Later today, St. Francis Xavier University will sign a memorandum of understanding with Maritime Launch Services.
For a company with some disreputable partners, and which is still searching high and low for investors to bankroll its proposed spaceport in Canso, to be hooking up with a reputable Canadian university looks like quite a PR coup for MLS.
Yesterday’s press release from StFX states:
Maritime Launch Services (MLS) has proposed to construct and operate a private commercial space launch site for launching satellites into low Earth orbit. The purpose of the project is to establish a commercially-controlled, commercially-managed, launch site that would provide options in North America in support of the growing commercial space transportation industry.
In support of the project, StFX is committed to the pursuit of research and creative works, ultimately contributing to academic discovery and dissemination of new knowledge, providing a lasting positive impact to the community.
In a telephone interview yesterday afternoon, Dr. Richard Isnor, StFX Vice President of Research and Graduate Studies, told the Halifax Examiner that the relationship between MLS and the university has been developing over time, “going back to when Maritime Launch Services was just being set up as a company.”
He said that the university has had a “number of interactions with the principals involved in the company since the beginning.”
However, the “key contact and discussion,” said Isnor, was with Steve Matier, MLS president.
We met a few months ago with a group of researchers, primarily in our Faculty of Science, to have some quite specific discussions about what the company would be would be obligated to do … in terms of its research activities and testing activities, and environmental monitoring activities in particular. And to look at where those aligned with capabilities or facilities that we had and also to hear about things that they would have to put in place or develop right at the site. And, whether there are opportunities for some testing work to take place at StFX or whether, with some incremental augmentation of facilities here, we could take on some of that kind of thing to provide information or research information for the company. That kind of thing will get students involved in projects as well.
Isnor said there is no money involved, and called the MOU an “enabling document:”
It doesn’t spell out any obligations related to funding. That would have to come in the form of specific research agreements that we set up, if they do get funding if they are successful.
About that elusive funding
As the Halifax Examiner reported in November 2019, despite the enormous amount of support and government time that Matier has had for his spaceport project, including a remarkable letter of support from Premier Stephen McNeil, there is still no evidence that he and his partners (the California company United Paradyne and Ukrainian companies Yuzhnoye and Yuzhmash) have actually secured the financing — $210 million — that they need to go ahead.
Nor have they received government funding, despite overtures to the Municipality of the District of Guysborough, Nova Scotia Business Inc., and the federal government.
Their lack of success at attracting financing certainly isn’t for lack of trying to garner good publicity, and lambasting reporters who dare to write anything even slightly critical of the project or draw attention to the dangers of the highly toxic and carcinogenic propellant 1.1-dimethylhydrazine (also known as Unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine or UDMH) that is to be used in the second stage of the Ukrainian Cyclone 4M rocket that would be heading into space from Nova Scotia.
The Halifax Examiner has documented all of this, including the views of anti-corruption specialist Don Bowser, whose video about the spaceport project and the “chequered past” of the Ukrainian firms was published in Morning File on April 10, 2019.
“The history of Yuzhnoye/Yuzhmash is one of corruption, malfeasance and deals made with rogue states [which] is well documented,” said Bowser.
Asked about the murky records of the Ukrainian companies involved in the project, and if he was concerned that MLS would try to use the MOU with StFX in its efforts to get financing for the project, Isnor said that this had not been raised as a concern to him.
I don’t think that signing an MOU like this will cause the company to use the university’s name. All it does is say that we’re interested in collaborating in areas of mutual benefit. So from our perspective, we’re honouring the spirit of what the One Nova Scotia Coalition and the Ivany Report was talking about when it challenged our post-secondary institutions to look for opportunities to collaborate with companies that are being established in the province, or trying to contribute to our society and economy in the province.
The Examiner also asked Isnor if he was aware of Action Against Canso Spaceport (AACS), a group of concerned citizens in Canso who have been mobilizing opposition to the spaceport in Canso (and on which the Halifax Examiner reported here.)
He replied that it was not the responsibility of the university to take a stand on that. Rather, Isnor said:
It’s up to government, and the regular appropriate regulatory authorities to approve the project, and also for government and the community to give social license to the project. That’s not our responsibility.
The timing of this apparently good news story for MLS about its MOU with StFX University is, well, interesting.
It comes just 10 days after some very bad news for the California company, United Paradyne, the MLS subcontractor that together with the two Ukrainian firms, is part of the effort to launch Ukrainian-made rockets into space from Canso.
United Paradyne is supposed to be managing the (extremely dangerous) propellant that would be used in the second stage of the rockets.
That bad news, which Tim Bousquet reported a week ago in a Morning File item headlined “Space fraud,” came in a statement from the US Department of Justice in Florida, announcing that United Paradyne had agreed:
… to pay US$375,000 to the US government to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by submitting claims to NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] for assembling and cleaning rocket launch systems that it had failed to perform.
According to the settlement agreement, United Paradyne submitted claims
… for payment for delivery of the accumulator racks that failed to conform to the requirements of the contract approved by NASA. More specifically, the United States alleged that United Paradyne delivered five accumulator racks between August 11 and October 19, 2015, and that United Paradyne failed to clean the racks, failed to verify cleanliness, and failed to maintain cleanliness throughout functional testing and final inspection, and falsely certified that it conformed to NASA’s requirements.
“Violating NASA’s contractual requirements raises danger and risks to our space program and its personnel as well as harms the integrity of the federal contracting process,” said U.S. Attorney Maria Chapa Lopez.
I read some of this statement to Isnor, curious about what due diligence the university had done before agreeing to sign an MOU with MLS, given that this damning statement from the US Justice Department about United Paradyne, MLS’ subcontractor and partner in the project, was published so recently – on January 6.
Isnor thanked me for the information, and said they would look into it, but added:
I’m not sure it’s relevant to an MOU that would be … largely focussed on research or testing collaboration about a project that may or may not happen … we’re still waiting to see that.
Don Bowser sees it differently. Via Messenger from overseas, he reacted to the news about the MOU this way:
Well, have they done any due diligence on this project or its partners before deciding to join them? Seems not. Why would a university not undertake some basic research into MLS, United Paradyne, and Yuzhnoye before starting a relationship which links them in a very public way?
Just from a reputational management perspective — it seems adding their name to a venture which has not established itself and is seeking investors drags StFX into using its name to further promote a project that has raise some serious questions about its viability.
Marie Lumsden of AACS, the citizen group opposed to the spaceport project, also responded to the news via Messenger. She wrote:
My concern is that MLS, in an effort to drum up support and increase any kind of positive press, is taking advantage of the good will and reputation of STFX.
Lumsden says she intends to send her concerns about the project to both Richard Isnor and to StFX President and Vice-Chancellor (Interim) Kevin Wamsley.
The MOU will be signed at 2pm on St. Francis Xavier University campus in Antigonish in Mulroney Hall, which is a venue steeped in its very own controversy.