When we think of exciting advancements in space sciences and exploration, the first country that comes to mind is not often Canada. Our southern neighbour - the United States - and its significant space prowess and contributions often overshadow those of Canada. However, the often understated role (perhaps out of touch of self-modesty) of Canada in space is in stark contrast to the proven abilities and future potential of the Canadian space sector.
Canada’s knowledge and capabilities in the fields of spaceflight and space sciences are far-reaching and span a wide range of disciplines including space weather monitoring, Earth observation, spacecraft robotics, telecommunications, and sensor suite development and fabrication. Furthermore, Canada’s contributions to human spaceflight programs, starting from the early days of the Mercury program, continue to advance our knowledge regarding the effects on our biology and spirit in pursuit of the exploration of the cosmos.
Canada’s involvement in human spaceflight began, indirectly, in 1959 with the cancellation of the Avro Arrow program. The Arrow was to be a supersonic interceptor to counter the threat at the time of Russian high-altitude nuclear-capable bombers, and incorporated several ground-breaking firsts in aerospace technology and design. However, it was cancelled by the Diefenbaker government due to a mixture of financial constraints and changes in the geopolitical landscape, including the advent of ICBMs. Several dozen employees from the program moved to the United States seeking work, and joined NASA, as well as private companies such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin. As a result, Canadian engineering talent became involved at an early stage in the development and design behind the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.
Canada’s contributions to the early days of human space exploration were not limited to knowledge transfer and involvement in the United States. The Canadian company Héroux-Devtek, based in Longueuil, Québec, won the contract from Northrop-Grumman (prime contractor for the Apollo lunar module) for the manufacture of the spidery module’s landing legs. With significant experience designing landing gears, Héroux-Devtek provided NASA with critical equipment which remains on the lunar surface to this day.
When an oxygen tank explosion severely damaged the Apollo 13 Service Module, and eliminated any possibility of a lunar landing, the focus shifted to bringing the astronauts back home safely. Prior to re-entry, the Command Module (CM) had to be separated from the Lunar Module (LM), which had been used as a lifeboat for most of the mission. No procedure or simulation for this process existed – the LM was supposed to have been left in lunar orbit. The University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies played a crucial role in determining the pressure required in the tunnel between the CM and LM to ensure safe separation without damaging the capsule.
The International Space Station
400 km above the Earth, completing an orbit every 90 minutes, is a technological marvel the size of a football field with a mass on par with the maximum takeoff weight of a Boeing 747. The International Space Station (ISS) is a technological marvel, and a monument to how countries across the Earth can work together towards the exploration of space. Canada’s first contribution to the ISS – the Canadarm – was via the Shuttle program and was nothing short of iconic, essential for large-scale orbital assembly. The remote-controlled mechanical arm was developed by SPAR Aerospace, now MDA (formerly MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates) for use with the Shuttle program and allowed the Space Shuttle and its astronauts to take on the complex task of orbital construction. The Canadarm end effector, utilized to grapple and manipulate objects and modules in orbit, was developed by DSMA Atcon (Toronto), while several components of the control and software were jointly developed by CAE Electronics Ltd. (Montreal) and SPAR.
Canada’s involvement didn’t stop there. Leveraging their significant expertise in spacecraft robotics, MDA went on to develop the Mobile Servicing System consisting of Canadarm2, DEXTRE, and the Mobile Base System – a series of robotic arms and grapples attached to the ISS. Jointly operated by the Canadian Space Agency (Saint-Hubert, Quebec) and Johnson Space Center (Houston, TX), the system is used for grappling and docking ISS-bound cargo ships, station maintenance, and participating in several experiments including demonstrations of in-space refueling.
Following the tragic loss of Space Shuttle Columbia during re-entry on February 1 2003, construction of the ISS was halted indefinitely. Canada once again exercised its proficiency in space robotics and sensor systems by developing the Orbital Boom Sensor System (Neptec, MDA), which was utilized to scan the shuttle’s thermal protection system for damage on all subsequent missions. The addition of the capability to examine the shuttle contributed significantly to continued shuttle flights, and by extension, completion of ISS construction.
From a human presence perspective on the ISS, perhaps one of the most famous and well-known is Col. Chris Hadfield who served as commander of the ISS on Expedition 35 from March to May 2013. His significant social media presence catapulted Canadian representation in space to the forefront, ranging from his instructional videos of everyday activities on the ISS to his rendition of David Bowie’s song Space Oddity. Canada’s first astronaut in space was Marc Garneau who flew on STS-41G in 1984, and Canada’s first woman in space, Dr. Roberta Bondar, flew on STS-42 in 1992. Most recently in 2018-2019, David Saint-Jacques served as flight engineer for Expeditions 57, 58, and 59, and conducted a spacewalk, becoming the fourth Canadian astronaut to take part in an EVA.
Canada has also contributed to several experiments on board the space station, including those studying plant growth (APEX) and the effects of microgravity on human health and physiology (BISE, Vascular, MARROW). These experiments play a key role in human understanding of the effects of spaceflight on living organisms, including humans. The results of this research will undoubtedly become invaluable as humanity continues its exploration of the cosmos.