Canada’s Space History

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In November 1995, high above Earth’s atmosphere, 358 kilometres to be exact, a young mustachioed Canadian was at the controls of a device installing a 4,100-kilogram Russian-built docking module.

While on the white blanketed surface of his homeland, the country had just gone through one of its most trying moments.

Days before, on Oct. 30, the people of Quebec had narrowly defeated a referendum for independence launched by the ruling Partis Quebecois.

For the man at the controls orbiting the earth, his focus was not on Quebec independence, nor the recent break-in 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa, nor the fact his favourite hockey team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, were struggling to stay above .500 in the standings of the NHL.

No, for him, his attention was glued to the operation of a device that had become a Canadian icon. A device that would go on to be featured on currency, be displayed at the Smithsonian and, perhaps in the biggest honour of the 21st century, have a Google Doodle created in its likeness.

The man, a new astronaut named Chris Hadfield, was operating a device called the Canadarm and became the first Canadian to operate the famous tool in space.

That amazing moment passed mostly unnoticed North of the 49 and it’s just a small part of the story that is…. Canada in space.

I’m Craig Baird, and this is Canadian History Ehx!


Although Canada may not be known as a space pioneer like the US and Russia but it has a long and storied history… one that is too long for me to cover in a single episode… so today I’m going to focus on key chapters of the story…our role in the moon landing, our first satellite and you guess it… the Canadarm”.

With the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite by the Soviet Union on Oct. 4, 1957, the world was suddenly thrust into the Space Age.

Less than six months later, on Feb. 1, 1958, the United States launched its first satellite into space, Explorer 1.

For the next four years, only the Soviet Union and the United States ventured into space, while the rest of the world watched in awe.

Then, on Sept. 29, 1962, at 2:06 a.m. EST, a new country entered space, Canada.

On that day, Alouette 1 was launched into orbit on a rocket from the US Air Force base at Vandenberg, California.

The new satellite’s mission was to investigate the properties of the upper ionosphere.

Using 700 different radio frequencies it tested how the properties of the ionosphere varied depending on geographic location, season and time of day.

The reason our first satellite focused on the ionosphere is because Canada has the largest share of aurora borealis of any country in the world, and at the time, had the greatest radio interference from the aurora in the world.

For 25 years prior to the 1960s, Canadian scientists studied the effects of the aurora and when the space race began, Canada jumped at the chance to take its studies to space.

The task of building the satellite fell to Canada’s Defence and Research Telecommunications Establishment, or DRTE. While the organization was made up of some of the brightest minds in Canada, they were venturing into new territory,

Building Alouette was a slow process that began in 1958, and the Canadian team dealt with several engineering problems including how to protect the instruments, and more importantly, how to transmit data.

Eventually, the team designed two antennas that measured 150 feet from tip to tip, which were rolled up in the device at launch.

Rolling and expanding antennas were first developed by the Canadian National Research Council during the Second World War, and that concept was applied in this new frontier.

The antennas were so successful on Alouette 1 that the design was incorporated into many subsequent American satellites.

As the Canadian team worked on the satellite, new technologies were advancing fast, allowing them to incorporate such things as solar cells and transistors.

On board the satellite were 6,500 solar cells, providing power during its operational life. The satellite had no tape recorder, so data was collected at telemetry stations located in Hawaii, Singapore. Australia, Europe, as the satellite transmitted when it passed over them.

Originally, it was called Topside Sounder since it analyzed the topside of the ionosphere. By the time launch day came, the name was changed to Alouette, French for skylark, after the famous French Canadian folk song of the same name.  The song is over 100 years old and is said to have originated in Quebec, Canada and may have been sung by voyageurs, French-Canadian colonists who transported furs by canoe.

The satellite weighed 321 kilograms and had a circular orbit around the Earth at an altitude of 987 kilometres.

US technicians said the launch and mission in general was successful thanks to Alouette 1, scientists learned much more about the magnetic and ionospheric storms that impacted radio communications on Earth.

But no one knew how long the satellite would be operational in fact Dr. John Chapman with the Defense Research Telecommunications Establishment bet another scientist that the satellite would not be functioning a year after the launch.

Dr. Chapman was very wrong, as the satellite operated for a decade. Dr. Chapman kept a framed record of the bet in his office as a reminder of his poor gambling instinct.

On Sept. 30, 1972, Alouette 1 was shut off, ending its 10-year mission.

but it was just the first of many Canadian satellites to come.

From 1963 to 1983, NASA put 12 Canadian satellites into orbit, helping Canada become an internationally renowned authority on communications satellite design.

In 2007, the Government of Canada listed the launch of Alouette 1 as a National Historic Event.

One more fun fact about this little satellite.

While Sputnik fell back to Earth in 1958, and Explorer 1 returned in 1970, Alouette 1 is still orbiting the Earth, and will be, for at least another 1,000 years.

As the success of Allouette lifted Canada into space Feb. 20, 1959, is known as Black Friday in the Canadian aviation industry, that’s when the Avro Arrow CF-105 program was cancelled.

I covered the aircraft, the cancellation and the legend surrounding it in a previous episode from late 2021… I encourage you to go back and listen to that episode.

You’ll remember that when the Avro Arrow program was cancelled, 14,528 Avro employees immediately lost their jobs, along with 15,000 others within the Avro supply chain.

Many of those people were the best and brightest minds in their field, specifically engineers, and they needed work.

Some moved to the United Kingdom and began to work in the new Concord program – a supersonic passenger jet.

Others went to the United States. In fact, NASA recruiters were in Canada within weeks doing interviews with these engineers who were now unemployed.

The first person to be hired was Avro Arrow Chief of Technical Design Jim Chamberlain. Joining Chamberlain were 31 other engineers from the Avro program who served as program managers and lead engineers on the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.

When the engineers joined NASA, they made up 30 per cent of the agency’s Space Task Group.

Chamberlain, who was from Kamloops, British Columbia, served as the chief designer of the Gemini spacecraft, and then helped design aspects of the Apollo program.

He was also instrumental in the planning of the orbital rendezvous system that allowed astronauts to land on the moon using a landing module that had been attached to the main spacecraft.

Originally, NASA was going to launch Apollo 11 directly from the Earth to the Moon, then back again, with no lunar orbit phase.

When Chamberlain came up with his lunar orbit rendezvous plan, that original plan was scrapped.

Owen Maynard was another one of the Avro engineers who found work at NASA.

Originally from Sarnia, Ontario, he moved the family to Virginia in April of 1959 to begin work with NASA.

By 1963, Maynard was the chief of system engineering for the Apollo program and was the designer of the lunar module, which took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969.

If the orbital rendezvous system and the lunar module weren’t enough, there is one more major component in which Canada played a role in the moon landing, the landing gear.

The contract for the landing gear was given to Heroux-Devtek out of Longueuil, Quebec in 1966, three years before the planned moon landing.

Designing the landing gear for the lunar module was no easy task.

It needed to be light enough to conform to mission requirements and strong enough to absorb the energy of the landing, while keeping the module upright and stable. On top of that, it had to serve as a stable launch platform to return the astronauts to lunar orbit.

The solution that the firm came up with was a crushable aluminum honeycomb design for the legs.

As the landing gear on the lunar module touched the moon’s surface, the people at Heroux-Devtek looked on in pride. It was their company that produced the telescopic legs on the module that allowed the astronauts to safely touch the moon.

While the footpads themselves were made by Americans, nine of the ten parts in the legs were Canadian.

Canada also played a role in getting the astronauts home safely as well.

Bryan Erb from Calgary, Alberta, another Avro engineer, developed the heat shield that protected the astronauts as their capsule returned to Earth through the atmosphere.

Back on Earth, Dr. William Carpentier, a Canadian flight surgeon from Edmonton, looked after Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins during their quarantine.

Now that Canada had helped land humans on the moon, the country then took on another task, creating a robotic arm in space.

Other than maybe insulin, no Canadian invention is as famous as the Canadarm.

The device, officially known as the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System, has become a source of pride for Canadians.

The Canadarm’s operational use began in the 1980s, but its history dates to the year of the moon landing.

In 1969, NASA invited Canada to participate in the Space Shuttle program in a yet to be determined role, but a manipulator system was a possibility.

Around this time, DSMA ATCON, a Canadian company, developed a robot that loaded fuel into the CANDU nuclear reactors, and this robot piqued NASA’s attention.

In 1975, a memorandum of understanding was signed between NASA and the Canadian National Research Council, committing Canada to developing and constructing the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System which would become… the Canadarm.

Spar Aerospace, now part of MDA, was awarded the contract to design, develop, test and evaluate the new device.

The hardest part of the design wasn’t the arm itself, but the manipulator that needed to be versatile enough to pluck objects out of orbit, while also clearing ice off the shuttle itself.

Several designs were put forward but then, engineer Tony Zubryzki was playing with an elastic band that he had wrapped around his hand. As he played with it, an idea struck him.

The end effector, or hand of the arm, could use the same principle of fingers with an elastic band.

He took that idea to NASA who loved it, and the end effector was built inspired by office supplies.

On Feb. 11, 1981, a ceremony was held for NASA in Toronto, and it was there that Larkin Kerwin, the head of the Canadian National Research Council, gave it the name of Canadarm.

The first Canadarm was delivered to NASA in April 1981.

The arm was 50 feet long and weighed 900 pounds. It was developed with six joints that corresponded with the joints of the human arm, including a shoulder yaw, elbow pitch joint and wrist pitch.

The total cost amounted to $100 million, or $300 million today, while the total cost associated with maintenance and testing reached $600 million, or $1.8 billion today.

And displayed prominently on the arm?? The word Canada, and the Canadian flag.

As a CBS news anchor said,

“It is not just a tool, but a billboard.”

On Nov. 13, 1981, at 9 a.m., Richard Truly deployed the Canadarm out of the shuttle bay of Columbia, while orbiting the Earth, for the first time.

He reported to mission control,

“The arm is out and works beautifully. Its movements are much more flexible than they appeared during training simulations.”

On the next shuttle mission, the Canadarm deployed its first payload, which was the Plasma Diagnostics Package.

The Canadarm was developed to handle deploying payloads of 65,000 pounds in space. Upgrades eventually allowed it to handle payloads of up to 586,000 pounds in the 1990s.

The first arm was so successful, NASA ordered four more to be installed on the other space shuttles.

Over the course of the Space Shuttle program, the five Canadarms flew on 90 different missions.

In 1986, one Canadarm was lost in the Challenger disaster when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded soon after takeoff, tragically killing all on board.

In 1993, it was the Canadarm that moved the 12-ton Hubble Space Telescope into the cargo bay of Endeavour so that it could be repaired when an issue with the mirror on the telescope resulted in blurry images.

The Canadarm also served as a symbolic bridge between former adversaries when Chris Hadfield operated it in 1995.

He used the arm to create a physical link between the Russian space station Mir, with the American space shuttle.

The arm was highly versatile, whether it was plucking satellites out of orbit to repair or knocking ice from a vent that would have endangered the re-entry of the space shuttle into the atmosphere.

Once, the arm was used to nudge a bent, malfunctioning antenna into place.

Currently, the Canadarm2 is part of the International Space Station, having been launched into space in April 2011. The device used to hoist the Canadarm2 out of the shuttle cargo bay? the Canadarm.

During the construction of the International Space Station, the Canadarm2 worked alongside with the Canadarm to hand over segments of the station for assembly. The use of both arms in tandem earned the nickname of the Canadian Handshake.

The Canadarm2 would assemble the entire space station, piece by piece, playing a critical role in the most expensive engineering project in human history.

While the new arm was developed over the course of 15 years of research and development, it looked very much like the original. If something isn’t broke, why fix it?

The Canadarm’s 90th, l, mission was in July 2011 on STS-135, when it delivered a final payload to the International Space Station.

If you’d like to see in person you can go to the Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Centre where there’s one on display.

The one that served on the Discovery shuttle  is at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., while the one on Endeavor is at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa.

Canadarm’s cultural impact was massive and Mike Greenley, CEO of MDA, a leading robotics company that in 1999 bought the space robotics division of Spar Aerospace—manufacturer of the Canadarm—spoke to me about it…

to watch the entire interview, head over to my YouTube channel. The link is in my show notes.

Mike Greenly says they’re now looking towards the future, as MDA is currently developing the Canadarm3, which will be part of the Lunar Gateway, the space station planned to orbit the moon by 2030.

Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Canadarm is that it opened the door for Canadian astronauts. Chris Hadfield said,

“Canadarm was really our ticket on board, and that allowed Canada to be part of the space program. If there had been no Canadarm, there would have been no Canadian astronauts. Having the agreement between Canada and NASA allowed our first class of astronauts to be hired.”

That’s the end of this chapter of Canada in Space but there’s one more interesting story about Canada, the moon, and a very long-distance phone call.

On June 5, 1959, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker stood at the Prince Albert Radar Laboratory, located near the city of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, where a platform had been erected near the station’s antenna.

Joining him was Hartley Zimmerman, chairman of Defence Research Board of Canada, Richard Wigglesworth, the US Ambassador to Canada and 40 scientists from both countries.

After giving a speech, Diefenbaker pressed a button on the podium and the 84-foot antenna was activated and pointed to the moon.

In reality, the button did nothing. Diefenbaker pushing it was just a signal for the radar lab staff to point the device toward the moon and as it lined up, a voice rang out on the speakers stating,

“I am delighted to greet you, Mr. Prime Minister, and the Canadian people on the occasion of the opening of the Prince Albert Radar Laboratory.”

The voice was that of Dwight Eisenhower, President of the United States.

The message had been sent from the Milestone Radar Site near Boston, directed at the moon, where it bounced off and came back to Earth, to be picked up by the radar station in northern Saskatchewan.

With that, human communication would never be the same again. We may not bounce messages off the moon, but we use satellites with the same principle to surf the Internet, make phone calls and watch television.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Readers Digest, Wikipedia, Canadian Space Agency, NASA, Library and Archives Canada, The Weather Network, Global News, CBC, SpaceQ,

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