The Ode: Canadarm (1981-2011)

Commissioned in the exciting early days of the Shuttle program, it proved that Canadian science and engineering could match any in the world.

The Shuttle Remote Manipulator System debuted on Nov. 13, 1981, the second day of the second-ever NASA Space Shuttle mission. Because of its resemblance to a human appendage—and the national wordmark emblazoned on its side—the SRMS became known around the world as Canadarm.

A decade earlier, NASA had issued a challenge to its international partners, looking for solutions to design problems it faced in developing what would become the Space Shuttle. They needed a way for astronauts to manipulate the massive equipment that the shuttle would carry in its cargo hold, but with the precision required in a zero-gravity environment, where one wrong touch can send even an enormous piece of machinery careening through deep space. In 1975, NASA opted to take a chance on a pitch from a group of relatively untested Canadian companies that included Spar, CAE Electronic, and DSMA Atcon, a small firm that had developed a robot used to load fuel into nuclear reactors.

With $108 million in funding from the Canadian government to design, build and test the venture, the companies set to work under the oversight of the National Research Council.

The first-ever significant space robotics project, its challenges were severe. From scratch, working with state-of-the-art materials like titanium and graphite epoxy, the team constructed a 15-metre-long, 38-centimetre diameter arm with shoulder, elbow and wrist joints, encased in an insulated blanket to protect the components from the extremes of heat and cold found in space. Its operator would guide it via an innovative joystick control system. Weighing less than 480 kilograms, Canadarm can lift over 30,000 kilograms—as the Canadian Space Agency boasts, “the mass of a fully-loaded bus, using less electricity than a teakettle.”

It was successful from the first, NASA buying four more Canadarms to equip each of its shuttles. And the device soon proved useful for more than just unloading cargo. On a 1984 Discovery mission, astronauts used the arm to clear away an ice buildup on the bottom of the shuttle. Over the years it became a vital tool for retrieving damaged satellites and repairing shuttles in orbit, played an integral role in the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope, and aided in the construction of the International Space Station.

Canadarm proved crucial in more mundane ways, as well. Its development propelled Canada to the forefront of the advanced manipulator systems and robotics fields. The Canadian firms that developed it went on to design and sell robotics components to Europe and Asia, and applied the technology developed for Canadarm to difficult tasks like undersea pipeline repair, the service of nuclear power plants, the cleanup of hazardous waste, and medical surgery.

When Macdonald, Dettwiler and Associates—now the owners of the technology—struck a deal in 2008 to sell its aerospace division to a U.S. firm, the federal government intervened, using the powers of the Investment Canada Act to block the sale, deemed to offer no “net benefit” to the country.

On July 8, Atlantis took off from the Kennedy Space Center on the final mission of NASA’s Space Shuttle program. The end of the shuttle program means the retirement of the first generation of Canadarms, after three decades of service without a single malfunction. They will be retired to museums, and are survived by the Canadarm2, operational since 2001 aboard the International Space Station.