The Canadian aerospace industry reaches for the stars

Manufacturing is the second largest industry in Canada, accounting for around 10 per cent of the country’s GDP according to Statistics Canada. Many products are manufactured in Canada, but the area that sees the most investment into research and development is aerospace manufacturing, with $1.4 billion invested into research and development in 2018 according to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) and the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (AIAC).

The aerospace industry produces everything from aircraft and flight simulator systems to space robotics and communications satellites. Canadian aerospace products were exported to more than 190 countries around the world in 2018 according to ISED and AIAC.

Although Canadian aircraft are known for their quality in the industry, what has really captured the public imagination and pride are the space robotics. Especially newsworthy was the first Canadarm which was an important part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) shuttle program.

In the early seventies, NASA issued a technical challenge for the Space Shuttle. Canadian aerospace firms began designing a robotic arm that could be used to position and retrieve equipment in space. After years of research and testing, the Canadarm was finally deployed in 1981 and continued to be used for the next 30 years of the Space Shuttle program.

The Canadarm on the Atlantis Space Shuttle. Photo by NASA
The Canadarm on the Atlantis Space Shuttle. Photo by NASA

The Canadarm was used to retrieve satellites for repairs, to position science platforms for various space experiments and as a work platform for spacewalks. In April 1990, the Canadarm was used to deploy the Hubble Space Telescope and in December 1993, it was used to retrieve the telescope and support the five spacewalks needed to repair it.

The first Canadarm is now on display in the Canada Aviation and Space Musuem, having been retired along with the Space Shuttle program, but its success fueled Canada’s space program. In April 2001, Chris Hadfield became the first Canadian astronaut to perform a spacewalk. During this spacewalk, Hadfield rode the Canadarm to install the Canadarm2, which was designed to construct and maintain the International Space Station (ISS). A few days later, Hadfield controlled the Canadarm as it grabbed a Spacelab Pallet from Canadarm2, another historic moment where the two Canadian space robots first worked together successfully.

The Canadarm and Canadarm2 continue to be a source of national pride for Canadians because they feature prominently in many official space photographs with “Canada” and the Canadian flag displayed on their protective covers for the world to see.

The Canadarm Robotic Arm. Photo by NASA
The Canadarm Robotic Arm. Photo by NASA

Canadarm2 is not the only Canadian robot on the ISS. The Mobile Base System (MBS) is a Canadian-made work platform and storage location that helps transport Canadarm2, Dextre, equipment and astronauts by gliding along the main truss of the ISS.

Dextre is another Canadian robot on the ISS. It is a maintenance robot and makes sure that astronauts don’t need to do a risky spacewalk just to change a battery or camera. According to the Canadian Space Agency, Dextre is the “most sophisticated space robot ever built” and “can actually carry out more complex movements than a human arm.”

The Canadian contribution to space exploration has not ended with the International Space Station. NASA is leading an international collaboration called the Lunar Gateway which will establish a space station in orbit around the moon. Because this station will not be manned fulltime, Canada is contributing Canadarm3, a robotic arm equipped with artificial intelligence so that it can be autonomous, to maintain the outpost and its science experiments. Canada’s space robotics program has marked the country as a leader in aerospace technology. Commitment to investing in aerospace research and development will keep the aerospace industry strong and ensure that Canada continues play an important role in space exploration. 

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