The Big Two have done the lion’s share of Space exploration and travel since Sputnik blasted into orbit 58 years ago. Since then, America and the U.S.S.R./Russia have been joined in Space by satellites, spacecraft, or astronauts from more than 70 countries. In 1962, Canada became the third country after the U.S.S.R. (1957) and the U.S.A. (1958) to have its own domestically built satellite orbiting Earth. Instead of being motivated to enter Space by a one-upmanship rivalry that drove the two superpowers, Canada saw Space as a home for communications satellites to link Canada’s east with west and north with south, across what is the world’s second largest national area. The practicality and usefulness of satellite communications for Canada becomes even more obvious given that this country’s relatively small population is spread over a comparatively large area. Canada ranks 37th in size by population, and we average less than four persons per square kilometer, the second lowest population density of all developed countries.
Just as we cooperated internationally with the U.S. for the construction of the St Lawrence Seaway megaproject in the 1950s, so, too, we have worked with our American neighbours for launching our satellites. Our first satellite—designed and built by Canadian scientists and engineers—was the atmospheric research satellite, Alouette.
Alouette and other early Canadian satellites researched the upper atmosphere to see if it was suitable for sending and receiving communications signals. Canada launched Anik A1 in 1972, making Canada the first country to have a domestic satellite communications system. Four years later, Canada’s Hermes satellite became the most powerful communications system in existence at the time, and was the first to transmit television directly to homes equipped with antennae. Hermes was even used to broadcast the 1979 Stanley Cup playoffs to Canadian diplomats in Peru!
In addition to satellite communications technologies, Canada has been a long-time leader in Earth observation orbiters. Our first remote sensing satellite, RADARSAT-1, launched in 1995, and its successor RADARSAT-2 (2007) are Canadian developed and operated. The European Space Agency’s Swarm satellite, NASA’s CLOUDSAT and TERRA, and Sweden’s Odin, are international satellites on which we collaborated or that have Canadian instruments. A key aspect of Canada’s space strategy with projects and programs is to collaborate internationally with other space-faring nations. These mutually beneficial partnerships, which reduce the risks and costs of missions, also create synergies in Space expertise, innovation, and scientific and technological activities.
In the 1960s and 70s, Canadian company Héroux Inc. (today Héroux-Devtek) of Longueuil, Quebec, made the landing gear for the Apollo lunar landers. We can proudly boast that Héroux’ mechanical feet, designed and built by Canadians, touched the Moon’s surface four hours and 39 minutes before Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong first emerged from the lander to take his “giant leap for mankind” step!
Canadian designed and built robotics have been critical to the success of the American Space Shuttle program and of the International Space Station. Canadarm performed invaluable work on the American shuttles, such as placing new satellites in orbit, capturing others that needed in-orbit repairs, and assembling the International Space Station. The Canadian-developed Mobile Servicing System—a sophisticated robotics suite on the ISS—features three main components: Canadarm2, a 17-metre-long robotic arm, which has played a crucial role in the assembly and maintenance of the ISS; Dextre, the ISS’s two-armed robotic “handyman” which astronauts and cosmonauts use to manipulate delicate objects and remove or replace ISS components; and the Mobile Base, a moveable work platform and storage facility. The Canada Aviation and Space Museum has on display the Canadarm that flew aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour. By the way, the Museum also is home to the interactive exhibition Life in Orbit: The International Space Station that tells the story of daily life aboard this marvel of technology, and that lets visitors experience many aspects of life in orbit.
The preceding examples of sophisticated Canadian hardware for spacecraft follow a long tradition of Canadian innovation that started in the early years of space travel. Canadian inventor George Klein’s stable tubular extendible member (STEM) antenna flew aboard America’s very first human space flights of the Mercury and Gemini programs. Klein was so well regarded as a creative problem solver that he was asked to come out of retirement to be chief consultant on gear design for the Canadarm. Many of this Hamilton, Ontario, native’s inventions also have helped us here on Earth: Klein invented the electric wheelchair for quadriplegics, and he headed the team that designed Canada’s first nuclear reactor in the 1940s. He is a member of the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame.
The Microgravity Isolation Mount is another Canadian innovation for use in Space, and is another example of Canadian international cooperation. The Microgravity Isolation Mount, developed by Montreal’s MPB Communications Inc., first served in 1996 aboard the Soviet MIR space station to sense and counter the natural background vibrations that occur in microgravity.
Although digital camera technology—co-invented by Canadian Nobel Prize winner Willard Boyle—is not an innovation directly related to Space exploration, it is nonetheless everywhere today, including in our cell phone cameras. This technology is being used to capture images from near and far: by astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station 300 km above, and from as far away as the outer edges of the Solar System, five billion kilometers away, by the New Horizons spacecraft that flew past Pluto last summer.
Humankind’s ventures into Space have enabled us to better understand our own planet, to appreciate the challenges of having a permanent human presence in Space aboard the International Space Station, and to explore planets, moons, and comets across the Solar System. Canadian ingenuity and innovations have played essential roles in many extraterrestrial missions.
This topic, and others of this blog series, show that the spirit of innovation thrives in Canada. We all know a story of a person, place, or innovation that has contributed to Canadian breakthrough or invention. To mark Canada’s upcoming 150th birthday, we have created a digital storybook to capture your stories of Canadian innovation, from before or after Confederation, or even new innovations that are on the drawing board today. Canada’s history of innovation is worth celebrating. Please go to InnovationCanada150.ca to contribute your story. And encourage your friends, family, and colleagues also to get involved.
Jelly, Doris H. Canada: 25 Years in Space. Montreal: Polyscience Publications Inc., 1988.