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Sad day for Spar Aerospace

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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Spar Aerospace Ltd., once the darling of Canada's aerospace industry, has sold its Canadarm-making division to a U.S. company. An American claim on a Canadian icon is undeniably sad news, Ian Jack, a Financial Post reporter, tells Avril Benoît, host of This Morning. But, in this radio clip, Jack says he agrees with Industry Minister John Manley's assessment that: "I wouldn't stick my head in a gas oven," over it.

Spar's space robotics division is glamorous but unprofitable. There are no outstanding orders for Canadarms. So Spar has decided instead to focus on the mundane business of cleaning and repairing aircraft engines. The good news is that the Canadian government owns the Canadarm technology. Also, there are no plans to scrape the famous Canada logo off the four arms. 
. The Canadarm-making division initially remained in American hands for only two years. The Canadian subsidiary of U.S.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. that bought the division in 1999 sold it in 2001. Most of the shares were bought by Canadian companies. The division, at Ontario-based MD Robotics Inc., built the Canadarm2 and was developing other components for the space station Alpha.

. Spar was founded in 1967 after shareholders bought de Havilland Aircraft's Special Products and Applied Research (SPAR) division. The division had been heavily involved in the Avro Arrow jet program cancelled by the Diefenbaker government in 1959. The engineers and entrepreneurs who started Spar were led by Larry Clarke, Spar's founding president.

. The company flourished, expanding into satellite services, robotics and aircraft maintenance. When the National Research Council decided Canada would build a robot arm for the U.S. space shuttle, it asked Spar to be the prime contractor. Most of the work was done at Spar's Toronto facility. Electronic boxes that control small motors, which move different parts of the arm, were built at a Spar plant in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que.

. Spar's fortunes began to sag in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1999, it sold its space robotics division for $63 million. In 2001, a majority stake in Spar was bought by L-3 Communications Corp., a New York-based defence contractor. Spar, still based in Toronto, maintains, repairs and overhauls military and commercial aircraft.

. The Canadarm returned to American hands in 2008. It was sold to Alliant Techsystems of Minneapolis for $1.325 billion. The company promised the Canadian flag would still appear on the arm. "The deal was made for business reasons, to access lucrative U.S. military contracts. From a business point of view, the deal is probably a good one and the Canadian facilities will remain operational," commented CBC's Bob McDonald. "But there is something unsettling about technology paid for by Canadian tax dollars and developed for peaceful purposes that now has the potential to be used for military purposes."
Medium: Radio
Program: This Morning
Broadcast Date: Jan. 12, 1999
Guest(s): Ian Jack
Host: Avril Benoît
Duration: 6:15

Last updated: January 27, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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