, something that observers say has never been done before by a federal government in Canada.

The letters for Mr. Bains, the minister in charge, and the other two ministers working with him, Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan and Minister of Small Business and Tourism Bardish Chagger, don’t give a lot of detail, but one of the three letters could be significant for the space industry.

Ms. Chagger's letter shows that she will take a support role with Mr. Bains and other ministers in promoting small business and tourism.

Ms. Duncan’s letter outlines that she is in charge of strengthening scientific research and development. She’ll create a position called Chief Science Officer to ensure that scientists are able to speak freely to journalists and the public about their work.

Ms. Duncan will also assist the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour to create more co-op places for STEM students, and work with other ministries on bringing science-based evidence back into environmental assessments.

Mr. Bains’ letter is the one that could have implications for the space industry. It says he is to develop an Innovation Agenda that will expand “effective support for incubators, accelerators, the emerging national network for business innovation and cluster support, and the Industrial Research Assistance Program.” (Note that the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) is designed to help “accelerate the growth of your business through innovation and technology.”)

The directive goes on to say that “...These investments will target key growth sectors where Canada has the ability to attract investment or grow export-oriented companies.”

That sounds like it should include the space industry, doesn’t it? Maybe that Innovation Agenda is something Mr. Bains will expand on at the AIAC conference.

So now we wait and see if that other shoe hits the ground. Those of you who’ll be in Ottawa or Vancouver next week may be in the best position to hear a thump.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

A new era for Canadian space or more of the same?

Sometimes you get what you want. Or so it seems.

The government hasn’t said who will have responsibility for space, but what used to be Industry Canada would be a logical choice.

Yes, past tense for Industry Canada. The newly elected Canadian government has decided to turn it into a super-ministry, an idea that the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) promoted. Industry Canada will now be the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.

CATA, which bills itself as the largest high-tech association in Canada, stated their position in an October 16, 2015, press release with the windy title, Major Industry Group calls for elected government to consolidate current Minister of State (Science and Technology) and Minister of Industry positions into Minister of Science, Technology and Business Innovation.

CATA believes that a “Newly refocused department would send a message that the federal government is serious about making business innovation the keystone of its economic policies.”

The association was clearly pleased by the government’s response, as their November 4th, 2015, press release shows.

The head of the super-ministry is Navdeep Singh Bains. Mr. Bains previously served in Parliament in the Paul Martin Liberal government, and later as a member of the opposition. He lost his seat in the 2011 election to Conservative Eve Adams.

Mr. Bains is a Certified Management Accountant. He was also a distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto.

People in the automotive industry are enthusiastic about his appointment to this ministry, as outlined in an article at the Windsor Star, High hopes for new federal minister in charge of auto industry. Mr. Bains worked as an accountant and financial analyst for the Ford Motor Company for several years.

Even if it turns out that Mr. Bains isn’t in charge of space, just substitute the name of the minister who will be. The following questions won’t change.

Right now, everything is up in the air (no pun intended) until the new government starts to make its mark, or perhaps leave a mark, depending on what it does.

The first test may come sooner than expected with a potential hot potato. Last week, Cambridge, Ontario-based COM DEV International was sold to Honeywell International Inc., as reported in the November 7th, 2015 article, Will the proposed COM DEV sale to US based Honeywell trigger the Investment Canada Act?. How will the new minister deal with this one?

And what about the red-headed stepchild, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA)? Will the CSA get a clear mandate, proper funding, a long-range plan, and the independence to execute that plan without politicians meddling in the day-to-day affairs?

Or will the agency continue to meander, doing not much more than acting like the vice-principal of a high school making sternly-worded phone calls to miscreants who step over the party line?

How different will the new minister be from his predecessor at Industry Canada, James Moore? Will he be the new sheriff in town, or will it be meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

CATA says they got what they wanted. Will the space industry?

Considering how many promises the Liberals made during the election and the major issues, and high expectations, facing their new government, we’ll likely find out sooner than later.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Commercial spaceports and ‘Field of Dreams’ business models

Commercial spaceports are popping up all over the United States, Europe, and Asia. The latest one is at Ellington Airport in the Houston, Texas area. NASA and the Houston Airport System announced a joint development agreement for a new spaceport on October 29.

It’s not a bad idea for some. Eventually, sub-orbital tourism and scientific flights, as well as small satellite launches, will become a good business. But one thing seems to be missing from the plans for too many of these spaceports.

How will they make money until the spaceships show up? How many spaceports are being planned and built on a field-of-dreams business model?

In the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner plays an Iowa farmer named Ray Kinsella. Ray is out in the field one day and hears a disembodied voice whisper, “If you build it he will come.” Ray cuts down the corn field and builds a baseball field. Soon, the field is populated by the ghosts of long dead major-league baseball players.

The movie, which has a heartwarming ending, was a big success.

But that’s the movies. Real-life ventures based on “If you build it he (they) will come” don’t usually work out as well. As an example of that, and potentially a business-school case study for what not to do, look at Spaceport America (SA). An article at Popular Mechanics, Welcome to the ghost town that Virgin Galactic built, tells the tale of unfulfilled expectations.

Located 32 km southeast of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, SA was supposed to be the cutting edge of commercial space with Virgin Galactic (VG), the company run by flamboyant billionaire and part-time space-whisperer Richard Branson, as its signature tenant.

At this point success for SA remains firmly out of reach. The crash of VG’s SpaceShipTwo on October 31, 2014 in the Mohave desert and a promise of flights within 2 years of building the facility (that promise is now in its 10th year) has left SA without much to show for their commitment.

Now, some of those politicians who listened to Mr. Branson’s corn-field whispers might be looking to get the spaceport off their hands, according to Could Virgin Galactic's Spaceport America be put up for sale?, an article at Gizmag.

Ironically, in the article, New Mexico state Senator George Munoz, sponsor of the bill to sell SA, uses the “If we build it they will come” quote from the movie to describe the expectations of good times that haven’t materialized.

Spaceport America’s plight also gets a mention in an article at The Space Review, Looking back a year and a decade. Most of the article is about other areas of commercial space, but SA gets their moment under the microscope near the end.

Christine Anderson, Chief Executive Officer of Spaceport America, says they are working to get new tenants while they wait for Virgin Galactic, but she doesn’t expect the facility to be financially self-sufficient until at least late 2017 or early 2018. That could be causing a serious pucker factor for the politicians because the next state election in New Mexico is in 2018.

Ms. Anderson is also quoted as saying they need to be resourceful and resilient in the face of these setbacks. Perhaps they wouldn’t need to be quite so resourceful and resilient if they hadn’t put together a field-of-dreams business model in the first place.

Without a business plan that will make money until the day comes when spaceships are flying, many of those spaceports may revert back to being corn fields, deserts, or whatever they were before.

Is there a defence against the dreaded field-of-dreams pitch? Yes there is, and it’s offered here free of charge to business people with dollar signs in their eyes, and politicians with votes in theirs.

If a space-whisperer has this fantastic idea of building an awesome spaceport that will bring in millions and make you a hero for life, ask one question: What’s the plan for making money until the spaceships finally come to the facility?

If the answer is “uh, great question,” smile, show them the door, and watch the movie “Field of Dreams.” You’ll get the feel-good buzz you want for a lot less money and far less trouble.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A new government and renewed hope for the Canadian space industry

The Canadian federal election is over. A Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau will make the decisions about what direction the Canadian space industry will take.

The new government must answer two questions: What do they want the space industry to be, and what role will the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) play?

The Liberals have promised a greater focus on science and technology, including space. More than a few people and organizations have expressed their views on what that focus should be, the most significant effort to date being the aerospace report led by David Emerson.

As noted in the Commercial Space Blog article Part 2: Abandoning the Emerson Aerospace Review?, the Emerson Report recommended that the commercial players should take a larger role and the CSA should more or less step aside.

This approach is getting plenty of support. A Globe and Mail article, Canada's space role hangs on political, industrial commitment, agrees, at least with the part about industry taking a bigger role. The authors of the article, Derek Burney, former Canadian ambassador to the United States, and Fen Osler Hampson, director of global security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and chancellor's professor at Carleton University, believe that the Emerson framework is the right one.

The 2014 Annual Report from the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (AIAC) (details on page 7-8, direct PDF download) backs Emerson and says a number of the recommendations are already being implemented.

Even Liberal MP Marc Garneau said in a CBC News article, Canada's space agency to take back seat to private sector, that the Emerson Report is a good framework, but only if the Conservative government of the day properly funds and implements it.

The unanswered question is, will the new Liberal government support this approach or take a different tack?

Mr. Garneau said in a CBC News article, Canada's space policy enters orbit of election campaign, that a Liberal government would boost spending on space. He didn’t say if they would continue with the Emerson recommendations. Also, keep in mind that Mr. Garneau isn’t the prime minister, so his comments can’t be taken as official policy.

We simply don’t know yet what the Liberals will do. They might go ahead with the Emerson recommendations. They might want something else, like a recent proposal from an organization that bills itself as the largest hi-tech association in Canada.

In a Globe and Mail article, Tech alliance pushes for federal innovation ministry, the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) said the government should replace Industry Canada with a ministry that puts science, technology and business innovation under a senior cabinet minister. The minister would have the resources to improve Canada’s private-sector research and development efforts. This ministry might be a logical place to put space.

And what about the Canadian Space Agency? What does the government want it to do? How will it fit in?

Between budget cuts and changing priorities based on political whims, the CSA has suffered from a case of Dissociative Identity Disorder. They’ve been relegated to the sidelines for the most part, an example being the funding announcements for space projects made by then Industry Minister James Moore before the election was called. The current CSA president, Sylvain Laporte, was nowhere to be seen, even though the money for the most part was coming from the CSA.

Having answers to these questions isn’t enough. One huge piece of the puzzle remains. The government has choices, but the choices are a collection of parts. It’s like having all of the supplies to build a house but no building plan. How does the government make it all work? Where’s the plan, specifically a 5- and 10-year space plan?

The Conservative government promised a space plan by 2014 but didn't deliver. The Liberals promised a long-term space plan as part of their election platform. None of the ideas under consideration will go anywhere without that plan.

The government needs to accomplish four goals:
  • Develop a 5- and 10-year space plan.
  • Pick a model for the space industry that fits the plan. It might be Emerson, it might be something else, but it must fit the plan.
  • Decide what the CSA’s role will be. A reduced role, a greater role, part of a new combined science and technology strategy, a stand-alone role?
  • Decide how much money it will take to make the plan work and provide it.
If the Liberals can get this right, Canada may finally be on its way back as a significant player in space.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Russia’s space plans more fantasy than fact

When is a space announcement not worth a plugged kopek? When it’s about Russia’s space plans.

Roscosmos is assessing its future programs, an article from the Commercial Space Blog, outlined some of Russia’s ambitious space plans: A low-orbit space station, a high-orbit space station, a super heavy-lift Moon rocket, nuclear space tugs, and a Moon base.

Ah yes, the Moon base, Russia’s pet fixation. Back in 2012 Russia wanted to team up with the United States and Europe to build a research colony on the Moon. Earlier this year the Russians wanted to buddy up with the Chinese on the Moon base idea.

It seems that the only country Russia hasn’t yet considered as a Moon base partner is the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.

Russia released its newest space plan for 2016-2025 last April 23. As reported by SpaceFlight Insider, Russia’s new space program: Search for extraterrestrial life amid budget cuts, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, wants to search for extraterrestrial life and send satellites to the Moon and Mars. Those Moon landing plans are still in there, too.

Roscosmos has one small problem—their budget has been cut by 35%, which will affect some of those projects including that Moon rocket.

All of the grand plans announced over the past few years are more fantasy than fact. A song from a 1972 movie musical called “Cabaret” sums up why. The song is called “Money.”
Money makes the world go around
The world go around
The world go around
Money makes the world go around
It makes the world go ‘round.
Money also makes space programs go ‘round. That’s why you can disregard these announcements. Russia doesn’t have the money.

What’s causing Russia’s monetary grief? For one thing, sticky fingers.

Some comrades have taken the words of the song to heart...just not in a state-approved way. A Moscow Times story, $126 million stolen from Russian Vostochny Cosmodrome project - Prosecutor General, says contractors at the site of the new spaceport in Russia’s Far East have skimmed 7.5 billion rubles (US$126 million) despite warnings from Russian President Vladimir Putin that they were being watched.

One of those enterprising nouveau capitalists, accused of swiping 4 million rubles (US$75,000), was highlighted in The Siberian Times story Got him! Director accused of fraud at new spaceport is detained in Belarus. He was arrested while driving his diamond-encrusted Mercedes. (Is driving around in a bejewelled Mercedes chic, gauche, or just “hey, investigate me” dumb?)

Even without the embezzling, the Vostochny facility has problems. A Sputnik International article, First manned launch from Russia's Vostochny Cosmodrome delayed until 2025, quotes a Roscosmos offical as saying the first crewed launch at the Cosmodrome has been pushed back from 2018 to 2025. They’ve decided to wait for the new Angara rocket rather than using the site for the older Soyuz.

It’s the same Angara rocket that’s been under development since the early 1990s and has been delayed because guessed it—money, money, money.

But it took more than creative skimming to put Russia in this mess.

According to an article in The Telegraph, Oil and gas crunch pushes Russia closer to fiscal crisis, the big problem is the resource-based Russian economy.

Revenues from oil and gas are dropping due to reduced demand from Europe. Foreign partners have pulled back from development projects because of the political sanctions over Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.

Russia made a big bet on the oil and gas industry. They let their manufacturing base erode and failed to develop a high tech industry. They have nothing to pick up the slack due to falling oil prices.

Some analysts say there is some good news. The Moscow Times reports in Is the worst of Russia's economic crisis over? that the economic decline may have bottomed out.

Don’t break out the vodka just yet, though. The prognosis is “cloudy” because the measures taken—the government devalued the ruble and increased spending to prop up the economy—were used twice before during recessions. The benefits in each case were short-lived.

The story goes on to say that this strategy has prevented the Russian economy from diversifying, which maintains the status quo and leads to a new financial crisis.

Russia’s economic problems are starving their exploration and commercial space programs of the money they need, putting Russia further behind other space nations.

Money makes the world, and space programs, go ‘round. It could be that the only spinning the Russian space program will be doing is spinning its wheels.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

‘Space is hard’ did not cause SpaceShipTwo crash

Whenever a space-related accident happens, people chant “space is hard.”

Not this time. Virgin Galactic’s (VG) SpaceShipTwo (SS2) did not disintegrate and crash on October 31, 2014 near Koehn Dry Lake, California, because space is hard. A July 28, 2015 public meeting at National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) headquarters in Washington, D.C. made that clear.

The NTSB said SS2 broke up over the desert and crashed due to failings in planning, design, training, and certification. They didn’t mention unrealistic expectations from impatient know-nothings, but they could have.

Note that the written report, released as part of the minutes of the meeting under the title, In-Flight breakup during test flight, Scaled Composites SpaceShipTwo, N339SS, near Koehn Dry Lake, California October 31, 2014, doesn’t include the NTSB’s reasons for its findings. The full report is coming soon.


The NTSB said the accident happened because SS2’s co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, unlocked the feathering system too soon.

The feathering system moves the tail assembly of SS2 to a position that increases drag to slow down the ship during re-entry. Although moving the assembly is a separate action from unlocking it, the aerodynamic load at that point in the flight overwhelmed the unlocked assembly, causing it to move prematurely. The resulting drag increased the aerodynamic load to the point where the ship broke up and crashed.

Some people will see “pilot error” and think that’s the main reason for the accident. The co-pilot, although an experienced and competent flyer, made a fatal mistake. The history of aviation is filled with similar stories. Blaming the co-pilot alone, though, is misguided.

Wayne Hale, a former NASA Space Shuttle program manager and Space Shuttle flight director explains in a blog post, Pilot error is never root cause, that pilot error is the end result of systemic failures. Mr. Hale says, “Pilot error is never ever a root cause.”

The NTSB report clearly states that Scaled Composites (SC), the company that built SS2 for Virgin Galactic, should have put in design features to prevent the co-pilot’s mistake. Instead, they ignored human factors entirely in their risk assessment and assumed the pilots would do everything perfectly.


Then there’s the performance, or non-performance, of the the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Doug Messier at Parabolic Arc wrote an excellent article about the FAA’s role in the accident, Experts: FAA review process for SpaceShipTwo flawed, subject to political pressure. It’s a good read about an ugly situation. Expect to hear more about this.

Veteran space writer Alan Boyle writes in an article at GeekWire, SpaceShipTwo findings put more pressure on FAA, that a number of companies besides Virgin Galactic are preparing their vehicles for testing. The FAA seems to be ill-equipped to deal with the situation without significant changes to their procedures.


The report may have convinced a flamboyant billionaire named Richard Branson to stop spin-doctoring facts and making rash promises about things he doesn’t understand. Well, mostly.

Based on his comments in a blog post at VG’s website, The end of NTSB’s investigation and the future of Virgin Galactic, our flamboyant billionaire thinks the NTSB report concludes the design of SS2 is sound. Two NTSB members, Chairman Christopher Hart and board member Robert Sumwalt, say otherwise.

Although the report doesn’t find evidence of structural, system, or engine failures, what our flamboyant billionaire overlooks is that a single point of failure due to human error is a design flaw. Both Mr. Hart and Mr. Sumwalt say so in a CBC News article, Virgin Galactic didn't prepare for human error ahead of SpaceShipTwo crash, NTSB.

It does seem that our flamboyant billionaire has gotten most of the message. In a document called VG & TSC NTSB Investigation Press Release, under Recommendations on page 6 it says the company will “Conduct a comprehensive internal safety review of all SpaceShipTwo systems to identify and eliminate any single-point human performance actions that could result in a catastrophic event.”

Under Status it says, “An initial assessment was completed and modifications to SS2-002 are in progress. Virgin Galactic will continually evaluate and improve System Safety throughout SpaceShipTwo’s lifecycle.”


Going forward, if the recommendations of the NTSB report are acted on industry-wide, experimental commercial space flight should be safer.

For those who still aren’t convinced that “space is hard” didn’t cause the SpaceShipTwo accident, perhaps a quote from NTSB Chairman Hart at the hearing will do the trick. The quote appears in the previously referenced CBC News article.

Many of the safety issues that we will hear about today arose not from the novelty of a space launch test flight, but from human factors that were already known elsewhere in transportation.”

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Jobu won’t save your space start-up: Do it yourself

The Commercial Space Blog post Mother’s milk is drying up for space companies outlines how governments are cutting back on funding for the space industry. Companies can no longer expect to succeed with government contracts alone.

That story was about existing companies. What about start-ups? How are they affected?

The short answer is this: Don’t factor government funding into your business plan. As Pedro Cerrano would tell you, don’t worship at the alter of Jobu. You can’t rely on him.

You probably need an explanation about who Cerrano is. We’ll have to take a side trip into the world of voodoo for that.

A comedy movie from 1989 called “Major League” tells the story of a major league baseball team that was built to lose so the owner could move the team out of Cleveland. The team surprises everyone, though, by tying for first place with their bitter rivals, the New York Yankees. A one-game playoff will decide their fate. They need a big game from Pedro Cerrano, the team’s power hitter.

Cerrano is a great fastball hitter but he can’t hit a curveball to save his life. He believes that a voodoo god named Jobu (pronounced Joe-BOO) can help him hit curveballs. Over the course of the season Cerrano appealed to Jobu for help, with little success.

It’s late in the game and Cleveland is behind. Cerrano comes up to bat. The Yankee pitcher gets two quick strikes on him with curveballs. Feeling abandoned by his unhelpful voodoo god, Cerrano curses and declares that he’s done with Jobu—he’ll do it himself. On the next pitch, another curveball, Cerrano hits it out of the park.

Cerrano learns not to count on an unreliable saviour. Neither should you.

Have you based any part of your start-up plan on government funding? You’re putting your faith in Jobu. Governments blow with the wind. They can pull the plug on you at any time.

That’s assuming your start-up can get any money at all. Recent events suggest you probably can’t.

The Canadian government announced last May 29 that they would give $13.1 Million in funding through the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) Space Technology Development Program (STDP) to 21 technology companies. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

You’ve probably heard the expression the devil is in the details. Substitute Jobu for devil.

If you look at the list of companies in the announcement's backgrounder, you’ll see that the government’s investment is limited in any one project to a maximum of 75%. The companies must provide a minimum of 25% of the money.

You might also notice that many of the projects are for enhancing existing technologies. And most of the companies that are creating new applications seem to be beyond the initial development process.

Small Canadian firm uses tiny materials to big effect, a Commercial Space Blog article, is a striking example.

Integran Technologies of Mississauga, ON received $200,000 from STDP to “test and optimize a novel nano-material that has equivalent or better performance than aluminum in mechanical strength and stiffness.”

Integran has financial backing from Ontario Power Generation, the crown corporation for electricity generation in Ontario, and Babcock and Wilcox, a big energy products and services company. Integran also has a developed product and licensees in Canada, the United States, Mexico, and China.

The message for brand-spanking-new companies with nothing more than a concept seems to be this: Let us know when you can make some money and maybe we’ll give you a few bucks. Until then, we’ll concentrate on the sure things.

That doesn’t mean don’t take any government money. If you can get it, sure, take it. In fact the Commercial Space Blog has a relevant article worth looking at, Government organizations of interest to the space industry. These agencies may be able to help you find funding.

Just don’t count on government subsidies. The Jekyll and Hyde personality of government is nothing to bank on.

If your plan depends on government funding for your company to succeed, you have a bad plan.

Yes, that’s harsh. So is bankruptcy.

Listen to Cerrano. Don’t depend on Jobu. Do it yourself.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Mother’s milk is drying up for space companies

Government contracts have been mother’s milk for space companies, but the milk has run low and those companies are crying from hunger.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) of Bethesda, MD, is feeling the hunger pangs. So is MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) of Richmond, BC. And it’s even worse for the little comrades in Russia.

In an article at Via Satellite, ULA eager to tap commercial market with Vulcan rocket, Salvatore “Tory” Bruno, president of ULA, said his company must find more commercial customers to survive. Not just to do OK—to survive.

ULA used to get 10 to 12 U.S. government contracts a year, but that number is dropping as the government cuts back on national security launches. To make matters worse for ULA, their main rival, SpaceX of Hawthorne, CA, has just been certified by the United States Air Force for national security launches. Going forward, Bruno thinks ULA might only get two or three government launches a year.

In Canada, MDA has repeatedly said they have to find customers outside of Canada because Canadian government business is drying up.

The irony is MDA bought an American company, Space Systems Loral (SSL), in 2012 to offset this problem. The U.S. government’s recent cutbacks on space contracts has left MDA, just like ULA, scrambling for more commercial business.

Government contracts haven’t dried up completely. Recently MDA got a contract from the Canadian Space Agency to continue providing maintenance for the Mobile Servicing System on the International Space Station.

Maintenance contracts, though, can’t keep a hungry space company satisfied for long. They need new projects. The only new Canadian government project on the horizon is the Polar Communication and Weather satellite (PCW) mission.

As outlined in a Commercial Space Blog article, Team Canada solution for PCW mission competing against U.S. bid, PCW consists of two communications satellites that will monitor the high Canadian Arctic. A consortium of three Canadian companies—Telesat, COM DEV, and MDA—is bidding on it. They’re facing stiff competition from American companies like Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, MD.

How critical is it for the consortium to get this contract? This is the only big Canadian government space project in the works right now. Nothing else is planned for the next few years.

So how do the Russians fit into the scenario? On the surface they don’t because the Russian government has been pumping money into their space industry for a few years now. Or so it seemed.

An article at the Moscow Times, Audit reveals $1.8 billion financial violations at Russia's space agency, outlines corruption in Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. Other officials, including the prime contractor for Russia’s new spaceport at Vostochny, have also been caught dipping their beaks in the milk. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin is pouring more money into Vostochny in an attempt to keep the work on schedule.

Yes, the money is flowing like salts through a goose, but you know what comes out of the goose. The Russian space industry isn’t getting the money and they’re in the same boat as their North American cousins. Unlike their cousins, though, the Russians are likely going to lose commercial market share because their rockets have been blowing up a lot lately.

The good news is that government spending is expected to grow. Euroconsult—moderate growth projected for government space programs (analysis/report) an article at Satnews, references a report released in July 2014 by Euroconsult, a global consulting firm. Euroconsult says the recent dip in government spending will recover as we enter a new growth cycle.

However, even with more money available, there’s no guarantee that governments will fund new space projects. And with a federal election coming this fall in Canada, who knows what will happen to funding for space projects here.

The day when a space company’s business plan could be built on a steady stream of government work alone is gone. You’d better be diversified if you want to be in the game for the long haul.

It’s enough to make a space company president spit up.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Newfoundland: A communications centre moves into the space age

The history begins over 300 years ago with signal flags. It continues today with radio communications into low Earth orbit.

As noted in a CBC News article, Kenmount Road company assists in SpaceX flight to space station, during that SpaceX launch a man with a distinctive Newfoundland accent said, “Acquisition signal Newfoundland, Canada.”

A tracking station in St. John’s was monitoring the April 14, 2015, SpaceX launch of their Dragon spacecraft heading for the International Space Station.

Newfoundland’s role in communications doesn’t begin with space flight. It goes back to the 1700s.

According to the Signal Hill National Historic Site of Canada page at the web site Canada’s Historic Places, Signal Hill in St. John’s was a site for military communications during the periods 1660-1697, 1697-1870, World War I, and World War II.

The web site notes that Cabot Tower on Signal Hill, built between 1898-1900, was used as a flag signalling tower until 1958. From 1933 to 1949 the Canadian Marconi Company operated a wireless station there. From 1949 to 1960, the Canadian Department of Transport operated the station.

Signal Hill is just one location that has a place in Newfoundland’s communications history. The town of Heart’s Content is another.

The 19th Century Communications and Transportation page at The Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site notes that Heart’s Content was the western terminus of the first transatlantic telegraph cable connecting North America to Europe. The site was active for almost 100 years up until its closing in 1965.

Newfoundland played a crucial role in establishing the next advancement in communications. The Marconi page at The Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site notes that Signal Hill was the site where Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless signal on December 12, 1901, from Poldhu, Cornwall, England.

This wasn’t Marconi’s only achievement in Newfoundland. The wireless station he built at Cape Race in 1904 is known for receiving the distress signal from the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Titanic after it hit an iceberg and sank.

Marconi’s next success occurred in 1920 when he established wireless communications with the S.S. Victorian at a distance of about 1,931 km (1,200 miles) from St. John’s.

Another first for Newfoundland came in telephone communications. The Post-1949 Communications and Transportation page at The Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site outlines the role Newfoundland played in the laying of the first transatlantic submarine telephone cable in 1955.

Besides the previously mentioned connection to space flight, Newfoundland has been a testing ground for space-based communications systems. The NASA Technical Reports Server (NTRS) lists a January 1, 1995 NASA report describing a joint Canadian-American research project testing alternative means of communicating in the far north. The team tested signals between a Canadian ice breaker and a ground station in St. John’s by way of a low-Earth-orbit satellite.

Newfoundland is also a meeting place for communication professionals. The 36th Canadian Symposium on Remote Sensing will take place starting June 8, 2015, in St. John’s. The 9th symposium took place in St. John’s in 1984.

Newfoundland has a long history of firsts in the communications world. From signal flags to spaceship tracking, Newfoundland will continue to play a leading role in Earth-based and low-Earth-orbit communications—and perhaps beyond.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The ugly battle over the David Dunlap Observatory

Sometimes the real story is in what isn’t being said, like the April 15, 2015, press release from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada Toronto Centre (RASC). They announced that Corsica Development was donating the David Dunlap Observatory (DDO) to them. Corsica, a subsidiary of Metrus Development, is the current owner of the land.

What the press release doesn’t mention is the conflict, the mudslinging, the pressure tactics, or the broken relationships over DDO.

The David Dunlap Observatory opened in 1935 in Richmond Hill, Ontario, a town just north of Toronto. David Dunlap, a mining executive, wanted to endow the University of Toronto (U of T) to build a new observatory. After Mr. Dunlap died in 1924 his widow, Jessie, went ahead with the endowment.

The observatory houses a 1.9-metre (74-inch) reflecting telescope, at that time the largest in Canada and second largest in the world.

Astronomers did groundbreaking work at DDO. Helen Sawyer Hogg publishing a major catalogue of variable stars and globular clusters. Sidney van den Bergh expanded the David Dunlap Observatory Catalogue, a database of dwarf galaxies. Tom Bolton was one of first astronomers to find evidence of black holes.

Over time newer facilities surpassed the observatory, and local development closed in around it. The university announced in 2007 that they would close DDO and put the property up for sale.

That’s when the simmering conflict over the future of DDO boiled over.

As outlined in the Globe and Mail, From stargazing to navel-gazing: Astronomers feud over historic observatory, the university sold the 77-hectare (190-acre) property in 2008 to Corsica Development. Corsica wanted an astronomy group to operate the observatory. Two groups wanted it: RASC, and a group of astronomers called the David Dunlap Observatory Defenders (DDOD). Corsica chose RASC.

In response to the decision, the Defenders tried to block the opening. They said the telescope was a precious piece of Canadian heritage and expert astronomers should operate it, not amateurs as they claimed RASC members were.

Their attempt failed and DDO reopen in July 2009 under the care of RASC.

An article from The Varsity, the U of T’s student newspaper, raised questions about the university’s motives for selling the land and if they had the legal right to sell.

As outlined in the story, U of T and the Dunlap Observatory: 'A breach of public trust'?, the U of T said they wanted to sell the property because light pollution made the telescope unusable for research. The Defenders disputed that claim. Both they and a Richmond Hill official said the sale was about maximizing financial return, not science.

The Varsity also said the deal violated the terms of the endowment, which said that the land must be used for research or ownership would revert to the Dunlap heirs.

Did the U of T have the legal right to sell the property? The university’s actions suggest it did not.

Two of the heirs agreed to the university’s plan after a few months but the third, Donalda Robarts, held out. She launched a lawsuit. After 4 years of intensive lobbying by the university, Robarts gave in. Her lawsuit was settled and the records were sealed.

The fighting continued over the next several years between the groups—the developer, the astronomers, the town of Richmond Hill, and a group called the Richmond Hill Naturalists.

As outlined in a Globe and Mail story, Fight over David Dunlap Observatory lands ends peacefully, the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) got the groups to negotiate a settlement. (The 24-page decision is here.)

Corsica Development could build 520 housing units on the site; the town of Richmond Hill would get ownership of the observatory and its surrounding land.

The Naturalists were the lone holdout to the deal. The OMB rejected their appeal.

The conciliatory tone of the article suggested that the war was over—prematurely, as it turned out.

In an editorial at the website, Competing observatory groups should work together, said the sniping continued in letters to them from some of the groups members. The editorial ended with a plea to the groups to put aside the bad blood and work together.

As further evidence that all is still not well, that donation from Corsica to RASC is not sitting well with some.

In a later article at, Richmond Hill observatory donation by developer raises concerns, the Defenders claim that because RASC is a registered charity, not a public agency as the agreement stipulated, the donation violates the terms of the settlement. Another lawsuit could be coming.

This is a familiar story: competing visions, elitism and a sense of entitlement, the tempting smell of money, hardening battle lines, and a lengthy, exhausting process with no one coming out looking good.

It’s too bad that in their winner-take-all battle over a reflecting telescope, the combatants didn’t do a bit of reflecting of their own.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The growth of space-based STEM for kids in Canada

Affordable and available. Nothing is widely adopted without meeting those two requirements.

Affordability and availability also matter in promoting space-based science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.

STEM programs have been around for decades; astronomy, rocketry, and other space-related activities have been part of it. Getting a student project into space, though, wasn’t easy due to the expense and the limited number of launches.

With the introduction of inexpensive microsatellites, a growing commercial launch market, interest in space-based STEM from tech companies, and crowdfunding campaigns, even elementary school students can get their projects into low Earth orbit.

Space-based STEM Stories in the News

As space-based STEM projects for Canadian elementary schools become more common, so do media reports about them.

B.C. students’ space project set for liftoff once more is a story about 4 boys from McGowan Park Elementary School in Kamloops, B.C., who won a NASA-supported contest to have their experiment flown to the International Space Station (ISS). The experiment was to see how a zero-gravity environment affected the growth of crystals.

The boys ran into some trouble along the way. The Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket that carried their experiment exploded during its launch from the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia, on October 28, 2014.

The boys got another chance to launch, this time successfully, on a SpaceX flight to the ISS on January 10, 2015. They’ve also learned—the hard way—why people say space is hard.

The Interlake School division, located about 25 km north of Winnipeg, won a competition to fly an experiment to the ISS. As noted in the story, From Interlake to space for winning science project, an astronaut did the experiment and reported the results to the 450 Grade 5 and 6 Interlake students.

As noted on their website, the University of Toronto Schools (UTS) from Toronto, Ontario, was the third Canadian school and the first Ontario school to be accepted into the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP). As described on the SSEP website, the program is “...a model U.S. national STEM education initiative for Grades 5-16 to inspire the next generation of America’s scientists and engineers.” The Grade 9 students from UTS will have a microgravity experiment flown to the ISS.

What makes this story different is the students had to raise $11,500 on their own. They ran a Kickstarter campaign and raised the entire amount, guaranteeing their participation in the project.

The Halton Catholic District School Board website features a story about St. Matthew Catholic Elementary students from Burlington, Ontario, participating in a project called the Tomatosphere Club.

The club is a research project involving about 17,000 Canadian and US students from Grades 2 to 10. The students planted and studied 2 groups of tomato seeds—a control group and a group that spent 22 months on the ISS—to see if the space seeds grew differently.

Bloomfield Elementary School teacher inspires successful Space Academy program is a story about 87 students at Bloomfield Elementary School in Prince Edward Island. The students, from Kindergarten to Grade 8, built and launched their own rockets.

They used NASA’s BEST (Beginning Engineering, Science, and Technology) Program to guide their project. The BEST program teaches kids about rocketry, robotics, computer programming, and the engineering design process.

Here are two points worth noting—more companies are supporting student space-based STEM projects, and some projects are international.

A posting at Canadensys Aerospace’s website called Canadian school joins world’s first elementary school space mission talks about Canadensys Aerospace of Bolton, Ontario, teaming up with St. John Paul II Catholic School, also in Bolton, for an international space project.

The school will provide a Remote Mission Operations Center (RMOC) for a satellite built by an elementary school in the United States. The entire student body at the Bolton, Ontario, school will participate in the project.

The Problems Facing STEM Education in Canada

As inspiring as these stories might be, there are too few of them. According to a story from called Weird science: STEM fields face image problem in K-to-12 schools, STEM education in general is lagging in Canada.

Data from a 2011 National Household Survey at the Statistics Canada website shows that STEM graduates make up only 18.6% of post-secondary graduates.

The Conference Board of Canada’s website shows that Canada ranks 12th out of 16th in a 2011 study of peer countries that produce STEM graduates in science, math, computer science, and engineering.

Canada also needs to do more to achieve gender balance in STEM. A publication at the Statistics Canada website from December 18, 2013, called Gender differences in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science (STEM) programs at university concludes that more work is needed to achieve a better gender balance in STEM careers.
“Over the past few decades, women have made significant advances in university participation, including program areas that had previously been more populated by men. One area, however, remains male-dominated: science, technology, engineering and mathematical (STEM) degrees. And among women who choose to pursue a degree in STEM, most do so in biology or science programs, resulting in even fewer women in engineering, computer science and mathematics programs. These choices have consequences, as fields of study such as engineering and computer science lead, on average, to better outcomes in the labour market in terms of employment, job match and earnings.
For some, aptitude for a particular subject is a factor in university program choice. Although mathematical ability plays a role, it does not explain gender differences in STEM choices. Young women with a high level of mathematical ability are significantly less likely to enter STEM fields than young men, even young men with a lower level of mathematical ability. This suggests that the gender gap in STEM-related programs is due to other factors. Other possible explanations might include differences in labour market expectations including family and work balance, differences in motivation and interest, and other influences.”
As space resources become more affordable and available, the number of children who benefit from space-based STEM projects will likely multiply.

But as the statistics show for STEM in general, Canada still has a way to go before we can confidently say that the next generation will be ready to meet the challenges of the future.

Public and Private STEM Resources

This is a sampling of national organizations and government resources in Canada aimed at STEM education for younger children.


Actua’s beginnings go back to 1988 with a student-run science and engineering camp at Queen’s University. The idea spread to other universities, and Actua was formed in 1993 with funding from Industry Canada. Funding now comes from public and private organizations.

Actua specializes in programs at day camps, workshops, clubs, and community outreach programs for aboriginal children, girls, and underprivileged children.

They do this by one of 2 ways: through a membership of 32 Canadian universities and colleges, and with their own team of outreach instructors who travel to different parts of Canada, including remote areas.

According to the statistics on their website, they connect with 225,000 kids from ages 6 to 16 in 450 to 500 communities across Canada each year.

Let’s Talk Science

Founded in 1993 by Dr. Bonnie Schmidt, Let’s Talk Science is a national, charitable organization headquartered in London, Ontario. They focus on training volunteers to teach science to kids in an entertaining, effective way.

According to the programs page on their website, Let’s Talk Science offers “...a full suite of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs for Kindergarten to Grade 12 educators, including hands-on STEM classroom outreach, online chat forums, program planning resources, action projects and professional learning opportunities.

Let’s Talk Science partners with 41 colleges and universities across Canada. The colleges and universities act as the contact points for the organization’s main program, Let’s Talk Science Outreach. They help train and place volunteers, as well as set up the program for elementary schools, high schools, libraries, and community organizations.

The organization has also done 20 research studies on science education.

Funding comes from public and private organizations, and through individual donations.

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)

NSERC has 2 programs:
  • The PromoScience Program grants up to $2.75 million in funding each year to organizations that provide a hands-on learning experience for kids in STEM education.
The 5 Chairs represent regions in the Atlantic provinces, Quebec, Ontario, the Prairie provinces, and British Columbia/Yukon.

Resources at

The government of Canada has links to STEM resources for kindergarten and elementary schools on their web page. These resources come from other government agencies like Environment Canada, the Canadian Space Agency, the Canada Science and Technology Museum, the Canada Agriculture Museum, and more.

Canadian Space Agency

The Canadian Space Agency has an educators resource page featuring astronomy and space-based information and projects for elementary and secondary students.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

ULA vs SpaceX: The empire strikes back

The book says that a large, established company can’t be as nimble as a small company. The big guy just can’t change direction fast enough to ward off the brash upstart. United Launch Alliance (ULA) is out to prove that some books should be left on the shelf to collect dust.

Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Company set up ULA as a joint venture in 2006. ULA’s Delta IV and Atlas V rockets have an enviable record of launching dozens of U.S. Air Force (USAF) payloads over the years.

Enter the aggressive startup. SpaceX of Hawthorne, CA, wants some of that lucrative USAF business. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, saw his chance at the March 5, 2014, meeting of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. He launched his attack at what he saw as ULA’s big weakness: Cost.

As outlined in an article at, SpaceX and ULA go toe-to-toe over EELV contracts, Musk claimed that the USAF paid ULA more than $380 million per launch. SpaceX, he said, could do the same launches for under $90 million. He also pointed out that ULA’s Atlas V rocket uses a Russian RD-180 engine, a potential problem due to the current political tensions over Ukraine.

Now, back to the point about those slow-to-respond established mammoths of industry. Some big companies would have shrugged off the attack from the upstart and carried on as before.

That seemed to be the case with ULA. As mentioned in the NASASpaceFlight article, Michael Gass, ULA’s CEO at the time, said little more than ULA had a great track record and Musk’s numbers were categorically wrong.

ULA’s plans for change must have been in the works—rocket development has a long lead time—but for whatever reason, the board decided that Gass wasn’t the right guy to lead that change. He was replaced by Salvatore “Tory” Bruno, the president of Lockheed Martin Strategic and Missile Defense Systems, on August 12, 2014.

PR-speak often veils true meaning in the corporate world, but it’s easy to read between the lines in a statement Gass made that’s quoted in United Launch Alliance Taps a Lockheed Executive To Replace CEO Gass, an article at SpaceNews.
... Gass said he had planned to retire ‘in the near term’ but with ‘the changing industry landscape over the next several years, the Board of Directors and I have agreed that the immediate appointment of my successor to begin the leadership transition is in the best interest of the company.’
The new guy didn’t waste any time making it clear to SpaceX that they were in for a fight. In a Denver Business Journal article, ULA plans new rocket, restructuring to cut launch costs in half, Bruno addressed the cost factor directly.
We’re cutting [ launch cost] in half again, we’re getting in to the commercial [launch] marketplace. We will also adjust design our teams and our organization to be the most effective at delivering that.”
Bruno again outlined his plans in an article in Aviation Week, New Rocket, White Tails In ULA’s Long-Term Strategy.

Two projects are under way: a new upper stage to replace the existing RL-10 upper stage, and a new booster called the Next-Generation Launch System (NGLS).

The new booster/upper stage combination will replace both the Atlas V and the Delta IV rockets. A new methane/liquid oxygen (LOX) engine from Blue Origin, the company owned by tycoon Jeff Bezos, will provide the power.

Flight testing for the NGLS is scheduled for 2019.

ULA will also reduce the number of launch pads it maintains from 5 to 2. The one on the east coast will support the last launches of the Atlas V and Delta IV, as well as the NGLS.

Further evidence shows that ULA is thinking more like a competitive commercial company. They’re ordering hardware further in advance than they used to for white tail rockets (vehicles that haven’t been sold yet) for an expected increase in business. The old, conservative ULA was loath to order parts without a committed customer.

Where’s that increased business coming from? NASA commercial launches and non-governmental commercial launches of communications satellites. Bruno said in the Aviation Week article, “We intend to go aggressively now after NASA commercial activities—cargo and crew—as well as pursuing [the] commercial market place which is largely comsats in the GEO orbit.”

Bruno’s moves aren’t just behind the scenes. His public profile is noticeably higher than the previous CEO’s. An article at Adweek, Meet the Most Interesting Space CEO You’re Not Following on Twitter, covers Bruno’s entry into social media. He has a lot to say in his Twitter account, @torybruno, about his company, the industry, and his main competitor. He even jokes around with someone who created a fake Tory Bruno Twitter account.

Some big companies falter when they’re pushed by a new, innovative competitor. Some, like ULA, fight back. In the end, commercial space should benefit from the innovation that comes from the competition between these two nimble companies.