Historic First Moves

The Development of a Legend

The challenge to industry and government

The Canadarm originated as a technical challenge issued by NASA in the early seventies for its new Space Transportation System that we now know as the Space Shuttle. In June of 1969, a month before the Apollo astronauts stepped onto the Moon, design studies of the various shuttle system components were presented to a number of countries, including Canada.

Meanwhile, DSMA Atcon, a small Canadian firm, had gotten NASA's attention with a robot they had developed to load fuel into a nuclear reactor. Together with Spar, CAE Electronic, and RCA (later Spar Montreal), they drafted a proposal for a remote manipulator system, a robotic arm that could deploy and retrieve space hardware from the payload bay of the orbiter. Although NASA was interested, money was scarce for such a high-risk program.

With the support of Jeanne Sauvé, then Minister of State for Science and Technology, the project was launched and, in 1974, Canada agreed to build the first Shuttle Remote Manipulator System. Spar, CAE and DSMA Atcon formed the industrial team, with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) to oversee the project. It would be Canada's contribution to NASA's shuttle project.

Close-up, on the ground, of the Canada word mark on the protective blanket of the arm.

Close-up, on the ground, of the Canada word mark on the protective blanket of the arm.

An astronaut anchored to the end of Canadarm is being lifted up to the top of the Hubble telescope to install protective covers on the satellite.

An astronaut anchored to the end of the Canadarm is being lifted up to the top of the Hubble telescope to install protective covers on the satellite.
Photo: MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA)

Design constraints

Canadarm during testing. (Photo taken in the eighties)

The Canadarm during testing.
Photo taken in the eighties

In the early 1970s, Spar carried out design studies for a manipulator and was appointed the prime subcontractor to the NRC in July of 1975 for the design development, testing, and evaluation of the manipulator arm system. The challenge facing the design team was enormous.

There were no existing blueprints or off-the-shelf components for machines that work continually in the harsh environment of space. NASA had stringent demands for weight, dexterity, manual and automatic operations, versatility, precision of movement, safety, and reliability. From scratch, Canada had to build a tool to function flawlessly in space with the dexterity of a human arm.

To stand up to the harsh environment of space, the Canadarm needed the latest in aerospace materials, including titanium, stainless steel and graphite epoxy. It would need an insulated blanket with thermostatically controlled heaters to maintain an acceptable temperature in space.

The magnificent result

With nerves of copper wiring, bones of graphite fibre and electric motors for muscles, the Canadarm is like a human arm. It has rotating joints: two at the shoulder, one at the elbow and three at the wrist. At 15 metres and weighing less than 480 kilograms, the Canadarm could lift over 30,000 kilograms––up to 266,000 kg in the weightlessness of space––or the mass of a fully loaded bus, using less electricity than a teakettle.

While operational, the brain of the system consisted of a computer that controlled the arm while providing essential guidance information to the astronaut. It could be operated manually by an astronaut at the controls or programmed to function automatically. Its hand was a wire-snare device that fit over a special grapple fixture on the payload.


Canadarm's training simulator at the Johnson Space Center. (Photo: NASA)

The Canadarm's training simulator at the Johnson Space Center.
Photo: NASA

Designing and building the robotic device was difficult enough but testing the final product proved to be even more challenging. Meant for a weightless environment, the Canadarm could not even lift itself off the ground in Earth's gravity. A special test room was built to allow the arm to flex its joints under operating conditions. In addition, a computer-based simulation facility, much like a video game, was built to evaluate controllability and provide training for astronauts.


The Government of Canada invested $108 million in designing, building, and testing the first Canadarm flight hardware, which was given to NASA for the orbiter Columbia. NASA bought four more robotic arms from the industry team, now MDA. The Government of Canada's original investment resulted in nearly $700 million in export sales. Ongoing maintenance and engineering support add approximately $20 million annually.

When the crew of Mission Space Transport System (STS)-2 deployed the Canadarm for the first time, the moment was marked with feverishness and incredible expectations. As astronauts Joseph Engle and Richard Truly began to extract the giant robotic arm from Columbia's cargo bay on November 13, 1981, no image was available at Mission Control. The shuttle was temporarily out of communication range. Finally, the picture was restored. A giant arm appeared on the screen, poised above the orbiter's cargo bay, and the Canada wordmark was clearly visible on its side.

"Okay, the arm is out for the first time...working great... it's a remarkable flying machine and it's doing exactly as we hoped and expected," said Pilot Richard Truly of Mission STS-2.

With this statement, the Canadarm began its long service as the first robotic manipulator system designed specifically for use in the harsh environment of space.

Canadarm is deployed for the first time in space during Mission STS-2 in 1981.

The Canadarm is deployed for the first time in space during Mission STS-2 in 1981.
Photo: NASA

The Canadarm forming an inverted V with the Canadian word mark after deployment in 1981.

The Canadarm forming an inverted V with the Canadian wordmark after deployment in 1981.
Photo: NASA

And the crowd went wild...

Dr. Garry Lindberg, first Program Manager for the Canadarm, was watching as a guest commentator on a special edition of CBC National News.

"Its remarkable performance produced a rush of relief and joy. We had done everything possible to make it work, but we had never been able to test it in a space environment. Seeing the arm deployed without a hitch showed that the eight years of hard work has paid off with a spectacular success." Euphoria and elation erupted from the Canada and NASA teams, recalls Dr. Karl Doetsch, then Deputy Program Manager of the Canadarm project. "The first image, the now famous inverted V with the Canadian wordmark, displayed for the world to see: Canadian technology at its best. It was happiness, relief, and excitement all at once."