From Canada to America and back, MDA returns home

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SpaceNews spoke with CEO Mike Greenley to discuss what’s next for MDA after its short stint as a U.S. company

When MDA completed its merger with DigitalGlobe in 2017, it accomplished a nearly decade-long goal of becoming a U.S. company to gain access to the lucrative U.S. government market.

In April, Maxar Technologies, the Colorado company created by the merger, sold MDA for $729 million to a consortium of investors led by Northern Private Capital of Toronto, placing MDA right where it started: Canada.

Mike Greenley, chief executive of MDA, says the company is not mad about getting sent back to Canada. Maxar needed to sell MDA to reduce its $3.1 billion debt, and MDA already operated as a Canadian subsidiary to retain access to that market.

“MDA could be at least twice as big five years from now, if not more, in terms of the amount of business we are conducting.” Mike Greenley, MDA chief executive. Credit: MDA

MDA is now establishing a new executive team post-Maxar to lead the 1,900-person company. The team includes Tim Kopra, a retired NASA astronaut hired in June to lead MDA’s robotics and space operations division.

SpaceNews spoke to Greenley about what’s next for MDA. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

MDA is a Canadian company again after years of striving to be American. What now?

What’s next is an exciting future, I think. MDA is a really strong space company with 50-year-old roots in Earth observation, satellite systems and robotics. All of those areas have high demand as we go forward into the next generation of growth.

We are getting ourselves stood up as a stand-alone company. We are starting to get new leaders, we are organizing and getting ready for growth. We have a very enthusiastic investor ownership group and a very exciting new board of directors.

Will you try to participate in U.S. government programs, since that was your driver to get into the U.S. market, or is that off the table post-Maxar?

We would participate in U.S. government programs where it makes sense, like we would in any other country. Sometimes those programs, if it was a program with a DARPA-type organization, we could just do that directly. If it was for a NASA-type program then maybe it’s something we could do directly, or maybe it’s something we would have to do with a U.S. prime. If it was for defense-related activities, we would probably do that through a U.S. prime and be a solid partner on that.

There are a number of commercial activities in space now where we can partner directly with U.S. firms and go off and do commercial activities. The United States still represents a very strong market and we would expect to participate in it for sure.

How has the pandemic impacted MDA?

With the introduction of COVID-19, we immediately started working safer. We transitioned into a work from home posture. Of our 1,900 personnel, probably 85% or more went into work from home mode.

We still had a couple hundred people maintain essential operations in some of our factories to make sure that our key manufacturing processes of essential programs that needed to continue continued safely. We modified those work environments to make them safer from a COVID perspective.

Maxar kept SSL, which MDA bought five years before acquiring DigitalGlobe. Can MDA still build satellites without SSL?

The large volume of our satellite systems business is selling subsystems to other satellite manufacturers … but we [can build] the full range of Earth observation or communications satellites. It’s just that there has to be the right program there for it to make sense to do that in Canada.

So you wouldn’t see yourself competing with Maxar on building GEO communications satellites?

I don’t see us doing that at this time, no.

What about competing in remote sensing satellites, like the Radarsat spacecraft MDA built long before the SSL acquisition?

MDA will certainly continue to build remote sensing satellites for the Canadian government or for programs financed by the Canadian government or its agencies.

Prime contractors including L3Harris and General Atomics have gotten into building cubesats. Does MDA have a similar desire?

Not super small or nano-type things. We are involved in the full range across LEO and GEO, but not on the super small stuff.

Do you expect MDA to grow this year?

I kind of look five years out right now. Based on the numbers and types of programs that we see, MDA could be at least twice as big five years from now, if not more, in terms of the amount of business we are conducting. We wouldn’t necessarily have twice as many people, but we could have twice as much business as we do today. That’s entirely possible.

MDA, which built the International Space Station’s Canadarm2, is positioning itself to build Canadarm3, Canada’s proposed contribution to the NASA-led lunar Gateway. Credit: NASA

MDA tried once on its own and again as Maxar to establish a satellite-servicing business. Do you still have interest in the satellite-servicing market?

Absolutely. We believe in satellite servicing as a commercial and business opportunity. We are in conversation with a number of groups that are building on-orbit servicing solutions for various subsystems or operations support that we might be able to provide them.

It sounds like you’re interested in being a supplier. Would MDA go so far as to be the satellite servicer?

We would certainly be willing to discuss getting into the satellite servicing business in partnership with others if appropriate. If the right business case ever came along maybe we would get into it ourselves, but because of our position over the last several years as a supplier to those programs, those are the live conversations that continue.

What’s the status of your work on the Canadian Space Agency’s Canadarm3 program?

About a year ago we won two contracts to develop the robotic interfaces for Canadarm3, and we’re currently executing on those programs. The other activity we’re doing is getting ready for the opportunity to participate in the main contract. We worked a lot with our supply chain — small to medium businesses across Canada and internationally, academic institutions and artificial intelligence expertise — to make sure that we are assembling the right ecosystem of AI-based robotics expertise to be as efficient and productive as possible in terms of being ready to deliver Canadarm3 when that opportunity presents itself.

Radarsat-2 is five years past its design life, and the Canadian government took full ownership of the imaging capacity on the recently launched Radarsat Constellation Mission. What is your replacement strategy?

Radarsat-2 continues to operate very well. It has been operational for a long time, but we have an excellent operations team that does a tremendous job and we continue to see several years of good business coming out of Radarsat-2.

In terms of opportunities to continue that business and expand it, we look at several. There will be a couple of follow-on programs to the Radarsat Constellation Mission that the Canadian government has already started the first phase studies for, and we look forward to participating in those. In addition, on the pure commercial side, we’re in a number of discussions that will mature over the next few months related to getting involved in other Earth-observation missions that would be able to continue to expand that area of our business.

Is MDA continuing to build antennas for OneWeb, or did that stop when OneWeb filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March?

We remain ready to support. That’s what I can say about that. We have absolutely been delivering well and delivering on schedule for that program, and we remain ready to keep up with whatever schedule comes out of the current program.

MDA’s attempt to sell its space business to ATK in 2008 was blocked by the Canadian government. Was there any pressure in Canada for MDA to come back after Maxar?

Not pressure for us to come back. The driving force was Maxar’s opportunity to de-lever. There were no other pressures, but it has certainly been well received from a Canadian government perspective, and from a Canadian and international partner perspective.

Maxar purchased a company called Neptec in 2018. Did part of that fold into MDA?

All of Neptec is in MDA. They are in our vision, systems and sensors group now and as part of our robotics and space operations business. The U.K. group from Neptec merged with our existing U.K. MDA people to make a larger group. We would want to expand that, in addition to looking at other countries where MDA could show up and be part of their local space industrial base.

What other countries present growth opportunities for MDA?

The United Kingdom for sure because we are already there. Australia represents a good opportunity. It’s starting to emerge with strong space ambitions and our capability would fit in well there.

Do you expect MDA will trade as a public company again?

It’s a definite option. The ownership group has publicly stated that they feel that it likely makes the most sense for MDA to be a publicly traded company. They’ve said that in the media already. We will definitely continue to look at that as a key option moving forward.

This article originally appeared in the June 15, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.