Sunday, November 27, 2016

New space policy for Canada coming in June 2017

If you like the Emerson aerospace report, you'll probably like the government's new space plan, scheduled for release in June 2017.

You might want to get reacquainted with that report, known officially as The Aerospace Review: Volume 2: Reaching Higher: Canada's Interests and Future in Space. The previous Conservative government had commissioned former Member of Parliament David Emerson to create a framework for making the Canadian aerospace industry more competitive internationally.

The change of government after the October 2015 federal election didn't dampen enthusiasm for the report.

In November 2015, Navdeep Bains made his first public speech as Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) at an Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (AIAC) event in Ottawa. In that speech, Mr. Bains gave a clear signal that he was paying attention to the Emerson report.

Mr. Bains said, "my primary role is to represent all Canadian industry, including the aerospace and space sectors, at the Cabinet table..."

"...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 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)

This past October, a key element of the Emerson report dropped into place when ISED announced they were looking for qualified people to participate in a "revitalized" Space Advisory Board. (See the SpaceRef Canada article, Wanted: A few good space advisors.)

The board was created in 2014 by then Industry Minister James Moore. If you didn't know the board existed, don't feel bad—you're in good company. Of those that did know, many weren't sure who was on it, when it met, or what it did, if anything.

The next move came in early November when two events took place in Ottawa on the same day:
Mr. Bains said the new space policy will be part of the Innovation Agenda, the government's plan to make Canada a leader in 21st century technologies. That means space won't be a stand-alone program. The CSA will work with public- and private-sector stakeholders, as recommended by the Emerson report.

Mr. Laporte echoed the point at the CSCA event. He said that "space is going to be very tightly aligned with the Innovation Agenda going forward." He then went into detail about where the agency fits in with the government's plans.

Integrating space with the Innovation Agenda isn't a recent idea. It's been a regular theme from both Mr. Bains and Mr. Laporte over the past year.

One of the more significant ideas that came from the plenaries that followed the speeches at the CSCA event was the need for a "balanced, sustainable" space program.

If you want to know what that is, read the article at SpaceRef Canada, "A Balanced Space Program from the 2016 Space Policy Symposium." Participants from all sectors—government, industry, and academia—weighed in.

What does it all mean? Maybe, just maybe, a Canadian government is ready to get serious about space.

You'll have to wait until June to find out, though. At this point, cautious optimism may be the best reaction.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

SpaceX finds some answers, but is NASA starting to have second thoughts?

SpaceX is closer to understanding why their rocket exploded at Cape Canaveral's Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC 40) on September 1. They may also be getting closer to seriously upsetting NASA.

A September 23 statement on the SpaceX website said, "At this stage of the investigation, preliminary review of the data and debris suggests that a large breach in the cryogenic helium system of the second stage liquid oxygen tank took place."

This isn't the first time the second stage liquid oxygen tank has been involved in a mishap. A faulty strut inside a second stage oxygen tank was blamed for the destruction of a Falcon 9 rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station in June 2015.

Is there a connection between that incident and the recent one? According to SpaceX, no.

"Through the fault tree and data review process, we have exonerated any connection with last year's CRS-7 mishap."

Even if the cause is different from the last time, SpaceX has a problem with that second stage oxygen tank. And NASA is not convinced that a faulty strut was solely responsible for the first incident.

According to an article at Parabolic Arc, an investigation by NASA's Launch Services Program (LSP) uncovered several potential issues that could have contributed to the first accident.

Based on that LSP investigation, a recent report from the NASA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) said, "In addition to the material defects in the strut assembly SpaceX found during its testing, LSP pointed to manufacturing damage or improper installation of the assembly into the rocket as possible initiators of the failure."

The OIG report went on to say, "LSP also highlighted improper material selection and such practices as individuals standing on flight hardware during the assembly process, as possible contributing factors."

The LSP report noted that NASA was concerned about these issues. They sent a letter to SpaceX last February "...expressing concerns about the company's systems engineering and management practices, hardware installation and repair methods, and telemetry systems based on LSP's review of the failure."

The article at Parabolic Arc has further details and a link to the full OIG report.

Left unsaid is whether or not NASA is starting to run out of patience with SpaceX. Also unknown is whether or not Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, is paying attention to the gathering storm clouds.

Rocket accidents bring out the armchair analysts in droves claiming all sorts of things. One group of space cadets said an alien spaceship destroyed the rocket.

Perhaps the most interesting evaluation was done by a guy who goes by the name Thunderf00t. He did a 17-minute video analysis that identified the second stage oxygen tank as the likely problem. Keep in mind that his video came out before SpaceX's September 23 announcement.

That's all for this week. Let's see what new revelations emerge in the riveting space soap opera, As the Rocket Burns.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The fallout from SpaceX rocket explosion continues

SpaceX still doesn't know what caused their Falcon 9 rocket to explode at Cape Canaveral's Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC 40) on September 1. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk even turned to Twitter looking for help. He asked people to send him any video or pictures they might have of the incident, as noted in the story at Engadget, Elon Musk seeks public footage for SpaceX investigation.

(For background about the incident, read the blog post SpaceX accident bad news for space industry, including Canada.)

The media initially reported that no other launch pads were affected. In fact, if it wasn't for the quick work of emergency teams, the entire launch facility could have been shut down. That would have stopped the planned launch of NASA's OSIRIS-REx probe to the asteroid Bennu from nearby SLC 41.

Lieutenant Colonel Greg Lindsey of the 45th Mission Support Group at Cape Canaveral writes a fascinating account of how his group and others responded to the incident. If you only read one reference story in this article, read Emergency management: A behind the scenes look on the Eastern Range.

SpaceX will be grounded for an undetermined period. Other launch providers are looking to take advantage of SpaceX's downtime.

American company United Launch Alliance (ULA) said it has 1 or more slots open in 2017 on its Atlas V rocket. The company also announced a new program called RapidLaunch. ULA will build rockets without having customers for them, something they've never done before. This will get a new customer's payload into space in about 3 months, as opposed to the usual 2-3 years.

For more about ULA’s plans, read the story at SpaceNews, ULA says it could accommodate additional Atlas 5 launch next year.

Arianespace of Europe says a number of satellite operators have asked about open slots. Although the company said they only have 1 slot available for a large satellite launch by 2018, they're looking at ways of accommodating more customers.

Arianespace CEO Stephane Israel wants to work out a solution with other launch providers. That includes shifting a launch to a competitor's rocket, something that Arianespace did last year.

Mr. Israel also took a shot at SpaceX for the way the American company continually changes its rocket, saying they over-innovate and sometimes end up with an unstable system.

For more, read the story at Via Satellite, After SpaceX-Amos 6 loss, Arianespace sees demand surge.

Competition from ULA and Arianespace isn't all SpaceX has to worry about. An article at the Los Angeles Times, SpaceX faces a more crowded rocket launch market, even when it returns to flight, points out that other competitors, big and small, private and government-supported, are gearing up to grab a piece of the commercial launch market.

Mr. Israel isn't the only one who questions the way SpaceX is building its launch program. Unlike more conservative competitors, SpaceX tries to make big jumps. When they succeed, it's great. When they don't succeed....

The website Parabolic Arc takes a close look at SpaceX's unorthodox methodology in the article SpaceX: Giant leaps, deep troughs, but no plateaus.

Is SpaceX learning from their failures? Recent comments from the company's president, Gwynne Shotwell, might make a person wonder.

Shotwell is quoted in an article at Business Insider as saying the company anticipates flying again by November. Experienced space experts quoted in the article, SpaceX is 'unlikely' to start launching rockets again as quickly as it has said, doubt that it can be done unless the company can identify and fix the problem quickly. At this point, that seems unlikely.

It's a strange comment from someone who's been in the space business a while.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether SpaceX is pushing too hard. They're trying to recycle rockets. They're cutting out steps in the process to speed up launches. They're building a human-rated capsule to carry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. They want to send a Dragon capsule to land on Mars in the next couple of years.

Is it just too much for Elon Musk's team to handle?

More to come.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

SpaceX accident bad news for space industry, including Canada

Fact: Sometimes rockets blow up. Unusual fact: Rockets generally don't explode while they're fuelling up for a static test fire.

That's what happened to a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket last Thursday at Cape Canaveral's Space Launch Complex 40. The company was preparing for a launch of AMOS-6, a satellite from Israeli company Spacecom, when the accident occurred.

Within seconds, a fireball consumed the rocket, as the following video shows. (5:39)

Here's a roundup of relevant stories about the incident and the effect it could have on the space industry, including upcoming Canadian launches.

SpaceX will pay a price for what happened. They lost a rocket and a payload, the launch pad was damaged (how much damage is unknown at this time), and their reputation for reliability has taken a hit. At this point they must be hoping that the investigation shows the problem was with the launch pad and not the rocket.

But SpaceX isn’t the only one taking a hit. Their commercial customers are, too.

The loss of AMOS-6 could scuttle Spacecom's recent deal to sell the company to Beijing Xinwei Technology Group. The deal was contingent on AMOS-6 going into service.

Spacecom updated their status in a conference call on Sunday, as reported in an article at Fortune.

Other SpaceX customers, like Iridium Satellite Communications of McLean, Virginia, and SES of Luxembourg, may need to put a hold on planned launches. Eutelsat Communications of Paris said in a press release that they’ll lose up to US$56 million in revenue due to the satellite’s loss.

Also potentially affected are SpaceX launches for NASA, including cargo runs to the International Space Station (ISS), and NASA’s commercial crew program. SpaceX was one of the 2 companies selected to take astronauts to the ISS in 2018.

For more details, read the story at SpaceNews, Falcon 9 explosion could have ripple effects across space industry.

That ripple effect could be trouble for Canada, too.

According to a story at the Globe and Mail, Explosion of SpaceX rocket rattles global space industry, the Canadian Space Agency is planning on launching the RADARSAT Constellation on a Falcon 9. Telesat of Ottawa also has 2 satellite launches planned with SpaceX.

This is the second significant loss for SpaceX in the past 15 months. In June 2015, a SpaceX rocket taking supplies to the International Space Station was lost.

In their desire to cut costs and speed up the launch process, SpaceX does things other launch companies don't do, according to an article at, Falcon 9 pad explosion highlights unique aspect of SpaceX launch campaigns. Critics say SpaceX is trying to do too much, too fast.

Eric Berger at Ars Technica echos that perspective with his analysis, Op-ed: We love you SpaceX, and we hope you reach Mars. But we need you to focus.

According to Berger, SpaceX gets up to 85% of its revenue from NASA, and that's where the company should focus its attention.

OldSpace companies like United Launch Alliance and Ariane have been criticized for not changing their ways fast enough. Maybe they're moving slower because they learned something from their own early problems.

And maybe newcomers to the launch industry should pay closer attention to the lessons the old hands learned the hard way.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Fun and games with Arctic satellites

It seemed like a straightforward idea for a satellite project.

An article at SpaceNews, Canada eyes $2.4 billion Arctic satellite communications constellation, says that the Department of National Defence (DND) wants to build a communications satellite constellation up north. Everyone’s building satellite constellations now, right? Straightforward. Except it isn’t.

The DND project is a cut-down version of the original concept, the Polar and Communications Weather (PCW) mission.

PCW involved the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the DND, and Environment Canada. In this plan, 2 satellites would orbit over the North Pole, providing communications and weather forecasting for both the military and the civilian population in the Canadian Arctic.

Recently, Environment Canada pulled out of the PCW project, taking $10 million a year in funding with them. DND didn’t wait long to jump.

According to a DND spokesperson, the projected cost of PCW, $4.5 billion, was too high, and anyway, PCW was only a concept, not a real project.

The SpaceNews article says the DND knew senior government officials saw the constellation as a “key project.” Knowing they had political support, DND suggested an alternative without the civil component for $2.4 billion. Other governments—the United States, Denmark, and Norway—have made verbal commitments to participate and to provide money toward the operating costs.

And the CSA? Well, they probably served their purpose and were no longer needed.

Wait, there’s more. Let's toss in some new information.

An article at Motherboard, How Satellites Will Enable Canada to Surveil the Arctic With Drones, says that the military wants to improve the effectiveness of their Arctic surveillance drones by connecting them to the new satellites. The drones will need new ground stations to communicate with those satellites.

Let's see: $4.5 billion for the original PCW project minus $2.4 billion for the DND's revised satellite project leaves $2.1 billion, enough to pay for a ground station or two.

Keep in mind, the project isn’t funded yet, but then playing with uncommitted money is more fun than the real thing, isn't it?

So a project intended for civil and military use is now 100% military, with nothing on the horizon for the taxpayers in the region.

Arctic residents are unhappy with the decision, as noted in an opinion piece at Nunatsiaq Online, Arctic satellites should serve northerners. They need a new satellite system to improve civil communications and weather forecasting, serious problems affecting businesses and government in the Arctic region.

Now they’re left dangling, along with a number of unanswered questions about why it went this way.

According to the article, the original project was proceeding fine...and suddenly it wasn’t.

DND isn’t unsympathetic to the plight of the locals. A DND spokesperson said, “Ultimately there is a need for a different satellite solution to provide communications coverage of Canada’s domestic interests in the Arctic.” Left unsaid, perhaps, was, “But this one’s ours now, so take off, eh?”

If you want all of the “known” details, read the background information in the article links. Just don't expect to find anything straightforward about this.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Smiles all around as 2 Canadian satellites launch, but are some smiles forced?

A couple of Canadian satellites are now in orbit and everyone involved is smiling. Some of those smiles may be a little forced, though. Nobody said they were relieved but some of the participants probably are.

The Maritime Monitoring and Messaging Microsatellite (M3MSat), and GHGSat's CLAIRE launched on an Indian rocket from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on June 21, 2016.

M3MSat will monitor marine traffic and test new satellite technologies. (You can read more about M3MSat at the CSA’s web site.) CLAIRE will test a new way to monitor greenhouse gas emissions. (You can see a short video at Vimeo about what CLAIRE will do.)

Although the press release from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) didn’t say as much, the CSA and their project partners, Defence Research and Development Canada, must be pleased, if not down right relieved, that they finally got M3MSat into space.

The satellite was supposed to launch in June 2014 on a Russian rocket, but the Harper government wanted no truck or trade with the “Red Menace” and cancelled the flight.

Honeywell Canada (formerly COM DEV International) of Cambridge, Ontario, built the satellite. They didn’t issue a press release, but they must be happy. After all, if you build a satellite you want to see it fly, not collect dust in storage.

The University of Waterloo must be happy because their advanced Automatic Identification System (AIS) antenna is getting its first test in space. It’s a small antenna that can receive signals from any direction and will still work even if part of the antenna fails. (You can read more about the antenna at the CSA’s web site.)

exactEarth of Cambridge, Ontario, is happy—at least on the surface. In their June 22, 2016, press release, Peter Mabson, President of exactEarth said, "We are pleased to extend our congratulations to Defence Research and Development Canada and to the Canadian Space Agency on this significant achievement."

exactEarth might be pleased about the launch because the government gave the company an exclusive license to sell the data from M3MSat, as noted in the press release.

But perhaps mollified is a better word than pleased. That exclusive contract might help take the sting out of the lousy deal the government gave exactEarth for a maritime surveillance contract in May. As reported by SpaceNews, exactEarth bests Orbcomm for Canadian contract that shrank to a pittance, that deal was expected to be like the previous one, which came in at CAN$19 million. The new deal turned out to be worth CAN$116,000. Ouch.

The launch of the other satellite, CLAIRE, is the first flight into space for builders GHGSat of Montreal. How could you not be happy about your first satellite in space?

The University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies Space Flight Laboratory (UTIAS-SFL) built CLAIRE. They also helped build M3MSat, so they have 2 reasons to be pleased. And they are. They issued a press release saying they were “...pleased and excited over the successful launch and first contact with GHGSat-D.”

See? Pleased and excited.

So everyone is all smiles about the launch. Some participants might have added “relieved” or “mollified” to their press releases, but that would have been too blunt and, well, just not very Canadian.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Innovation Agenda could be a boon to Canadian space...if we speak up

Last week the federal government made 3 big space announcements. You may not have heard about the most important one because it didn’t mention space.

First, the 2 obvious space announcements:
Now, the announcement that probably slipped under your radar. The Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) issued a press release, Building an inclusive and innovative Canada.

(Note: You can also read the backgrounder, Positioning Canada to Lead: An Inclusive Innovation Agenda, for more details about the strategy.)

That last news release didn’t mention space, but it’s more important to the long-term health of Canada’s space industry than the other 2 announcements combined.

ISED Minister Navdeep Bains, along with Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science, and Bardish Chagger, Minister of Small Business and Tourism, want to make Canada a “global centre of innovation.”

As stated in the press release, the government is focusing on the following 6 areas:
  • promoting an entrepreneurial and creative society
  • supporting global science excellence
  • building world-leading clusters and partnerships
  • growing companies and accelerating clean growth
  • competing in a digital world
  • improving ease of doing business
Over the summer they want feedback from stakeholders through a website and through round-table discussions. That feedback will lead to an action plan.

Does space fit into this plan?

It sure does according to Sylvain Laporte, President of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Speaking at a recent Vancouver Board of Trade event, Mr. Laporte said the CSA’s focus is on innovation, especially within commercial space.

That’s likely no coincidence, seeing as how Mr. Laporte’s boss is Minister Bains. This focus acknowledges the role space can play in the Innovation Agenda.

We’ve seen plenty of government initiatives launched before. Won’t this one lead to the usual end result, a report collecting dust on a shelf?

According to Minister Bains it won’t. He said this in the press release:
We don't need another report on what our challenges are. We need fresh ideas and a joint action plan that will make innovation a national priority and put Canada on a firm path to long-term economic growth.
It’s easy to be cynical about government promises, but the stakes for Canadian space are too high for us to give in to cynicism.

The government is asking for input from stakeholders in all areas. If the space community doesn’t make itself heard, we’ll have only ourselves to blame if space gets left out.

That input can’t come from just the advocacy and industry groups as it has in the past. It also has to come from you, the space industry worker.

When that website goes live, speak up. Tell the government what the space industry can do if we have the support and resources. Tell the government what we need from them and how support for our industry will benefit Canada. And tell your co-workers about the site. We need everyone to participate. not get another chance any time soon.

June 22 Update: The Innovation Agenda website is now live. Start talking.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

‘Mushroom management’ and the Canadian space industry

According to the Urban Dictionary, mushroom management is a style of business management where people are kept in the dark and have dung thrown on them. (The Urban Dictionary uses a more colourful word for dung, but let’s keep this classy.)

Previous governments have been adept at mushroom managing the Canadian space industry. They’ve had a meeting or two (usually secret), a few photo ops, and that’s about all. It’s starting to look like the new Government of Canada is continuing that tradition with the recent meeting of the Space Advisory Board.

The board was set up in 2014 by Industry Minister James Moore from the previous Conservative government. According to the press release from 2014, the board “...will provide expert advice to the government on Canada's role and future in space. The board includes experts from across the country who will help lead Canada's space policy in the years ahead.

If you want to know who’s on the board, you can see a list in this post at the Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA). Note that this seems to be the only place you can find it.

Now, about that meeting. Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED), met with the Space Advisory Board on April 21, 2016. He tweeted this picture about it.


You probably didn’t know about the meeting since ISED didn’t announce it. Neither did the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The only mention of the meeting seems to be the tweet from the Minister’s Twitter account. And speaking of that account, don’t bother asking questions on it. Apparently, it’s for broadcast purposes only.

So what happened at the meeting? What was said?

Whatever it was, only the participants know. Nothing was released to the public, not even a simple press release. That’s in keeping with the secrecy of the previous meeting of the group with Mr. Moore. Nothing came out then, either.

When you consider that this new Liberal government made a big deal about transparency, you might think that they’d say something. After all, it’s in the public interest.

The ISED website has nothing. Neither does the Canadian Space Agency’s website. The CSA must have known about the meeting—the smiling man on the left in that photo is Sylvain Laporte, the CSA’s current president.

If they won’t tell us what’s going on then the best course of action is to ask them. I emailed ISED and asked if the details of what was discussed at the meeting would be made public.

ISED responded with this:
“As this was the first full meeting of Minister Bains with the Space Advisory Board, much of the discussion was about the Minister's priorities as part of his overall mandate, and in promoting a strong space program and ensuring a sustainable space sector. The meeting provided an opportunity to establish an open and ongoing dialogue as the Government's priorities on innovation, science and economic development take shape.
Minister Bains also highlighted the Government's support for the space sector, including Budget 2016 commitments to provide up to $379 million over eight years to extend Canada's participation in the International Space Station to 2024 and $30 million over four years to support Canada's participation in the European Space Agency's Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems program.”

OK, let’s say this meeting was meant to be nothing more than a meet-and-greet. Are they planning future meetings? I emailed that question to ISED.

This was the response (It’s not an excerpt. This was the entire response):
“It is expected that the Minister will meet with the Space Advisory Board again in the coming months.”

This is starting to take on a familiar smell, isn’t it?

I’m not trying to paint the ministry as the bad guys. It’s not like they aren’t doing anything for the space industry. For example, ISED helped Telesat get priority rights to Ka-band spectrum for the satellite constellation the company is developing.

But it’s not enough for ISED to work behind the scenes. They need to keep the industry aware of developments, and that includes meetings and events of significance. When that isn’t done, it sends a message: You guys aren’t important enough.

ISED thought it was important enough to issue a press release announcing Faster, more reliable Internet coming to rural British Columbia, but nothing about a meeting with an advisory board that could affect an entire industry, an industry that brought in $3.49 billion in 2013 to Canada’s economy?

Come on Minister Bains, shed a little light. Talk to us.

Curious mushrooms want to know.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

More needed to prepare young Canadians for STEM, space careers

Four stories turned up in the media last week about young Canadians excelling at space-related projects. On the surface, it looks like we’re doing fine preparing the next generation for the space industry, and for science careers in general.

Dig deeper, though, and the situation isn’t as good as it should be.

First, look at the successes noted just last week. At the university level:

At the high school level:

Yoon Shin is an 18-year-old student at St. Catharines Collegiate in St. Catharines, Ontario. What sets him apart from other students there is he already has his own rocket company and interest in his work from venture capitalists.

Shin was recently nominated as an aerospace semifinalist in the Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge, a worldwide competition funded by NASA, SpaceX, and Lockheed Martin. Read more in Teenager sets heights high in rocket science.

At the elementary school level:

Students from St. John Paul II Elementary School in Bolton, Ontario, will track a satellite from a Remote Mission Operations Centre (RMOC) built in their school. Canadensys Aerospace, a Bolton-area space company, is helping the students put it together and run it.

What's really interesting about this project is the students themselves. The entire student body of the school, kids in Kindergarten to Grade 8, will participate.

Talk about getting them young. Read more in Canadian students to conduct real space mission operations from their school.

Now for the other side of the story.

As noted in an in-depth story from 2015, The growth of space-based STEM for kids in Canada, students here lag behind those in other countries in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.

This story mentions various programs currently running that are preparing Canadian kids for the science world, but it also shows, through reports and statistics, that the overall effort isn’t coordinated well enough cross-country, leaving too many kids without adequate exposure to STEM subjects. And like other countries, we have a gender gap problem in the sciences.

The government seems to take this issue seriously. A number of recent announcements from Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Canada suggest that the government’s innovation agenda is targeting education as well as business.

The bottom line: Plenty of Canadian kids are getting the science education they need, but we need to reach the ones who have been overlooked.

A stepped-up, coordinated effort by government, with help from existing private initiatives, should get us there.

We’ll have to see if the government follows through on what they’ve started. If they do, the highlighted success stories in the media last week can become commonplace in Canada in the near future.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Space industry gets attention and money in government’s first budget

Finance Minister Bill Morneau brought down his first budget on March 22, 2016, and it looks like the government has noticed the space industry after all.

Don't get too excited—they aren't throwing a ton of money at the industry, but there is a little more than there was before. Even better, the government is saying that they want to develop the space industry’s capabilities. You can read the section about space in the budget here.

Highlights include
The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) plans to spend $432,394,821 in 2016, a difference of about $49 million more than projected from 2015 ($383,015,746).

The government is also providing $8.7 million for CSA projects, including the anechoic testing chamber at the David Florida Laboratory, as part of the federal infrastructure initiative. This is noted in the budget section Supporting business innovation through optics and photonics solutions.

For more details, see the article at SpaceRef Canada, What you need to know about the budget and Canada's space program.

In a related news article at the Toronto Star, New innovation agenda will help boost jobs, Bill Morneau says, Minister Morneau talked about a new innovation agenda that the government is developing. The focus of the article is on manufacturing and the high-tech industry, but space companies could benefit. (What’s more high-tech than space?)

The 2016 budget should give the space industry more reason for optimism than the remarks made by Canadian Space Agency President Sylvain Laporte at a recent conference in Toronto. Mr. Laporte said there were lots of opportunities in space but not a lot of money.

All in all, it looks a little more positive for the Canadian space industry than it did before, especially considering how tight money is due to the country’s deficit. The real test, though, will be whether or not the government builds on the promise to develop Canada’s space capabilities.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Rocket reusability and holy grails

Reusability is the holy grail of rocketry.

How often have you heard that? Lots, no doubt. Everybody from journalists to space analysts to space company presidents toss out that one when the talk gets around to reusing rockets. By now somebody has probably taught a parrot to squawk it.

If you got a dollar every time a news article said that reusability is the holy grail of rocketry, you’d need a wheelbarrow to move the money. (Keep in mind that Canada has a one dollar coin instead of a paper bill.)

For example, Blue Origin, the space company owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, successfully landed their New Shepard rocket in November. In a Seattle Times article, Bezos says Blue Origin landing achieves ‘Holy Grail of rocketry’, Mr. Bezos referred to reusability as “the holy grail of rocketry.” In all fairness, despite the headline, he didn’t say Blue Origin had achieved it, but that reusability would make make spaceflight less expensive.

Recently SpaceX, the company owned by billionaire Elon Musk, landed a first stage booster on a landing pad, as seen in this YouTube video. In an earlier undated video interview that Mr. Musk did for the website, he also used the term holy grail in reference to rocket reusability.

Yes, they say that reusability will lower the cost of launching payloads by allowing launch companies to reuse the booster rather than building a new one from scratch.

There’s only one teeny weeny problem with that idea: nobody has proven it yet.

Jean-Yves Le Gall, President of the French space agency Centre national d'├ętudes spatiales (CNES) said in an article at Space Daily, SpaceX landing is a 'feat', but not a game-changer, that the SpaceX landing was a “technological feat” but nothing more. He went on to say that questions about the cost of refurbishing a used rocket remain. He didn’t dismiss the possible advantages of reusability but he noted that it hadn’t been proven yet.

And please don’t point out that the writer said “game-changer.” One rant at a time.

Another perspective about the difficulties of reusability is outlined in an article at the website The, Explainer: why reusable rockets are so hard to make. The author, an expert in advanced propulsion systems at Southampton University in England, talks about the problems of balancing propellant, vehicle and payload mass. He talks about the importance of keeping the refurbishing costs down as well.

(A side note: he also used the term holy grail. It must be some kind of virus going around.)

Salvatore “Tory” Bruno, President of American launch company United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX’s main competitor, has talked about his company’s plans to incorporate reusability into their rockets.

In an article at Spaceflight Now, ULA plans to introduce new rocket one piece at a time, Mr. Bruno said ULA will try a more conservative approach to reusability by recycling parts rather than the entire booster. Mr. Bruno also said that an internal ULA study showed it would take 15 flights before a refurbished booster would save money over single-use boosters.

Until a number of successful launches are made with a reusable booster and people get a chance to analyze the numbers, we won’t know if reusability really will bring down the cost of launching rockets, or if it’s just overhyped wishful thinking.

In the mean time, maybe people can ease up on that holy grail squawk. Right now the only holy grails are a religious symbol and a Monty Python movie. Time will tell if there’s a third.