Thursday, June 15, 2017

Part 14: 150 Years of Canadian Aerospace History

Challengers Destruction, the Hubble Space Telescope, a New HQ for the CSA, Spar Flounders

& Orbital Sciences Buys MDA




Challenger's destruction January 28th, 1986. Photo c/o NYT.
         By Robert Godwin
Canada's aerospace raison d'ĂȘtre 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.

In 1982 Phil Lapp had again tried to spark a cross-Atlantic partnership for Canadian space research with his friend Geoffrey Pardoe in England. SPAR had signed an agreement to work with the European Space Agency (ESA) on a large observation satellite named L-Sat. This agreement would ultimately start discussions which might bring Britain into the next generation of synthetic aperture (SAR) equipped satellites. Unfortunately this was not going to be an easy marriage. Long before the program could bear fruit British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pulled out of the agreement.

Problems were soon compounded by the tragic destruction of the space shuttle Challenger in early 1986. As well as the devastating loss of life, many extremely expensive long-term projects were put into a holding pattern while NASA tried to determine the source of the catastrophic failure of its most advanced and expensive space system.


Canada's next astronaut, Dr Robert Bondar, would see her mission pushed back by years. The hugely expensive Hubble Space Telescope, which used STEM-equipped solar panels, was delayed because it was designed to be launched from the shuttle cargo bay. For two and a half years NASA was grounded. This delay was put to good use, not only to make the shuttle system safer, but it also gave the entire Canadian aerospace community — government, industry and academia — a chance to really explore what was needed next to cement the country's future in space.

A national space agency, just like the one which Phil Lapp and John Chapman had suggested more than two decades earlier, was finally created. A report had been issued just a few months before the Challenger accident urging the formation of the new agency, but not everyone was happy with the idea of the government being "at the wheel" of every space project. However, since almost all of the funding came from Ottawa, it seems the plan was inevitable once so many projects were placed on hold.

Almost immediately political friction took hold when Ottawa and Montreal both lobbied to be the host city for the new space agency.  The science community urged that the new agency be set up with "field centres" following the same model as NASA. This would allow places like Churchill Falls to continue to operate and would spread the work around the country. But by May of 1989 the site had been chosen by the Mulroney government for the new agency to be built in St Hubert Quebec.

Dusk falling outside the main rotunda of the John H. Chapman Space Centre in St. Hubert Quebec. The CSA headquarters is named in honour of John Herbert Chapman, a pioneer of the Canadian space program and author of the 1967 report on "Upper Atmosphere and Space Programs in Canada," also known as the "Chapman Report," which has served to guide Canadian space activities ever since. Photo c/o CSA.

In the meantime SPAR's Canadarm would return to flight and SPAR began to pursue a contract to build the next generation of robotic arms for the proposed space station.

As early as 1959 NASA, the US Army and the USAF had been issuing contracts for space station studies. All the way through to the early 1980s there had never been much thought given to international cooperation on the many dozens of proposals. It would not be until the Reagan era that the opportunity would arrive for other nations like Canada to get involved, and it was with the collapse of the Soviet Union's grip on its client states, beginning in Poland in 1989, that it was decided by the US government that cooperation with the Soviets might be a way of keeping the peace.

The end of 1988 saw the space shuttle return to flight and one of the most important missions which had been sitting in storage was the giant Hubble Space Telescope. It would be successfully launched from the shuttle cargo bay in April 1990, but almost immediately the operators of the telescope knew that there was something wrong.

A tiny flaw in the main mirror had rendered the multi-billion dollar instrument myopic. The only way to save the whole program was to send another shuttle to catch the massive telescope by using the Canadarm to pull it into the shuttle's protective bay and make an in-flight repair. It would be the most audacious space repair mission since the Skylab debacle of the early 1970s. It would have been impossible without the Canadarm.


But a year before the repair could take place Dr Roberta Bondar became Canada's first female astronaut. Bondar would be a payload specialist and participated in what was known as the "International Microgravity Laboratory."

An overachiever in the life sciences, Bondar and her crewmates completed "more than 100%" of their flight objectives and were able to work for a day longer than originally planned. Crystals, cells and plants all exposed to micro-gravity were returned to Earth, including proteins grown in space.

Bondar would not fly again, but in November Steve MacLean would follow her into orbit participating in what would be one of the most successful years for the shuttle program, with eight flights in less than 12 months. MacLean's flight also included a raft of biology experiments but also included the CANEX 2 experiment package. One of the experiments on liquid metal diffusion originated at Queen's University in Kingston.

Overview of the Canadian Experiments (CANEX-2). Screen shot c/o NASA.

Just as the Canadarm was performing its most famous task and saving the Hubble Space Telescope things started to slide sideways for SPAR. In 1987 SPAR had become prime contractor for Canada's involvement in the International Space Station and MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA) had been brought on board to handle the software. That same year was also when SPAR and MDA combined forces on the new SAR satellite, RADARSAT.

In July 1992 the shareholders of MDA rejected a $50M buy-out offer from SPAR. In 1993 a new management structure at SPAR began to cause oversight issues. The company had grown into a behemoth with aerospace work only accounting for 41% of the revenues. The failed takeover of MDA allowed for another suitor, Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) of Dulles, to make a better offer just a few years later. In September 1995 MDA became a wholly owned subsidiary of Orbital.

This was the beginning of the end for SPAR. Canada's largest space contractor was on the way out. 
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, "'Spar's Canadarm, George Klein, Ernie Groskopfs and Working Astronauts plus the Mulrony Gov't Divests its Aerospace Assets," in part thirteen of "150 Years of Canadian Aerospace History."

Next Week, "RADARSAT, Spar's Destruction and More," as part fifteen of "150 Years of Canadian Aerospace History" continues.

On sale now, at Apogee Books.

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