Harper Rescues the RADARSAT Constellation Mission?

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RADARSAT Constellation Mission

On the day that Chris Hadfield soared into space for his five month mission to the International Space Station comes this National Post story; "Stephen Harper steps in to save Radarsat upgrade after budget cutbacks threatened satellite program's future." I almost chocked on my laughter at such an ironic headline. After all, wasn't it Harper and the government that almost scrapped the program?

"Sources say the Prime Minister intervened personally to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding to move the next generation of Radarsat satellites off the drawing board and into production. A public announcement of the funding deal is expected soon."

In reading the article you might be forgiven for thinking that Harper is the programs saviour.

Perhaps a little reality is in order.

This is the same government that when presented a long-term space place it asked for, shelved it. This is the same government which is cutting the space budgets of all agencies. This is the same government which halted the RADARSAT Constellation Mission (RCM) program in its track. Now it's the saviour of the day.

Wow, talk about spin.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) was originally allocated $100 million to get the project started in 2006 and then a further $397 million was allocated in Budget 2010 bringing a total of $497 million through 2012 for the RCM program.

In June of 2010 MDA, the prime contractor, was awarded $26.4 to complete the Phase (C), the design work of the mission. Then in late 2011 MDA was expecting to get a contract notice for the next phase of the program. But that notification never came. MDA subsequently cut jobs and when Budget 2012 was released there was no mention of RCM.

It seems that between Budget 2011 and 2012 the government became aware that the project costs would be considerably more than originally projected. In fact it the costs had ballooned from $600 million to just over a $1 billion. This was according to the Ottawa Citizen. The increase in costs was partially the result of added capabilities being added to RCM for the Department of National Defence.

The government proceeded to order an independent Aerospace Review which started this past January and for which the final report was released on November 29th. The Review concluded in part that Canada was lacking a long-term space plan and needed to increase funding to our space program if it was to remain competitive. Conclusions the industry was already aware of but for which the government hadn't been listening to.

In early October CSA President Steve MacLean while speaking at a larger international conference assured the audience that RCM was going to be funded and an announcement would be coming soon.

Was there ever any doubt the program would go ahead? Perhaps at some point, but without it Canada's earth observation capabilities would be crippled when the current RADARSAT's were decommissioned. The type of capability RCM provides Canada is a National Interest we can't do without.

The RCM will be used for maritime surveillance including for ice, wind, oil pollution and ship monitoring; disaster management including mitigation, warning, response and recovery; and ecosystem monitoring including forestry, agriculture, wetlands and coastal change monitoring.

Based on MacLean's statement in October and the recommendations presented by the Aerospace Review it seems safe to hazard a guess that sometime in the New Year we'll hear from the government that it's officially funding and going ahead with RCM. The spin will be, it was never in doubt, we're listening, we need it and we're going to have it.

However beyond RCM the outlook going forward for the space program and industry as a whole is still cloudy. Further pronouncements, if any, from the government in the New Year or in Budget 2013 is something industry is highly anticipating.

Updated: 1:52 p.m. ET.