Thursday, July 06, 2017

Part 15: 150 Years of Canadian Aerospace History

More RADARSAT, More Astronauts, the CSA's Growing Importance, the "Airbus Affair," MacDonald Dettwiler & the "Canadarm



Graphic c/o CSA.
          By Robert Godwin
Canada's aerospace raison d'être has always derived from its immense size, its location in the far north as a vast, barely-tracked wilderness of incalculable resources and the logical requirements relating to defence, communications, utilization and exploration which naturally follow from its size and location.

Radarsat-1 would finally be launched in 1995 having consumed a massive budget in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars. The British government had reneged on its promise to participate, so Canada was left to carry most of the burden. However, the gamble paid off and Radarsat would become one of the most successful remote sensing machines in history.

MDA's technology for processing data from orbit was second to none. The final flight version of Radarsat-1 included a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) antenna that was 15m long by 1.5m wide and it could operate in a half dozen different modes. Somewhat tellingly it still included an X-band antenna similar to that proposed by Kurt Stehling in 1953. The SAR exceeded all expectations and opened up new vistas of research in everything from geology to archaeology.


Between January 1998 and March 1999 an assortment of purchases and sales led to the deconstruction of SPAR Aerospace including the purchase of the robotics division by MDA and with it the Canadarm contracts. That same year Orbital sold its interests in MDA.

Most of Canada's space activity was now firmly centred at the CSA in St Hubert. Bjarni Tryggvason would get to fly aboard the space shuttle in 1997 and a second generation of Canadian astronauts had been recruited several years earlier. This group included Chris Hadfield, Dave Williams and Julie Payette. All three would also enter the vernacular in Canada and fly a multitude of important missions into space.

Many of the flights by Canadian astronauts involved remote sensing of the earth. Robert Thirsk would fly in 1996 followed by Garneau for the second time. Today, four more Canadians have joined the astronaut corps, David Saint-Jacques, Jeremy Hansen, Jennifer Sidey and Joshua Kutryk. At the time of writing, all are still waiting for the next generation of manned spacecraft to be completed.

Also in 1996 Com Dev of Cambridge Ontario would acquire a license to manufacture a vast quantity of their unique microwave multiplexers to place aboard the most visible of all the satellite constellations, Project Iridium.

The "Airbus Affair," dogged Brian Mulroney, Canada's 18th Prime Minister, well after his term of office ended in 1993. For an overview, check out the April 29th, 2010 Globe and Mail post, "The scandal that keeps on flying." Political cartoon c/o Michael de Adder.

In July 1997 Boeing and Douglas merged, and when the group didn't get the orders they anticipated during the highly publicized Airbus fiasco in 2005, Boeing closed the old Avro Malton Plant laying off the last 300 workers.

The development of new tools for remote sensing continued unabated. Alan Carswell's Lidar had originally been designed to study pollution and air quality, but it would stir headlines across the world when it was deployed on the surface of Mars in 2008 and detected snow falling there. It was the first snow detected on another planet. However, this would not be the first time that Canadian technology had been to the red planet.

There were the reverse-engineered STEM aboard the Soviet's Mars 3 lander and NASA had used STEMs to deploy the ramps for the Sojourner/Pathfinder rover in July of 1997. The instruments on the end of the massive STEM booms aboard the two Voyager spacecraft, which were now plying their way into interstellar space, and would be the first to discover interstellar weather in 2014.

In 2007 the first Japanese spacecraft to orbit the moon, the SELENE, once again used STEMs. Even the United States Air Force Academy's Falconsat program used STEMs for a gravity gradient boom.

Infographic showing statistics on SCISAT, a small Canadian satellite that monitors ozone in the stratosphere and helps scientists improve their understanding of ozone depletion. Graphic c/o CSA.

Studying the weather was now becoming a critical function of space hardware. Climate change was on the top of every government's "to do" list. In 2003 Canada contributed the Scisat which was able to study the Earth's ozone layer. The same year also saw the launch of the MOST space telescope, which was followed up by the MOST space telescope, which was designed to make extremely long duration observations of stars in an attempt to better understand them and perhaps get a better date for the age of the universe.

In 2006 the Mobile Servicing System (MSS), or Canadarm2, was launched to the International Space Station (ISS). The four components of Canadarm 2, including its attendant hand, the special purpose dexterous manipulator (SPDM) also  known as DEXTRE, were built by SPAR both before and after it had been purchased by MDA. The system continues to operate aboard the ISS today.

Between 2009 and 2013 several Canadian astronauts lived aboard ISS and used the Canadarm2. These included Julie Payette, Robert Thirsk and most famously Chris Hadfield who managed to cause a media sensation with his regular reports from orbit.


The CSA also helped to fund MDA's construction of a second Radarsat. Launched in December of that year the Radarsat-2 pushed the technology even further. Although the satellite was lighter than its predecessor it could resolve down to 1m by 3m in its "spotlight" mode which was a marked improvement over Radarsat-1. It could also look both right and left, which effectively doubled the viewing capabilities.

In 2012 MDA purchased a massive US corporation named Loral. This was as a direct result of the Canadian government blocking the sale of MDA to another American company named ATK. MDA was considered too important to Canada's aerospace industry, and as the benefactor of a large portion of the available funding coming from the CSA, the sale was considered counter-productive to Canadian interests.

The root of this issue went all the way back to the late 1960s when governments around the world had been arguing about who controlled the space above sovereign territory. At first the USA had argued that satellites should be allowed to image anything which was beneath them. Other countries objected, including Canada, in part because it was felt that if the control of the data was in US hands before it came into Canadian hands, this might give American corporations an unfair advantage when it came to mineral rights.

A reminder that international political and business concerns often override other issues. For example, the March 30th, 2001 Globe and Mail post, "Bilateral space causing delays, costing millions," discussed reasons why the Canadian RADARSAT-2 program, originally expected to be launched on an American rocket from US soil, was being delayed and eventually needed to be launched by Starsem from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome on December 14th, 2007. The April 10th, 2018 post, "Federal government blocks sale of MDA space division," delved into how, during that same period, MDA attempted to sell its space technology division to US based Alliant Techsystems (ATK). Four years later, as outlined in the June 27th, 2012 post, "MacDonald Dettwiler buys Space Systems Loral for $875M," MDA tried another technique to bypass a "Gordian knot" of complex barriers designed to dissuade foreign firm from entering the lucrative US marketplace by purchasing a space company with US roots. And, as outlined most recently in the May 8th, 2017 post, "MDA Restructures For DARPA & Competition, Cuts US Workforce but Anticipates New Orders in Weak Q1 2017 Report" MDA is still attempting to reconfigure itself into a mostly US based firm to come into compliance with US legislation and achieve the anticipated pot of US gold assumed to accrue naturally to US military contractors. Screenshot c/o Globe and Mail.

Eventually a compromise was reached, in part because of MDA's ability to draw down the data at speeds unapproachable elsewhere. NASA relented at the beginning of the 1970s and agreed to let Canadian companies like MDA read the data generated above Canada.

Now that Radarsat was able to pull much more detailed and expansive data of Canada's resources and environment, the need for quick access was even more important. Today MDA is able to compete on a huge range of space projects. It sells high resolution imagery to distributors around the globe, and in early 2017 it was selected to participate in an asteroid discovery mission.

Also in the early spring of 2017 an American and Ukrainian consortium announced plans to build an orbital launch facility in Nova Scotia. With Canada currently purchasing launch services from India and the United States it seems that the political will may have finally arrived to take advantage of the highly skilled aerospace workforce in Canada; albeit using imported hardware. The East Coast launch site was chosen for many of the same reasons originally proposed by Phil Lapp, Kurt Stehling and John Chapman in the 1950s and 60s. The 50th anniversary of the Chapman Report would seem a fitting time to break ground on this new facility.
Robert Godwin.
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Robert Godwin is the owner and founder of Apogee Space Books, the Space Curator at the Canadian Air & Space Museum and an American Astronautical Society History Committee Member.
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.
Last Week, "Challengers Destruction, the Hubble Space Telescope, a New HQ for the CSA, Spar Flounders & Orbital Sciences Buys MDA," in part fourteen of "150 Years of Canadian Aerospace History."

Next Week, "Bombardier, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Conclusions," as "150 Years of Canadian Aerospace History" finishes up an amazing journey.

On sale now, at Apogee Books.

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