Canadarm Celebrates Its 30th Anniversary

Thirty years ago this month, Canada’s contribution to the US manned spaceflight program flew on its first mission. The (Space) Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (SRMS) flew on the second space shuttle mission, STS-2 and was tested on the second day of the flight – November 13, 1981

Developed by the National Research Council of Canada and designed and built by SPAR Aerospace in Toronto, the first shuttle arm cost $100 million and was given to NASA with an agreement to sell three more. In return, Canada was invited to select, train and fly astronauts on the space shuttle. After the second arm was lost in the Challenger accident, a fifth arm was built. Spar Aerospace was later acquired by Macdonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. of Vancouver BC and the robotic work for the shuttle and space station arms moved to Brampton Ontario, just north-west of Toronto.
The robotic arm was designed to deploy and retrieve space payloads and it quickly became a critical element in the Space Shuttle Program. It was used for 90 of the 135 Shuttle flights, spending a total of 944 days in space and travelling the equivalent of over 624 million km. It worked practically flawlessly, experiencing a few minor failures, none of which had a major impact on its mission. Some of the Canadarm’s most famous achievements include retrieving the Hubble Space Telescope for repair, assisting in the construction and maintenance of the International Space Station (ISS) and inspecting the Shuttle’s heat shield to ensure its safe return to Earth.
“It took incredible vision–and courage–to suggest an element that would be both visible and critical to the Shuttle program,” said Steve MacLean, President of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). “The foresight of those early pioneers ended up spawning decades of experience in on-orbit servicing for our industry. The Canadarm became an enduring symbol of Canadian ingenuity, and branded our country as a world leader in space-age technology.”
The CSA is working to ensure that the Canadarm, even on Earth, continues to inspire future generations of Canadians. “We are bringing Canadarm back to Canada,” stated Steve MacLean. “Since it was designed to work in the weightlessness of space and not on Earth, the arm has to be modified for public display before it can be installed at the CSA Headquarters. We will later evaluate whether this national icon can be shared with Canadians in other locations,” explains MacLean.
A few unique facts about the Canadarm:
* Although the Canadarm weighs 410 kg on Earth, it can manoeuvre nearly 30,000 kg in space
* Unable to support its own weight on Earth, the full three degrees of arm motion could not be tested on the ground. First test was on its first mission in space.
* When the arm first flew on the space shuttle Columbia, NASA management was shocked to see a big Canada logo affixed to the arm for all the world to see. On future flights, large U.S. flags appeared in the payload bay.
* Called the Canadarm by Canadians it took years before the American counterparts quit calling it the RMS or shuttle robotic arm. Once Canadarm 2 was built on the ISS, the NASA started calling the shuttle arm Canadarm.

About Randy Attwood

Amateur astronomer, astrophotographer, space exploration historian. Executive Director, The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada / Publisher - SkyNews magazine.

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