Fort Churchill - a landmark in Canadian space research

Photo of Fort Churchill Observatory

Fort Churchill Geomagnetic Observatory (Credit: NRCan)

Photo of Northern lights

Northern lights above Canada as seen from the ISS (Credit: NASA)

Photo of a Nike-Apaches rocket

A Nike-Apaches rocket ready for launch from Fort Churchill (Credit: NASA, taken between 1960 and 1964)

Fort Churchill is located on the edge of the arctic tundra near Hudson Bay, at the geographical centre of North America. Formerly a trading post, this northern Manitoba community was one of the first sites to be colonized in Canada. However, Fort Churchill has been practically deserted since 1985. All that's left is an airport, a railway and a few official buildings, including an ecotourism centre and a geomagnetic observatory.

But during the 1950s at the height of the Cold War, close to 4,500 people, mostly military personnel and Canadian and U.S. research scientists, lived and worked in Fort Churchill. In 1954,  the Canadian Army CA decided  to establish a base for studying atmospheric phenomena using sounding rockets since it was one of the best locations in the world for observing the northern lights.

Thus Fort Churchill contributed to the creation of the Canadian Space Program. Canada and the United States used this small community for many years as a launch site for sounding rockets. Fort Churchill welcomed a multitude of life- and earth-science research programs during the decades that followed.

The site was expanded in 1956 during International Geophysical Year. The United States took part in the expansion and the base became the largest jointly managed Canada–U.S. military installation in the world. From July  1957 to December 1958, the international scientific community took advantage of a period of intense solar activity to increase its knowledge of solar–terrestrial relationships.

In 1959, the Canadian company Bristol Aerospace launched the first Black Brant rocket, which became enormously successful in the field of airborne space research. Fort Churchill became the most advanced centre for atmospheric research in the world. Over the years, more than 3,500 suborbital flights were launched from the site.

In 1960, a fire destroyed most of the facilities and the U.S. Army temporarily moved its launches to another location. In 1965, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) acquired the base to support the Canadian Upper Atmosphere Research Program. During the 1970s and 1980s, the site was used sporadically for scientific research and survival training trips. The Canadian Army also used the site to carry out research on the ionosphere and telecommunications.

Now practically deserted, Fort Churchill remains a landmark in the history of Canadian space research.