Original Canadarm makes final space flight
Iconic robot arm to retire with shuttle program.
Montreal – The original Canadarm, which flexed its robotic muscles for the first time almost 30 years ago, is making its last trip into space today before coming home.
The giant arm, which cost $108 million to develop from scratch, will be on board Endeavour when the U.S. space shuttle makes its final flight to the International Space Station.
Endeavour is headed for retirement at the California Science Center in Los Angeles sometime after it returns to Earth following its two-week trip.
There will be only one more shuttle flight after Endeavour. The transporter Atlantis is scheduled to visit the space station in late June before being retired to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.
But before Endeavour becomes a museum piece, the iconic Canadarm, with serial number 201, will be removed for shipment back to Canada. Canada’s first robotic space arm will have travelled more than 144 million kilometres when its 27th and final space mission ends with Endeavour’s return.
James Middleton, the chief engineer behind the 15-metre arm, says it’s been a tremendous success.
“It’s like a runner who’s run a long race and won,” he told The Canadian Press.
Middleton, 69, says credit for getting the word “Canada” on the arm’s white thermal insulation blanket goes to a former manager with the National Research Council, the forerunner to the Canadian Space Agency.
“He thought it might be a good idea if we put some identification on the arm, and so we went to NASA,” the semi-retired engineer recalled.
Middleton says the first Canadarm was assembled and tested by Spar Aerospace at a Toronto facility in the mid-1970s. Spar’s robotics business was later acquired by MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA). Work began in 1975 and the Canadarm was delivered to NASA in April 1981.
Middleton says the arm, which weighed 480 kilograms, couldn’t support itself on Earth, so a special system had to be developed in order to test it.
“The only time we actually saw the arm in its total configuration actually working the way it should was when it was up in space for the first flight,” he said.
That happened on Nov. 13, 1981 when the giant arm – known as the “Shuttle Remote Manipulator System” – popped out from the cargo bay of Space Shuttle Columbia. At the time, U.S. astronaut Richard Truly reported to mission control that “the arm is out and it works beautifully.”
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield says the robotic arm has become an historic artifact, “like an early exploration canoe or any of the great inventions of the time.”
“I’m always delighted when a human creation has served its purpose even better than we had originally designed it for,” he told The Canadian Press in an interview from Florida.
“And it survived, it made it through its entire life — even beyond its design life.”
Hadfield says the Canadarm has worked so well that plans to have astronauts use special nitrogen gas-propelled backpacks in space were scrapped.
“We really thought early on that we were going to have to use the manned manoeuvring unit — the thruster system so you could fly yourself around to do things in space,” he said.
The unit was used on several space shuttle missions in 1984 and allowed an astronaut to work outside without a tether.
“But once we realized that you could put an astronaut on the end of Canadarm in a foot restraint, (and) that you can be so precise and so delicate. . we didn’t need to have this big jetpack,” Hadfield said.
Fellow astronauts Marc Garneau, Dave Williams and Julie Payette were the only other Canadians to fly on Endeavour.
In fact, Hadfield points out it was at this time 10 years ago that he was in space aboard Endeavour to help deliver and install Canadarm2 on the station.
During the 11-day flight, he performed two spacewalks, making him the first Canadian to float freely in the cosmos.
A total of five Canadarms were built for the space transporters. One was destroyed in an explosion during the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger in January 1986. Seven astronauts were killed.
Another space arm was converted for use as an inspection boom with a special camera which examines the shuttles for damage.
The Canadarms are not permanently installed on the same orbiter, but are moved around from shuttle to shuttle after regular maintenance.
Hadfield is currently in training for a flight to the space station in late 2012.
But because all the American shuttles will be retired, he will make the trip on board a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
© 2011 The Canadian Press