Thursday, June 01, 2017

Part 12: 150 Years of Canadian Aerospace History

The Cape Perry Spaceport, Gordon Shepherd, Hermes, the Battle for the Canadarm and SeaSat

Once a spaceport. Graphic c/o ePodunk.
          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.

Up in the high latitudes scientists from Canada's universities and government laboratories continued to launch ever more powerful Black Brant rockets into space. At one point (from 1969 - 1982) a new remote launching site was established at Cape Parry, just across the bay from where Jules Verne had sent his fictional explorers a century before.

As outlined in an undated post covering Cape Perry, eighteen sounding rocket launches were made there during that period.

One of these scientists involved with the program was Dr Gordon Shepherd who had been one of the original group of scientists to pitch sensors to Phil Lapp's committee. Shepherd would go on to create several new devices including a scanning interference filter photometer and a wide angle michelson interferometer.

Decades later he would end up working on Canada's most ambitious remote sensing satellites.

By 1976 the David Florida Laboratory, one of the facilities run by the Defence Research Board (DRB) in Ottawa, was ready to deploy an entirely new kind of communications satellite. It was to be called Hermes and once in orbit it would be capable of delivering direct television signals to the ground, even allowing people to eventually receive such signals with a small satellite dish. This ambitious project gave birth to an entire industry.

Around the same time, after a protracted battle with nay-sayers in the American Congress, SPAR finally secured the contract to build the robotic arm for the space shuttle system. Now the company had to prove that it could deliver on time and on budget.

Demand for STEM antenna continued and when it came time to launch NASA's deep space Voyager exploration mission, the STEM was again an integral part. In August 1977 Klein's antenna was on its way to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

In the mid 1970s Canada still hadn't resolved the expensive problem of how to efficiently patrol and monitor its remote borders. The problem of how to do this was making yet another of its generational reappearances. In 1977 the government finally made its decision for the next fighter purchase and ordered $3.5B worth of F-18s from Douglas, but they were also faced with purchasing a new fleet of long-range patrol aircraft and so Laurence Morley was asked if satellites could minimize the need for so many aircraft.

There were some who felt that aircraft would simply never be up to the task.

Seasat was the first Earth-orbiting satellite designed for remote sensing of the Earth's oceans and had onboard the first spaceborne synthetic aperture radar.. Graphic c/o NASA/JPL

Morley had already heard about NASA's plans for Seasat so he suggested that perhaps Canada could apply for permission to read the downlink from Seasat as it passed overhead. Two large reports were commissioned; including one by Phil Lapp entitled "Satellites and Sovereignty Control."

These reports spelled out in exhaustive detail why a satellite like Seasat would be a godsend to the latest generation of Canadian politicians agonizing over buying aircraft. Seasat might show that a satellite equipped with the right technology could begin to breach the intelligence gap.

On June 28th 1978 synthetic aperture radar (SAR) was launched into space aboard Seasat, it was the culmination of more than a quarter century of advocacy by Kurt Stehling.

Seasat was the next logical extension of the technology which had been hanging out of the belly of many research aircraft in the 1940s. It included a radar altimeter, microwave, visible and infrared radiometers, a microwave scatterometer and the all-important SAR. The support structure to deploy the instruments was built by Astro Research, which was now the home of all STEM products.

A sample SeaSat-1 SAR image of the Los Angeles metropolitan area observed in 1978. Image c/o NASA/JPL.

Seasat almost immediately lived up to expectations. Morley and others had persuaded NASA to allow Canada to read the downlink from Seasat's SAR, because the huge amounts of data were more than the onboard recorders could handle. MDA competed to build a new digital receiver to store and process this SAR data.

Working on a tight budget and an even tighter schedule the small team of engineers (John Bennett, Ian Cumming, Robert Deane, Ron Fielden,Wayne Fung, Pete McConnell, Robert Orth, Doug Seymour and Pietro Widmer) accomplished the seemingly impossible task and produced the very first digitally processed images from orbit, a swathe of land 38 x 41 kms across, showing the Trois Rivieres area of Quebec.

These very first images were received at Shoe Cove, Newfoundland by a large receiving dish with equipment installed by MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA). The facility at Shoe Cove had previously played a similar downlink role during the Skylab program.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the United States led the solicitation of investigations by non-governmental organisations for Seasat data. At that time Stehling was senior science and technology advisor to NOAA's manned undersea science and technology program at the office of ocean engineering and was one of many senior scientists involved in the program.

NOAA ran the so-called "ground truth" which involved flying large aircraft below the path of Seasat to confirm its readings and to help calibrate the instruments and perfect the algorithms. The Canadian Government's Surveillance Satellite Project (SUR-SAT) and the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources-Canada were the main points of contact with the Seasat program, but Gulf Oil Canada Ltd., Imperial Oil (Canada), Dome Petroleum (Canada) and EastCan Exploration (Canada) also played a role in the hope that Seasat might find oil in the Beaufort and Labrador seas.

A definition of "ground truth." Image c/o Researchgate.

After only three months in space the $74Mln US ($101Mln CDN) Seasat would experience a catastrophic power failure. The problem was not in the sensing platform, but in the booster stage, which like the Quill that had flown in 1964 was an adapted Lockheed Agena. More than half the total length of Seasat was made up of the Agena. Unlike Quill, which was only designed to work for a few days, Seasat had large solar panels added to the Agena bus to provide the power needed for the sensors.

An electrical short had developed in the rotation assembly for the panels. SUR-SAT was supposed to also provide ground-truth measurements over Canadian territory, but few of the orbits accomplished by Seasat were over the prescribed test areas. However, this wasn't a complete loss since the SUR-SAT program continued under contract to Intera Environmental Consultants, a Calgary based company which in 1983 spent $6Mln CDN equipping a Cessna with an airborne SAR system which they called STAR-1.

NASA later reported, "During its brief life, Seasat collected more information about ocean physics than had been acquired in the previous 100 years of shipboard research." More than 2500 papers and documents about Seasat can be accessed online today.

As a consequence of the failure NASA chose to cancel the next Seasat mission, but the results from the data were so promising that when NASA dropped the program, the Canadian Working Group on Satellites and Ground Station Engineering made a pitch to the Canadian government to take it over.

It was to become a massive undertaking that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and would ultimately become known as Radarsat.
Robert Godwin.

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, "MDA's Rise, Spar's Fall, STEM Antenna's,  the Space Shuttle, the Canadarm, 
COMDEV & Optech,'" in part eleven of "150 Years of Canadian Aerospace History."

Next Week, "Spar's Canadarm, George Klein, Ernie Groskopfs and Working Astronauts plus the Mulrony Gov't Divests its Aerospace Assets," as part thirteen of "150 Years of Canadian Aerospace History" continues.

On sale now, at Apogee Books.


  1. Has there ever been a satellite launched from Canadian soil that was placed into orbit?

  2. Not to my knowledge. Black Brant never went orbital. The US built Scout rocket was also an all solid fuelled launch vehicle, designed and built in 1960 and it flew dozens of times successfully launching small payloads into orbit. (It was bigger than Black Brant). There was no reason why Black Brant couldn't have done the same thing given the opportunity. In 1967 Phil Lapp and John Chapman recommended that it be upgraded to orbital capability but the government wasn't interested.


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