In April 13, 1970, a secretary at the University of Toronto’s Institute for Aerospace Studies took a call from Houston, Texas. It was Mission Control at NASA – their spaceship Apollo 13 was in trouble, and they needed some expert help.
“A bunch of our professors were sitting around in a faculty meeting, and they were asked to do some calculations,” says David Zingg, director of the renowned U of T institute, known as UTIAS. The astronauts, of course, made it back to earth safely, partly because of the vital expertise from Toronto. “Later on,” he says, “we got a letter thanking us for our part in the rescue. That’s something that we’re kind of proud of.”
Canada has long been a surprisingly significant player in space research and innovation. “We have punched above our weight when it comes to space efforts,” says Robert Smith, professor of history at the University of Alberta and an expert on the history of space exploration.
The reason for our interest in this area is simple: the country’s enormous geography created a unique set of demands, and Canadians needed this technology to succeed as a nation. “Canada is a vast country, we have many remote communities, and much of our natural resource wealth is in locations that are not easy to reach,” explains Jerzy Komorowski, director general of the National Research Council’s Institute for Aerospace Research in Ottawa. “It’s a very natural industry for us.”
The reasons for the country’s success are rooted in its approach. Canada has been able to play with the big guys because it selected niches and became the best in the world in those areas – a remarkable thing, when you consider its relatively small population. James Green, director of planetary science for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA, in Washington, D.C., believes Canada’s strengths have been very specific.
“The analogy I would use is: Canada has been a laser, burning a hole in steel. They have selected some high-priority activities and then strived to be, and demonstrated to be, the very best there is in those areas.”
Three of the areas where Canadians have led the way in space are robotics, satellites and law. Each of the fields, in its own way, is rooted in Canada’s history.
“Space robotics is Canada’s niche,” declares Dr. Zingg of UTIAS. “It’s really a phenomenal strength.”
Historian Dr. Smith adds that this focus on robotics grew out of a canny assessment of practical ways in which the country could play a key role in space exploration, given its small size. “If you look at the cost of the International Space Station to date, it has been around $100 billion. Canada simply could not build a space station of its own.”
He says that the country’s savvy approach to multilateralism also played a role. “Canada has an agreement with the European Space Agency, with India, China, Russia, the United States, and so on. And I think it’s those agreements that have enabled Canada to play an important role in space.”
Historically, the most important of Canada’s contributions have been through the NASA shuttle program, notably the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System, popularly known as the Canadarm. The Canadarm was built in the mid-1970s by a partnership of three Canadian companies (Spar Aerospace Ltd., CAE Inc., and DSMA Atcon), managed by the National Research Council and backed with $100 million from the federal government.
First used in 1981 on board the Columbia (and used on every shuttle since), the device truly acts as a shuttle’s arm and hand. It moves cargo from the shuttle’s storage bay to the deployment position, launches satellites and supports astronauts on spacewalks. It has loosened a jammed solar panel and knocked ice off wastewater vents. The next generation robot, dubbed Canadarm2, had an essential role in assembling the International Space Station and now is used to service, maintain and move instruments around the station and support astronauts working in space.
One of the Canadarm pioneers was U of T professor Peter Hughes, who developed the dynamics algorithms to create simulation tools for the design of the Canadarm and its control systems. Gabriele D’Eleuterio, also from U of T, worked with Dr. Hughes to develop some of the robotics for the International Space Station, work that Dr. D’Eleuterio and others continue today.
On a wintery day in December, Dr. Zingg escorts me on a tour of UTIAS. The institute is part of the faculty of applied science and engineering but has its own building, set among strip malls and other suburban sprawl on the northern edge of Toronto. The nondescript brown-brick building resembles the high schools built in Canada in the 1950s and ’60s, but with a dome at the back, signalling something else is taking place inside.
While the drab high-school feel extends to the hallways, each “classroom” door swings open to reveal a surprise. Behind one sits a large nosepiece from a jet airliner – a flight simulator, says Dr. Zingg – that can recreate situations in a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft and helps to create better pilots as well as better planes. Behind another door is a giant recirculating wind tunnel that extends to the roof, used to test aircraft drag, fuel burn and emissions.
Our destination is the Autonomous Space Robotics Lab. A wide open area paired with a glassed-in office jammed with high-tech equipment, this laboratory tests space robotics technology that’s used for NASA voyages to Mars and the moon. Dr. Zingg displays a knee-high, six-wheeled vehicle with a yellow box mounted on top – a laser sensor with a range of 1.5 kilometers. “These need to be small and efficient, and they need to be able to think for themselves,” he explains. “We can’t control them on Mars, so autonomy is essential.”
Researchers test the robots in the open space beside the office, in the dome out back (“we call it the Mars Dome”), and in places that resemble hostile space environments, like the Far North.
U of T isn’t the only Canadian university at work on robotic tools for space exploration. From the University of Alberta, Carlos Lange, a mechanical engineering professor, is taking part in NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander unmanned mission, launched in 2007 to study the history of water on Mars and the potential of the ice-rich soil in the Martian arctic region to support human habitation. It was the first landed mission to another planet that involved Canada.
In this case, Canada’s main contribution (made by professors at York University, Dalhousie University and U of A) was in the form of a suite of meteorological instruments mounted on the Lander robot. The largest was a LIDAR, a laser radar similar to the vehicle-mounted yellow box at UTIAS. This was used to measure clouds and was able to sense and document snow falling on the red planet, a first. Dr. Lange helped invent a wind-measuring instrument called Telltale for that mission, and he is now analyzing the temperature, pressure and wind information sent to Earth by the device.
“The atmospheric measurements that were made by the Canadian instrument were just breathtaking,” says Dr. Green of NASA. “We couldn’t wait to see what it was going to measure next.”
The Mars mission exemplifies how research expertise led Canada to be included in space exploration. “The world comes to us,” asserts Dr. Lange, “because we’ve chosen a niche, become super-experts, become the best, and proven that we can deliver.”
Micro-satellite research is another Canadian strength, rooted in Canada’s history and geography. In 1962, Canada became the third country (after the United States and the Soviet Union) to put a satellite in space, with Alouette 1. “The very size of the country and the question of how to establish communications across it were crucial to the initial developments,” says Dr. Smith, the U of A space historian.
While Canada’s first satellites were used to gather data to better understand the aurora borealis, their focus quickly shifted to communications, a national priority. A seminal study by John Herbert Chapman recommended more emphasis on communication satellites, and this quickly became federal government policy. In 1969, the government set up Telesat Canada to deploy Canadian communication satellites. The company has fulfilled that goal with dozens of satellite launches, the first of them Anik Al, which began broadcasting CBC to Canada’s Far North in 1972.
Since 2003, UTIAS has operated a vibrant micro-satellite program, complete with its own Mission Control that tracks the satellites’ precise location and a T-Minus clock that counts down the seconds to the next launch.
The institute has designed, built and launched seven satellites since 2003, some as small as a shoebox. The first launch carried Canada’s space telescope, MOST (for Microvariability and Oscillations of STars), a suitcase-sized wonder operated by the Canadian Space Agency. Its readings are analyzed by University of British Columbia astronomer Jaymie Matthews. Other micro-satellites are involved in telecommunications, atmospheric readings and tracking the movements of ships at sea. The institute is now selling the devices to several countries including Norway, Australia and Poland.
As important as UTIAS has been in satellite research, Canada’s aerospace industry found its footing in Montreal beginning after the Second World War. Already home to a thriving aeronautics manufacturing industry, Montreal was the chosen site for the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in 1944 and for the International Air Transport Association in 1945. When the Canadian Space Agency was founded in 1989, Montreal was an obvious choice for its headquarters, too.
These early moves made it natural for McGill University to found its Institute of Air and Space Law (IASL) in 1951. The institute feeds a different sort of innovation in aerospace, graduating master’s and doctoral students who work in 120 countries in government and industry. Some have founded similar programs in the developing and developed world.
The cosmos, unlike its Wild West image in movies like Star Wars and Star Trek, is actually a heavily legislated place, says IASL director Paul Stephen Dempsey. McGill’s institute has been influential in helping shape the international treaties and laws that govern the air, he adds.
“Aviation and the development of space are inherently international, and both have to be developed in a way that is safe and secure, environmentally sound, and best serves the needs of the public,” says Dr. Dempsey. “Helping develop meaningful and useful standards, and educating people on the standards – this has been our greatest contribution over these decades.”
A recent international treaty that governs liability issues around space debris is one of the important studies and laws produced by its researchers, says Dr. Dempsey. The pieces of satellites and other man-made objects that hurtle around in orbit can damage shuttles and other property, and they’re a growing challenge in space. “It’s an unacceptable problem,” he says, “because it will ultimately stifle the free use of space.”
Back in Toronto, Dr. Zingg hopes that Canadian aerospace will finally start to get the respect it deserves – from Canadians. He points out that Canada has a larger aerospace industry as a percentage of GDP than almost any other country, has the world’s fifth largest aerospace industry and, in addition to space robotics, leads the way in business and commuter jets, flight simulators and related areas. But media coverage tends to focus on negative aspects of the industry, like layoffs.
“It’s sort of an underrated success story,” he suggests modestly. “But recently, I think there’s been a newfound sense of optimism and recognition of how important the sector is to Canada.”
Tim Johnson is a Toronto-based writer who specializes in education, social and political issues, human interest and travel. He’s a three-time finalist for a National Magazine Award.