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The Canadarm: A waste of space?

The Canadarm robot has boosted national pride and showcased Canadian technology for more than two decades. In space, the arm emblazoned with a Canada logo and flag first twitched to life aboard a shuttle in 1981. We look back at the arm grabbing errant satellites, helping fix the Hubble telescope and shaking hands with its robotic cousin, Canadarm2.

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Canada has had a thriving space program. In 1962 it became the third nation in space. Canada led the world in satellite technology which enriched our lives. Then came the arm. The Canadarm, built at the request of the Americans, grabbed most of Canada's space budget. It has also pushed the government agenda away from science and toward the "bread and butter business of technology," Linden MacIntyre, a reporter at CBC's The Fifth Estate, says in this Television clip.

What real benefit has the arm brought to Canadians, MacIntyre asks. The Canadian Space Agency replies that big public investment has bought our scientists a spot on the new International Space Station. If none want to go aboard, Canada still has scientific and economic "spin-off benefits." American science commentator Timothy Ferris disagrees. He says little important science has come from space. Claims of spin-off benefits, he says, are "the last argument of scoundrels."
. Ferris has written many science books. He was nominated for the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Coming of Age in the Milky Way. Ferris argues that money would be better spent on deep space exploration, such as a mission to Mars, than on a "floating motel" space station and the Canadarms needed to build it. The public benefits from space exploration, he has said, are limited to Tang orange drink, the jogging bra and, arguably, Teflon non-stick coating.

. Canada's planned contribution to the International Space Station, named Alpha, is $1.2-billion over 20 years. In return, Canadian scientists get lab space on the station measuring about 2 metres long, one metre high and one metre wide. The "rack" consists of eight lockers and two drawers. Canada also gets a two-metre-long pallet outside the station for external experiments.

. The Canadian Space Agency says its space station participation, with Canadarm2 as the centrepiece, will generate $6 billion in investment and 70,000 person years of employment.
. The agency's annual budget remained frozen at $300 million between 1993 and 2003.
Medium: Television
Program: The Fifth Estate
Broadcast Date: Jan. 12, 1999
Guest(s): Timothy Ferris
Reporter: Linden MacIntyre
Duration: 3:37

Last updated: January 23, 2013

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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