Sunday, May 07, 2017

Part 8: 150 Years of Canadian Aerospace History

Stehling, Maynard, the Lunar Excursion Module, Gerald Bull, James Chamberlin & Phil Lapp

Graphic c/o NASA's Apollo Program.
         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.

Ever since President Kennedy had proclaimed that his country was going to the moon, the many engineers and managers at NASA and elsewhere in the US military had been arguing over the best way to accomplish this seemingly impossible task. A special committee was assembled in 1961 and was given the task of choosing the method that was most likely to succeed within the President's deadline.

The three choices were:
  • "Earth Orbit Rendezvous" – which required two boosters that would meet in earth orbit before heading for the moon.
  • "Lunar Orbit Rendezvous" or LOR - which required one big booster which could take two vehicles to lunar orbit, one of which would descend and land, then hook up again before returning the crew to earth.
  • "Direct Ascent" - which required a booster big enough to fly all the way to the moon, land and then return.
The last choice was considered too expensive, the first choice too risky. "Earth Orbit Rendezvous" was about to win the day, but two members of the committee insisted that LOR was the only way to go. They were John Houbolt, who was an engineer at Langley, and Kurt Stehling who was now representing NASA headquarters. After much arm twisting Houbolt and Stehling won the argument and the massive NASA machine swung into action to build a lunar orbit rendezvous system which required a small lunar landing craft. The responsibility for this special spaceship fell to Owen Maynard of Sarnia Ontario.

Various versions of the Lunar Module (LM) from 1962 to 1969 from the June 11th, 2015 Space Rocket History webaite post, "#117 – Apollo: Lunar Module Design." Graphics c/o NASA.

Maynard presented his conceptual drawings to the heads of NASA in April of 1962. His "lunar excursion module" initially appeared as a conical spacecraft with four landing legs. Later he added a protruding helicopter bubble on the side so that the astronauts could see the ground as they approached for landing. As head of NASA's lunar landing program Maynard's drawings permeated the offices of the many contractors bidding on the contract for the vehicle. At the end of 1962 the contract was awarded to Grumman Aircraft in Long Island New York and so the story of the LM (lunar module) began.

By this time the US government had all but removed the Army from the space business. The von Braun rocket team and its massive Saturn rocket was now part of NASA and the US Air Force was responsible for the military side of space. Fort Churchill in Manitoba had become, as predicted by Kurt Stehling, a place where rockets could be launched with relative impunity and the US Air Force had now taken over the running of that facility. A large solid rocket fuel factory was built in Rockwood Manitoba and the Bristol Aircraft Company and Aerojet launched more and more rockets into the stratosphere. The aurora was still the subject of intense study and the Earth's magnetic field was slowly giving up its secrets.

The success of Alouette had spurred Canada's aerospace community to move forward on more similar satellites, which were given the (now unfortunate) acronym of ISIS. The RCA Company in Montreal was selected as prime contractor with SPAR as an associate. RCA had been involved with communications in Canada since it had supplied the microphones for early Bell telephones.

More on the ISIS program, from the  July 19th, 1996 Friends of the CRC post, "The ISIS Satellite Program." Graphic c/o Friends of the CRC.

Although the US Air Force had taken over the missile program, the US Army was still in charge of artillery. Gerald Bull's 1958 plan to use a small gun as a second stage on a space launcher had died on the vine but his devotion to space guns hadn't. He convinced the US Army that a huge ground-based gun could be used to launch payloads directly into space. Beginning in 1964 Bull's supergun went into production. It was to be called "Project HARP" for "high altitude research project."

Initially working with McGill University in Montreal HARP was to have been built and used in the arctic. But despite his considerable academic credentials and salesmanship, Bull seems to have fundamentally misunderstood what was important to Canada. His space gun, if it could be built, would have very few payloads tough enough to withstand the rigours of launch. It could certainly be used as a weapon but beyond putting inert materials into space it was not much use for anything else.

Despite this, the fact that the US government endorsed the project made it difficult for the Canadian government to not do the same. It was not the first time that US money had been fronted for a military project in Canada. A more famous instance had been an attempt to build a flying saucer at Avro for the US Air Force. A substantial amount of work went into what became known as the Avrocar, but it never lived up to its promise as a high-speed fighter; although some of its research did bring about improvements to the hovercraft.

While Bull was building his space gun in Bermuda, another Avro Arrow and University of Toronto alumnus, James Chamberlin, had been put in charge of the engineering for the United States' two-man spacecraft, the Gemini. Chamberlin was the most highly placed of the Canadians that had gone to NASA. He had seen the problems in the Mercury spacecraft design and had set about creating an improved two-man version. The end result would be a modular design which the astronauts would all call their favourite spacecraft, despite its extremely limited cabin space. While the Apollo lunar spacecraft was still taking shape, Gemini would teach Americans how to fly in space.

Coming along for the ride with Gemini was SPAR's STEM antenna. Phil Lapp had turned SPAR into a stand-alone company and the STEM was installed on both Gemini and its designated target, an unmanned docking drone named Agena, similar to the one which had flown on the ultra secret radar project Quill. The STEM was used for everything from deploying beacons, to solar panels, to dipole communications.

In 1963 the de Havilland engineers had also drafted up plans for two other uses for STEM; as an arm for grabbing spacecraft that wished to dock with a space station, and as an arm for digging up samples on the moon. These plans would have to wait. 
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, "A Government Lurching From 'Problem to Problem,'" in part seven of "150 Years of Canadian Aerospace History."

Next Week, "Lapp, Stehling, Chapman. His Report, Mankind's Giant Leaps and a Domestic Focus on Sensors," as part nine of "150 Years of Canadian Aerospace History" continues.

On sale now, at Apogee Books.


  1. Rob --- this seems a good place to document one of the many anecdotes that Owen Maynard told me, back in 1994. Because, it ties together Owen with the STEM work at DeHavilland under Phil Lapp. (Interestingly/strangely, while Owen and Phil were nearly contemporaneous, e.g., both attending U of T's Ajax Division engineering only one year apart from each other, and both went on to become leading space engineers, Phil told me that they never met. He knew of Owen back then, but their paths never ended up crossing.)

    (As far as I know, this was not one of Owen's told-many-times anecdotes; I may be the only one he told this to.)

    This anecdote Owen told me during the 1994 ISDC in Toronto (held by the CSS, of which I was then President), during a tour of SPAR's Brampton facility that I arranged for the "NASA Canadians" who attended. The SPAR host talked about SPAR's space history, including of course about STEM tubes and their role in Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. After the meeting, Owen told me about seeing a prototype STEM at DeHavilland Canada, in the 1950s. At that time, Owen must have been an engineer at Avro. He was also a member of the RCAF reserves (which he joined, after his stint as an RCAF flying officer and Mosquito pilot in WWII), in Toronto Squadron, which operated out of the RCAF base that shared Downsview field with DHC. Apparently the DHC and RCAF people at Downsview were fairly chummy. Owen said that one day when he was on-base, hanging out by one of the hangars with some other pilots, a DHC engineer called them over to "show them something interesting". He stood at one side of an open hangar door, holding a box with a hand-crank on it. He proceeded to operate the crank, whereupon a tube started to emerge from the box. He kept cranking, until the tube spanned the distance from one side of the hangar doorway to the other (some tens of feet), the tube showing no sign of sagging, and obviously pretty stiff and light-weight. He thought that pretty neat.

    A few years later Owen was at NASA Langley working at the Space Task Group as a new-hire, doing various systems engineering tasks. One design problem being worked by Caldwell Johnson (one of the senior Mercury design engineers) had to do with stowing and deploying radio antennas. Owen remembered the neat demo from the DHC guy, and mentioned it to Johnson, giving him contact info for people at DHC.

    Owen then moved on to other things, and didn't follow it up himself. However, STEMs ended up being incorporated into Gemini and Apollo spacecraft (and maybe Mercury as well). Perhaps Owen's memory of that early DHC STEM tube demo, and his passing the contact info along to Johnson, was the initial connection between SPAR and the US manned space program. In which case, that's the closest that Owen and Phil Lapp came to crossing paths, as Phil was leading the group that developed the STEM as a product for DHC.

    Of course, the STEM product ended up leading to bigger and better things for SPAR in the US manned space program, including the Canadarms. And most of the rest of Canada's space program has flowed out of that. It certainly is interesting to think that almost our entire space program can be traced back to that one chance event in Downsview!

    Now, maybe DHC's route into Gemini and Apollo with the STEM product actually followed a different path. It'd be interesting to dig into this. Sadly, most of the principals involved are now passed away --- Owen, Caldwell Johnson, Phil Lapp, John McNaughton (who was DHC's lead for their STEM product line). (I wish I had thought to ask Phil about this anecdote, when I had the chance...) Maybe some space historian could try looking into the old files at Northrop Grumman's Astro Aerospace division in California, which is where SPAR's STEM business ended up.

  2. Thanks for the anecdote Kieran. STEM was definitely on Mercury, starting with Sigma 7. I have a NASA document where someone compares the different companies and their proposed technologies for long rigid antennae. I can't remember the date on it, but it clearly suggests that NASA looked at several domestic options before settling on STEM. Phil Lapp's memoir (advertised below) clearly outlines how he was invited by Chapman to visit the NRC to look at Klein's small prototype. He then returned to Downsview and working with McNaughton and Ernie Groskopfs they developed a magnetic "drawing" process to make a STEM like the one you describe, i.e. VERY long. This all seems to have come from the need to make Alouette, which although it didn't fly until late 1962 was actually announced in early 1959. This would seem to suggest that Maynard's encounter with STEM would have to be very late 1959 but more likely some time in 1960-61.


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