Canadarm’s re-entry path to Canada uncertain

After nearly 30 years of faithful service in outer space, the Canadarm is set to return home when NASA’s space shuttle program concludes with the final shuttle blast-off later this month.

The decision that remains, however, is where the one arm retiring home to Canada will actually reside. At least two Canadian museums want it.

For Robert Godwin, space curator and publisher at Toronto’s Air and Space Museum in Downsview, the decision is obvious.

“I’d love to see it come here because it was built here. Canadarm’s parentage is in the Downsview-Brampton area,” Godwin said. “The disposition of it at this point and where it’s going to end up is going to be the decision of the Canadian government.”

Five Canadarms were built. Two were destroyed aboard the doomed shuttles Challenger and Columbia. Two others remain aboard Discovery and Atlantis and will stay with the orbiters when they retire. That leaves one, which happens to be the first Canadarm ever built. But that arm was never sold; it was only leased to the U.S government for the shuttle program.

Canadarm’s original builder, Spar Aerospace, was a joint engineering effort between Avro and DeHavilland, in Downsview. The company was later bought by MDA, a Vancouver-based robotics manufacturer.

“Canada’s aerospace history is really rooted in that area,” Godwin said. “Within kilometres of each other, there was the Avro Arrow, the Mars Phoenix weather station, Canada’s first satellite, Alouette 1, and, of course, the Canadarm program.

Bob McDonald, space correspondent for CBC and host of CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks, said the Canadarm should be displayed in the nation’s capital.

“Because it was our national symbol and it was made by the people of Canada, then the National Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa seems like the right place for it to be in,” McDonald said.

McDonald explained that Canadarm’s legacy continues. New development is already underway, with the design and construction of Canadarm 2 for the International Space Station (ISS).

“It’s a different kind of beast. It’s got a hand on either end of it, and it’s far more talented and stronger than Canadarm 1,” McDonald said.

Docking the space shuttles to the ISS has always been a concern. Canadarm 2 changed that by grabbing the 90-tonne shuttle and pulling it towards the docking station.

“It’s almost like a worm thing that can wobble its way around where it’s needed,” Godwin said.

McDonald sees a bright future for Canadian robotic technology.

“We’ll see Canadian technology on robots that are going to go out to the moon and Mars and maybe the asteroids; that’s where our future applications will be,” McDonald said.