Saturday, April 25, 2015

Part 12: 100 Years of Aerospace History in Canada: From McCurdy to Hadfield

Canadian Astronauts, SPAR's "Deconstruction" and a New, Canadian Space Agency

By Robert Godwin 
This paper, first presented at the 65th International Astronautical Congress, which was held in Toronto, Ontario from September 29th - October 3rd, 2014, is a brief synopsis of the history of astronautics in Canada.

The author wishes to thank the late Dr Phil Lapp and his wife Colleen Lapp for their permission to reveal some of Dr Lapp's memoirs. Dr Lapp was a founder of the the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute (CASI) and of SPAR Aerospace.
He passed away in 2013; the text herein was written by Robert Godwin.

Long before the establishment of a national space agency Canadian astronauts began training to fly in space.

On July 14th 1983 the National Research Council (NRC) placed an advertisement in the newspapers inviting candidates to apply for a position as an astronaut to fly aboard the space shuttle. Over 4400 people applied and six were selected. A second group of three was then added nine years later.

Dr Marc Garneau was the first Canadian selected to fly, aboard STS-41G, the thirteenth shuttle mission, on October 5th 1984. Garneau was aboard as a payload specialist and would be involved with a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) experiment placed in the cargo bay and aimed down towards the Earth. This mission helped to reinforce the value of SAR for studying the earth. Garneau also conducted two atmospheric experiments, as well as eight other Canadian derived experiments. He would also be the first Canadian to work with the Canadarm system in space.

Due to the Challenger accident in 1986 another eight years would pass before a Canadian would again fly in space.

This time Dr Roberta Bondar became the first Canadian woman in space aboard STS-42 in January 1992. Dr Bondar would be a payload specialist for the first mission of the International Microgravity Laboratory, which carried experiments from over 200 scientists in 16 countries.

Steve Maclean would follow Dr Bondar into space in October of that year; flying aboard STS-52. Dr. Maclean conducted the CANex-2, which was a package of seven experiments in technology, materials processing and life sciences. Dr Maclean would return to space in September 2006 aboard STS-115 during which he would be the first Canadian to operate the Mobile Servicing System (MSS) aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Work on the MSS, later known as Canadarm 2, had begun at SPAR in 1985. At that time SPAR had contracts to supply parts and end-effectors for Canadarm to NASA. The Canadian government then contracted SPAR to put their expertise to good use in creating Canada's contribution to the multi-billion dollar ISS. The Canadian government would spend about $1.5 Billion on the ISS program.[i]

Canadarm 2 was to consist of several components including the MSS, the Mobile Base System (MBS); the actual arm, known as the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS) and the hand, or Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (SPDM) affectionately known as "Dextre."

Canadarm 2 would be launched into space in April 2001 and could handle loads up to 116,000 kg. The MBS would provide the base for the arm and would be built in California by the SPAR subsidiary Astro Aerospace. It would be launched in June 2002. Six years would then pass before Dextre would complete the system; being launched in March 2008.

All of the Canadarm 2 system would be launched after SPAR's robotics division had been purchased in 1999 by MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA).

SPAR had gone through a long period of expansion and growth during the 1980s and early 1990s. Their collaboration with Hughes Aerospace had resulted in a string of satellite successes including the ANIK series, the Brasilsat series and the revolutionary MSAT built for TMI Communications & Company Ltd. of Ottawa.

However, at the end of 1993 the Board had elected to give more autonomy to the four separate sectors of the company, removing some of the immediate decision making from the executive management. By 1995 space represented only 41% of SPAR's total revenue, the rest being divided amongst communications, aviation and defence and informatics.[ii]

At one point in the early 1990s it appeared that SPAR might purchase MDA, which was itself struggling at that time; but MDA resolved their problems and soon the restructuring of SPAR's internal processes began to cause problems for Canada's top aerospace company. By 1996 the problems became evident when sales dropped by $25M over the previous year and their share price dropped by almost half. Many of the problems stemmed from the SPAR Comstream Division in California that was expected to go public, but lost its primary customer.[iii]

Between January 1998 and March 1999 an assortment of purchases and sales led to the deconstruction of SPAR Aerospace including the aforesaid purchase of the robotics division by MDA. Hawker-Siddeley had already sold some of the fragments of Avro to Magellan Aerospace in 1995, including the Orenda engine plant. Two years later Magellan also added Bristol Aerospace to their portfolio of companies elevating them to the fourth largest aerospace company in Canada behind SPAR, Bombardier and CAE Industries.[iv]

In early 2000, just before the successful launch of Canadarm 2, SPAR would finally be reduced to nothing more than a service company to the aviation industry, thus ending perhaps the single most important story in Canadian space industry. Dr Lapp noted, "SPAR, before its deconstruction, became a huge unmanageable conglomerate with so many moving parts that it became impossible to control effectively." [v]

The STEM however, continued on unabated. Astro Aerospace, the California based company that SPAR had purchased to circumvent the US Congress, is currently a division of Northrop Grumman. The STEMs built there are slated to appear on the multi-billion dollar James Webb Space Telescope.

Despite this serious blow to Canada's aerospace engineering capacity the space program, now firmly centered on the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in Quebec, continued onwards in many areas. The most highly visible aspect, of course, was the continuing presence of Canadian astronauts aboard the space shuttle and ISS.

Steve Maclean would retire from the astronaut corps and would later assume the role of President of the CSA. His original back-up for his first mission, Bjarni Tryggvason, would fly in August 1997. In 2009 he would recreate for the 100th anniversary John McCurdy's historic flight in a replica of Canada's first aircraft, the Silver Dart. 

Dr Garneau would return to space twice more, once in 1996 and again in 2000 and would also take on the role of President of the CSA before being elected as a Member of Parliament. Julie Payette would become Canada's most travelled female astronaut with flights in May 1999 and again in July 2009. Robert Thirsk would fly on STS-78 in 1996 before becoming Canada's first member of an ISS Expedition crew in May of 2009. Dr Thirsk would establish a new record for long duration spaceflight for a Canadian before returning home aboard a Russian Soyuz.

Dafydd Rhys "Dave" Williams flew twice, once in April 1998, during which he conducted many medical experiments with the Neurolab. He then returned to space in August of 2007 and conducted three spacewalks, assisting in the construction of the ISS. He returned to earth and became the first foreign national to assume a senior management position at NASA's Johnson Space Flight Center.

Dr Ken Money had the longest standing relationship with the space program having consulted for NASA as early as the Mercury days in 1962. He was selected as one of Canada's first astronauts but never flew in space, returning to the private sector in 1992.

Finally, Dr Chris Hadfield would fly in November of 1995 and again in April 2001. From 2001-2003, Hadfield was the Director of Operations for NASA at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre in Star City, Russia. From May 10 to 23, 2010 Hadfield was the Commander of NEEMO 14, a NASA undersea mission to test exploration concepts living in an underwater facility off the Florida coast. Hadfield would be the only Canadian to board the Russian MIR space station; he would also be the first Canadian to operate the Canadarm in space. He would install the Canadarm 2 system aboard ISS becoming at the same time Canada's first space walker.

In 2013 he launched to ISS aboard the Soyuz TMA 07M, to join Expedition 34, after three months he took over as Commander of ISS, becoming the first Canadian to command a spacecraft. As Canada's most traveled and experienced astronaut, much was expected of Hadfield who certainly didn't disappoint. During his command of ISS Expedition 35 Hadfield created a media storm with his regular transmissions to Earth of his daily activities, which included him recording a David Bowie song and video while in space.

Robert Godwin.
Before Hadfield made headlines around the world at least one Canadian imagined a time when Canadian astronauts would be launched into space from Canada.

Robert Godwin is the owner and founder of Apogee Space Books. He is also the Space Curator at the Canadian Air & Space Museum

He has written or edited over 100 books including the award winning series "The NASA Mission Reports" and appeared on dozens of radio and television programs in Canada, the USA and England as an expert not only on space exploration but also on music. 

His books have been discussed on CNN, the CBC, the BBC and CBS 60 Minutes. He produced the first ever virtual reality panoramas of the Apollo lunar surface photography and the first multi-camera angle movie of the Apollo 11 moonwalk. His latest book was written with the late Frederick I Ordway III and is called "2001 The Heritage and Legacy of the Space Odyssey" about the history of spaceflight at the movies.


[i] Phil Lapp Memoir Pg 223
[ii] Ibid. Pg 235
[iii] Ibid. Pg 237
[iv] Globe and Mail Jun 20 1997
[v] Phil Lapp Memoir Pg 240

Last Week: "The REAL Story Behind RADARSAT, COM DEV and MDA," in part 11 of "100 years of Aerospace History in Canada: From McCurdy to Hadfield."

Next Week: "," as the final part of "100 years of Aerospace History in Canada: From McCurdy to Hadfield" concludes!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Four NEOSSat Images in Search of Respect

          By Chuck Black

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has released a series of four images taken by the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite (NEOSSat) in early 2015. The released images provide a strong indication that initial difficulties relating to the roll out of the satellite during the 2013 - 2014 period are finally being overcome.

"Raw" low-res NEOSSat image of Orion Nebula. NEOSSat is a Canadian micro-satellite which uses a 15 cm aperture f/5.88 Maksutov telescope similar to the one used on the MOST spacecraft. It's stabilized on 3-axis and has a pointing stability of ~2 arc seconds in a ~100 second exposure. Image c/o CSA.

According to Microsat Systems Canada Inc. (MSCI) director of micro-satellite programs Ross Gillett, the images have been deemed by the CSA to be suitable to release "for educational purposes," and are expected to eventually end up in university level academic presentations related to NEOSSat operations and the various technologies and techniques used to assess and study space derived images.

This is because the released images are "raw," monochrome, and exhibit small black flecks indicative of damaged charge-coupled device (CCD) pixels, (which are understood to be from radiation and aging), saturation from bright objects, and other artifacts that are normally removed from satellite imagery before public release through a process of clean up and flat-field correction techniques. 

"Raw" NEOSsat image of M33 galaxy. Image c/o CSA.
NEOSSat image clarity is also limited by the performance of the CCD itself, which spreads some of each pixel signal to the adjacent pixels and softens image clarity. This is commonly done with CCD's to more closely reproduce the look obtained with a traditional optical telescope.

Of course, flat field correction is a standard calibration procedure used on CCD images in everything from pocket digital cameras to the Hubble Space Telescope. Corrected NEOSSat images could reasonably be expected to be of a far higher quality and utility.

NEOSSat images could also be coloured using well understood technologies such as satellite or ground based filter wheels and other methodologies, which are normally standard procedure for use on Hubble, other satellite derived images and even the images derived from ground based telescopes. 

According to Gillett, NEOSSat optical performance is very close to its "diffraction-limit," or as good as its 15 cm aperture size could ever permit, which is a testament to the skills and capabilities of the NEOSsat project team. NEOSSat also achieves better pointing stability than the earlier MOST space telescope. MOST is capable of about 1 arc second accuracy whereas NEOSSat is able to achieve 0.5 arc second accuracy.

MSCI, which recently took over the operations of the Microvariability and Oscillation of STars (MOST) micro-satellite (as outlined in the April 15th, 2015 post, "The MOST Space Telescope Joins the Private Sector") is also the prime contractor for NEOSSat.

"Raw" NEOSsat image of M2 cluster. Image c/o CSA.
But MSCI's primary challenge, and NEOSSat's main role, has always been to detect and identify near-Earth asteroids, satellites and debris orbiting the planet, which are activities normally requiring a higher degree of control over the direction in which the NEOSSat telescope gets pointed than is necessary for stellar imaging.

And, as outlined in both the July 7th, 2014 post, "NEOSSat Not Up to the Job; Government Report Blames Contractor," and the July 28th, 2014 follow-up, "Customers vs Project Managers: The Real Truth about NEOSSat," there was initially much concern over whether the satellite would ever be able to fulfill its primary mission.

However, it's quite possible that NEOSsat has also recently been tracking asteroids with success. A second series of so far unreleased NEOSSat images, (likely taken during the tracking of the January 26th, 2015 close approach of asteroid 2004 BL86 to within approximately 1,2Mln km of the Earth), is rumored to be noteworthy, if only because it purports to exhibit the superb pointing stability (0.5 arc seconds, or 1/7200 degree) that NEOSsat is required to achieve operationally as per its designed specifications.

So has NEOSSat overcome its initial difficulties to achieve its mandated operational capabilities?

According to Gillett, the CSA has already formally declared NEOSSat as compliant to its specified performance for both the planned Defense Research and Development Canada (DRDC) high Earth orbit surveillance system (HEOSS) mission to monitor orbiting satellites and space junk and the University of Calgary near Earth space surveillance (NESS) mission to detect and track asteroids. 

However, no one at the CSA seems currently willing to go on record to confirm this. Look for that to change over the next few months as data from the program slowly begins to trickle out into academia.

"Raw" NEOSSat image of the Horsehead Nebula. According to the MSCI website, the micro-satellite is designed to "detect and identify near-Earth asteroids and to track satellites and debris in Earth’s orbit." The principal investigators are Dr. Alan Hildebrand at the University of Calgary and Dr. Brad Wallace of DRDC. Image c/o CSA.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Our Space Agency Dreams of Going to Infinity and Beyond!!!!!

          By Chuck Black

The event has been postponed at least once already and likely will be postponed yet again. But, as of now, the 2015 Canadian Space Conference, organized and sponsored by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), is listed on the CSA website as scheduled to occur in the John H. Chapman Space Centre in Saint-Hubert, Quebec from June 2nd - 3rd, 2015.

Not that there's anything wrong with that (and the website seems to have been removed just after this post went live)...

CSA headquarters. The John H. Chapman Space Center, located in the municipality of Longueuil, Quebec is a complex of four buildings (an "antenna building," a "pumping room," an "exploration storage facility" and the Chapman Space Centre) fronted by a parking lot, at least according to the Treasury Board of Canada Directory of Federal Real Estate property. Photo c/o the Treasury Board of Canada Directory of Federal Real Property.

It's also worth noting that the 2014 Canadian Space Conference, which was held at the same location on February 25th, 2014 and served as the subject of the February 25th, 2014 post "The "Casablanca" of Space Conferences," was generally considered to be less than a rousing success. 

Sylvain Laporte. Photo c/o CSA
Much like last time, the possibly upcoming event will focus on Federal government position papers like Canada's Space Policy Framework and Seizing Canada's Moment: Moving Forward in Science, Technology and Innovation in order to examine how to come most effectively into Federal government compliance with these political initiatives.

But there will also be plenty of time for industry and interested individuals to network, "share their long-term vision and goals" and even listen to "notorious members of the Canadian space community share their views on the future of Canada in space," at least, that's what's going to happen according to the CSA website description.

Yeah, sure. Whatever...

Of course, the event won't be all fun and games. Included with the schedule is a "Side Event on RADARSAT Program Data Exploitation," plus the presentation of the annual John H. Chapman Award of Excellence.

Hopefully, new CSA president Sylvain Laporte will be in attendance if the conference ends up taking place. Perhaps he'll even say something interesting.

Not that there'd be anything wrong with that, either.

Screenshot of the CSA webpage promoting the Canadian Space Summit taken on the morning of April 21st, 2015. According to the website, the event will also include the presentation of the annual John H. Chapman Award of Excellence. Later the same day, the website was taken down.

UPDATE: Later in the day on April 21st, the author received the following e-mail from CSA media relations representative Maya-Olivia Eyssen. It said:
Hello Chuck,

The Canadian Space Conference has been postponed to ensure that the best conditions are in place to allow us to build on the productive and meaningful discussions of last year.
The Canadian Space Conference is a key opportunity to achieve a common understanding of the current space context and to explore Canada’s future in space together.

Also note that our events web page has been updated.

According to the updated website at, the event has been "postponed" and "a new date will be confirmed shortly." The main event website at remains offline.

Of course, this article will be updated as further information becomes available.