National Post (Latest Edition)




MONTREAL • Farah Alibay describes the moments between the time the Perseveran­ce rover entered Mars’ atmosphere on Thursday and when it landed on the surface of the Red Planet as “the longest seven minutes of my life.”

After that tense time, the Quebec-born NASA systems engineer heard the words that still give her goosebumps: “Touchdown confirmed.”

Now Alibay, who works at NASA’S Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says she’s prepping for the next steps of the project, which include the daunting task of helping guide the rover as it searches for signs of ancient life on Mars.

“I can’t even describe it, how happy you feel in that moment,” Alibay said of the rover’s landing. “For me, I was screaming and jumping of happiness.”

Alibay said the landing comes after a lot of long hours and personal sacrifices for the team as it sought to complete the complex operation during a global pandemic.

While the joy she felt at the landing moment will stay with her, Alibay said the celebratio­ns themselves were short-lived.

“I think the next thought was like, ‘Oh, I still have a job to do. OK, let’s go, let’s do this,’ ” she said.

The team at NASA’S Jet Propulsion Laboratory next have the task of guiding the rover — nicknamed Percy — as it searches for evidence of ancient life.

The rover will use its two-metre arm to drill down and collect rock and soil samples to be sent back to Earth, where it will be analyzed for ancient microbes.

Now that the probe has landed, Alibay says her role is shifting to one of “uplink planning,” or helping to finalize and send the plans for rover’s next steps. She’s also been tasked with helping to co-ordinate use of a small, robotic helicopter that was carried to Mars aboard Perseveran­ce.

The fact that she’s helping to search for answers to some of humankind’s biggest questions is not lost on Alibay, who describes working on the project as a “privilege.”

“That question of, ‘Are we alone,’ is something that I think people have asked themselves for hundreds of years, if not thousands of years,” she said.

“To get to say that I am part of a team that might help start to answer that question, that is even daring to ask the question and daring to go make those observatio­ns, that is


pretty incredible.”

Alibay was born in the Montreal area to parents who immigrated from Madagascar. As a child, she says she was inspired by movies such as Apollo 13 and by pioneering female astronauts, including Canada’s Julie Payette.

While she moved away to England at the age of 13, Alibay said she remains a proud Canadian, and hasn’t forgotten the country that welcomed her family and gave them a chance at a new life.

She said she’s happy to see her story being shared, and hopes it can inspire a new generation of kids to follow their dreams.

“We have such pride in being Canadian,” she said. “And so being able to share that and give back, it’s been a pleasure.”

The cost of building an offshore science vessel for the federal government, originally set at $108 million, has jumped to almost $1 billion.

The price tag for the project had been steadily climbing from $108 million in 2008 to $144 million in 2011 and then to $331 million, according to federal government figures.

but on Feb. 18 the cost to taxpayers for the offshore oceanograp­hic science vessel — or OOSV project — took its steepest jump yet with new figures showing it had climbed to $966.5 million.

South Africa is constructi­ng a similar oceanograp­hic vessel with an ice-strengthen­ed hull in a project with a budget of around $170 million.

retired Liberal senator Colin Kenny, the former chairman of the senate defence committee, said the significan­t jump in cost of the Canadian-built oceanograp­hic vessel is staggering. “Why isn’t anyone in government saying that this type of expense is crazy and it’s time to put an end to this level of expenditur­e for a single ship,” Kenny said.

but barre Campbell, spokesman for Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard, noted in an email that the original budget was set based on the best data and methods at the time. “As the project has progressed and moved closer to constructi­on, the estimated project cost has been updated to reflect the value of negotiated contracts and actual costs incurred,” he added.

The cost has been reviewed by independen­t experts, Campbell added.

Constructi­on of the OOSV at Seaspan shipyards in Vancouver

is expected to begin shortly. The vessel will be delivered in 2024. Seaspan has already received around $280 million over the past six years to work on the design and other elements of the OOSV, according to informatio­n presented to Parliament.

For major projects such as the OOSV, the contract duration is generally longer, which can cause an increase of cost drivers such as inflation, labour rates, commodity prices, engineerin­g, spare parts, insurance and warranty, Campbell added.

but in december 2011, a team of auditors warned Fisheries and Oceans and the Coast Guard that they had failed to put in place a strategy to deal with constructi­on delays for the vessel. “by not developing adequate risk mitigation strategies for time delays, the Canadian Coast Guard is vulnerable to higher-than-anticipate­d costs and ineffectiv­e delivery of programs,” the independen­t auditors hired by the federal government pointed out.

The auditors also noted the procuremen­t staff overseeing the acquisitio­n of the OOSV had erroneousl­y concluded the project was of “low risk.”

The OOSV will be outfitted with equipment for marine and scientific research on ocean currents and the seabed. It will replace an existing Canadian Coast Guard science research ship. The new vessel will be capable of performing multiple tasks, including oceanograp­hic, geological and hydrograph­ic survey missions. This work will contribute to Canada’s understand­ing of oceans and the impacts of climate change, according to the federal government.

The OOSV is being built as part of the federal government’s National Shipbuildi­ng Strategy. Auditor General Karen Hogan is currently examining that strategy, with a report to be released Feb. 25.

The day before that audit is released, Parliament­ary budget Officer yves Giroux will make public his study on the cost of another shipbuildi­ng strategy program, the Canadian Surface Combatant. That project to buy 15 new warships has also skyrockete­d in price.

The Canadian Surface Combatant project would see the constructi­on of Type 26 warships for the royal Canadian Navy at Irving Shipbuildi­ng on the east coast. The vessels will replace the current Halifax-class frigate fleet. However, the project has already faced delays and significan­t increases in cost, as the price tag climbed from an original $14-billion estimate to $26 billion and then to $70 billion.

The PBO study comes at the request of the House of Commons government operations committee, which wanted to get the latest cost figures on the surface combatant project.

The department of National defence revealed Feb. 1 that the delivery of the first ship would be delayed until 2030 or 2031. It was to have been delivered in 2025, according to dnd documents.

The five-year delay is expected to cost taxpayers billions of extra dollars, but the specific amount has yet to be determined.

the Canadian COAST Guard is vulnerable to ... ineffectiv­e delivery of programs.

 ?? BILL INGALLS / HANDOUT / The ASSOCIATED PRESS / The CANADIAN PRESS ?? NASA systems engineer Aline Zimmer, left, holds a briefing in 2018 with Farah Alibay, the Canadian-born NASA engineer who on Thursday, after
BILL INGALLS / HANDOUT / The ASSOCIATED PRESS / The CANADIAN PRESS NASA systems engineer Aline Zimmer, left, holds a briefing in 2018 with Farah Alibay, the Canadian-born NASA engineer who on Thursday, after
 ??  ?? Colin Kenny
Colin Kenny

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