Dextre and Being in the Critical Path

Dextre in action. Credit: NASA.

Few will remember that on April 8, 1997, twenty years ago tomorrow, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien announced Canada would be contributing the Special Purpose Dextrous Manipulator, then called the “Canada Hand”, now known as Dextre, to the International Space Station (ISS). It was a time when Canada was in the “Critical Path” and it was important, let me explain.

When the International Space Station (ISS) was conceived, international contributed components were not meant to be on the “Critical Path”. The restriction was waived to allow Canada to contribute the Canadarm2. Canada was now in the Critical Path in building the ISS.

Without Canada’s contribution there would be no International Space Station. That’s what it meant to be in the “Critical Path”.

The Canadarm2, the Mobile Base System and Dextre were all needed to build and make the ISS what it is today, an incredible demonstration of what humanity can accomplish when it works together.

Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (Dextre)
Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator (Dextre). Credit: Canadian Space Agency.

When Prime Minister Chrétien announced Canada’s latest contribution of Dextre he said “the ‘Canada Hand’ will be a key component of the Mobile Servicing System, Canada’s contribution to the International Space Station, and will be attached to the end of the new generation ‘Canadarm’ used to assemble and maintain the International Space Station in orbit. The Space Station, the largest international scientific project ever undertaken, is being jointly built by the United States, Canada, Russia, Japan and 10 European countries.”

“The development of the ‘Canada Hand’ is intended to pave the way for a whole new generation of advanced robotic products with large global markets, creating jobs and opportunities for Canada,” the Prime Minister said.

Today, Canada’s investment in robotics had led to terrestrial spinoffs including the neuroArm, “the world’s first robot capable of performing surgery inside magnetic resonance machines” according to the Canadian Space Agency.

Then there’s the Image-Guided Autonomous Robot (IGAR) used in dealing with breast cancer which provides increased access, precision and dexterity, resulting in highly accurate and minimally invasive procedures.

There’s also KidsArm being used at Toronto’s SickKids Centre for Image-Guided Innovation & Therapeutic Intervention. “The third prototype of KidsArm, the first image-guided robotic surgical arm in the world specifically designed for pediatric surgery, is currently being tested at SickKids Hospital, and researchers are hoping that the technology might soon lend a helping hand to surgeons around the country.”

Prime Minister Chrétien made the historic announcement while in Washington meeting President Bill Clinton. At the press conference the president said “I also want to salute the Prime Minister for his government’s determination to support peace in Bosnia and Central Africa and other troubled places of the globe and especially for his nation’s steadfast engagement in Haiti. Canada’s efforts to help democracy put down strong roots in Haiti will long be remembered as a hallmark of the commitment to principle of the Canadian people.”

“Our work together spans the globe. It reaches into the heavens. I’m pleased that the Prime Minister has brought with him today a model of the remarkable 11-foot Canada Hand that will be used to build the international space station. I have personally seen it in its full size, Mr. Prime Minister, and it is a dramatic and important contribution. This instrument will perform delicate assembly work essential for the space station’s construction. And I thank you and your Cabinet for voting last month to fund this important project.”


Listen to the President Bill Clinton remarks between the 5:34-6:41 minute mark and Prime Minister Chretien’s remarks from 14:00-14:16.

Being in the Critical Path

As Canada formulates a new Space Strategy to be unveiled in June, it’s important to remember what Canada’s contributions to the international community have meant and the spinoffs that have benefited Canadians and humanity.

Canada should continue to make significant space contributions.

The international space community is contemplating what comes after the ISS. The moon and Mars beckon. Canada needs to consider hard what it will take to be a part of the “Critical Path” of the next great mission.

About Marc Boucher

Marc Boucher
Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceRef Canada Interactive Inc, CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef U.S., advisor and co-founder of the Canadian Space Commerce Association, and director and co-founder of MaxQ Accelerator Inc. Previously he was the founder of Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine which he sold.

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  • Kieran_A_Carroll

    Marc — maybe the most significant aspect of that announcement, was that Chretien made it during a summit-level meeting with Clinton in D.C., that was widely seen at the time as being for the purpose of attracting media attention, immediately prior to him calling the next federal election — so as to get a bump in the polls, at the start of the campaign. And indeed, he dropped the writ shortly after this D.C. trip.

    And it worked. Press coverage was positive going into the election, and the
    Liberals won another resounding majority. As a relatively minor
    side-effect, Chretien ended up providing back the SPDM development
    funding that he (and Paul Martin) had previously cancelled (at the start of that
    particular mandate). And SPDM got built, and is now doing useful things.
    And it helped Spar (and then MDA) to keep alive the core of their space
    robotics development group.

    What makes this ultra significant to me, as a long-time Canadian space advocate (I was CSS President at the time), is that *he chose to use a space topic as the centre-piece for this blatantly political manoeuvre*. As far as I know, this is the *only* time that a Canadian PM has actually seen our space program as being *politically* useful to him. Obviously his meeting with Clinton was the main part of this — Clinton had pretty good popularity in Canada at the time, and a major meeting with him would certainly result in many news stories being published. But if it was an empty, vacuous meeting, those stories would be negative, not positive. Chretien needed some major agenda item for the reporters to focus on, that they *couldn’t* spin negatively. Clearly, from the Clinton remarks you cite, Chretien brought 2 items with him to showcase (and his buddy Bill helped him spell it out clearly) — Haiti relief, and Canada Hand.

    The lesson here is that, if a space initiative has the right ingredients, it *might* end up being in the right place and at the right time, for a politician to actually see it as being useful, in terms of what is most important to all politicians — winning the next election. Every other benefit of any given space proposal, in terms of benefits to the country, the planet, jobs, science, etc., is secondary to that — nice-to-have, but not really vital. Because, there are always plenty of proposals out there to choose between for initiatives that have lots of “nice-to-haves” — way more than the country can afford to fund, so leaders always *have* to choose — but only a few can also provide a significant political benefit.

    If we as a space community came up with more ideas that could provide leaders with that sort of political benefit (in addition to the nice-to-haves), *then* our government might start putting significant money into our space program!