The decision by Canada’s MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) to cancel the launch of its Radarsat-2 satellite aboard a Boeing Delta 2 rocket and instead use a Russian Soyuz vehicle was rooted in technical concerns, but it also is yet another example of the self-defeating nature of current U.S. export control policies.
Due to restrictions on sharing sensitive technical data with non-U.S. citizens, it took Boeing six months to explain to its customer a Delta 2 vibration issue that had raised questions about the rocket’s ability to safely deliver Radarsat-2 into orbit. By the time MDA was fully informed on the matter, it was too late to make any changes or do additional analyses to boost the company’s comfort level with the Delta 2.
It might be that modifying the satellite or launch-related hardware would not have been viable under any circumstances, or that the relatively low price of the Soyuz factored into MD A’s decision. But it appears that the delays caused by U.S. export controls also came into play.
The irony is obvious. Boeing’s ability to hold onto a rare commercial launch contract was hindered by restrictions on sharing rocket data with citizens of one of America’s closest allies. The satellite, with all of its own very sensitive technologies, now will be launched from Russia.
This is not the first time that U.S. national security sensitivities have hurt American industry on this program. Orbital Sciences Corp. originally was supposed to build the Radarsat-2 satellite platform, but lost that contract when the U.S. government — concerned about the commercial availability of Radarsat-2 data — balked at granting the company the necessary export license.
Some of those who favored imposing stricter export controls in the late 1990s said doing so would benefit U.S. launch companies in addition to protecting national security. MDA’s Delta 2 contract cancellation is just the latest piece of evidence that the more-restrictive rules have accomplished neither.
It seems that the only thing more difficult in Washington than navigating the Byzantine export control regime is getting Congress to admit it was wrong and correct its mistake.