On December 26, 2019 John Spencer MacDonald passed away at the age of 83. He will be remembered in part as the co-founder of Canada’s best known space company, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, known as MDA.
In the space community John Spencer MacDonald was known primarily for his 29 years at MDA as a co-founder, CEO and Chairman.
MacDonald was President and CEO from the companies founding in 1969 until 1982 at which point he transitioned to Chairman. He left the company in 1998 and retired
After he left MDA his retirement would be brief. He would co-found in 2000 and lead for 13 years a solar energy company, Day4 Energy Inc. He would also become Chancellor of the University of Northern British Columbia in 2013.
Starting a technology company
While most people think of MDA now as an aerospace or space company, the MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates that John MacDonald co-founded was a software technology startup that had nothing to do with space. They worked in the early years in telecommunications and the oil and gas sector.
MacDonald was born in Prince Rupert in 1936. After high school he did his undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and then a Masters and PhD (Electrical Engineering) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
After a year as an assistant professor at MIT he would join UBC’s Electrical Engineering department as a professor in 1965.
By 1968 he and Vern Dettwiler were considering starting a new company. In early 1969 MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates was incorporated and MacDonald and Dettwiler setup their office in the basement of MacDonald’s home. He still worked as a professor until 1973 when he left the university to focus full-time on his tech startup. MDA would first go public in 1993 trading on the Vancouver Stock Exchange.
In November 1988 John MacDonald was named an Officer of the Order of Canada and invested in April 1989.