Canadarm Returns to Its Home and Native Land
Tuesday, August 14th, 2012
by AJ Plunkett
Did you know that there have been not one, but five Canadarms? Now, after three decades of hard work, Canadarm has come home.
With the U.S. shuttle program now retired, so too is Canadarm. Returned by NASA, Canadarm will get a good cleaning at MacDonald, Detweiler and Associates in Ontario, before it makes its way home to the Canadian Space Agency’s John H. Chapman Space Centre.
As you may know, this robotic arm has become Canada’s “national icon of technological innovation”. Having done much of the heavy lifting in building the International Space Station (ISS), repairing satellites, and deploying the Hubble Space Telescope, it eventually performed key inspections of the Space Shuttle to ensure the safe return of its human cargo.
Not bad for just one arm.
Canadarms 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Yes, there have been five Canadarms, the first having been delivered to NASA in April 1981, and the last in August 1993. (One of those robotic arms was lost in the Challenger accident in 1986.)
Officially called the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System, Canadarm was developed over eight years to become Canada’s chief contribution to the Shuttle program and the ISS. It was specifically designed “for use in the harsh environment of space,” capable of functioning in intense heat, extreme cold, and in a vacuum.
Built by MacDonald, Detwiller and Associates, the two-boom 15-meter-long robotic arm could move much like a human arm. Made primarily of a 16-ply carbon-fiber epoxy composite, a Kevlar bumper was used over each boom to protect it.
Canadarm’s Big Break
Canadarm debuted on the Space Shuttle’s second mission on Nov. 13, 1981. But while it was being unveiled in space, Canadarm’s designers and builders could only wait anxiously to see how their creation would work: As astronauts Joseph Engle and Richard Truly began to remove the giant arm from Columbia’s cargo bay, the Shuttle moved out of communication range with Earth, according to a recounting of the event by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
As the Shuttle moved back into range, an image appeared at Mission Control of the arm, that was “poised above the orbiter’s cargo bay”, with the Canadian wordmark “clearly visible on its side”.
As the report states, “Euphoria and elation erupted from the Canada and NASA teams,” said Dr. Karl Doetsch, the then Deputy Program Manager of the Canadarm project. “It was happiness, relief, and excitement all at once.”
Canadarm’s Flying Colours
According to the CSA, Canadarm worked flawlessly that day and for each of the 944 days it spent in space (serving on 90 shuttle missions, and traveling an equivalent of over 624 million kilometers).
During missions, Canadarm assisted astronauts in numerous spacewalks, helping to deploy, retrieve, and repair several satellites and science experiments. It also played a major role in delivering or assembling most key components of the Space Station. Once it was even used to free clogged waste water on the Shuttle.
- October 1984 – Marc Garneau, the first Canadian astronaut in space, used Canadarm to perform a set of experiments.
- April 1990 – Canadarm was used to deploy and release the Hubble Telescope, a major tool used during scientific breakthroughs on the origins of the universe. On later missions, the arm assisted in performing important repairs on the telescope.
- April 2001 – Canadarm is used to help spacewalkers, including Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, to unload and install Canadarm2 on the ISS. Larger and more maneuverable than its predecessor, Canadarm2 becomes an ISS workhorse, taking on tasks that include snagging the SpaceX Dragon module earlier this year.
- July/August 2005 – On the first shuttle mission after the loss of shuttle Columbia in 2003, a modified Canadarm is used on this and subsequent missions to perform inspections of the shuttle before re-entry.
- July 2011 – The shuttle flies its last mission and is retired, along with Canadarm.
This technological pioneer will be placed on display at CSA headquarters in Quebec. Canadarm2 aboard the ISS, however, will have a different story. As the CSA explains: “Unlike the Shuttle’s Canadarm, Canadarm2 is designed to be refurbished in space and will probably never return to Earth.”
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries as well as the military. AJ blogs via Contently.com.