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The Canadarm comes through

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.

A nation holds its breath. A long, skinny machine bearing the word Canada is about to perform in space for the first time. With the world watching, years of work by Canada's best high-tech minds will end with champagne -- or chagrin. In this special CBC Television coverage, host Knowlton Nash and a panel of space experts watch as live pictures begin to arrive from the shuttle Columbia.

First, there's an astronaut holding a "Hi Mom!" sign up to a window. Later, a U.S. flag. Finally, the camera swivels up to a large Canada logo and zooms out to show the arm extended. It shines white against inky black space, framed between the cloud-veiled earth and the shuttle's bulk. "After seven or eight years of work on this, it's success finally -- it's really great," exults the National Research Council's Garry Lindberg. 
. Two days of scheduled Canadarm tests were shortened, along with the mission itself, because of a faulty fuel cell on the shuttle Columbia. Astronauts Richard Truly and Joe Engle extended, flexed and retracted the arm for about four hours. They tried both the automatic computerized mode and a manual mode to guide the arm with a sensitive hand controller. "In general, it's a remarkable machine and it's doing exactly what we hoped and expected," Truly told mission control.

. The arm's maiden flight is often described as flawless. It wasn't. The arm did not respond to one movement command because of a broken wire. Also, a short circuit made the camera on the arm's elbow go dead. And the astronauts did not dare test the arm's grappling device. They had learned before the mission that an ill-fitting bearing could have prevented the arm from releasing its grip.

. Despite protests from NASA, Canada insisted its logo - bold black letters and a small red flag over the last "a" - be put on the Canadarm. It became the first logo in space. Previously, such labels were discouraged for fear that space would appear commercialized. Once Canada got its way, however, the United States - which had spent billions on the shuttle program - found another $400,000 to put a large American flag where the arm-mounted cameras couldn't miss it.

. No Canadian astronauts were aboard the maiden voyage. There was, however, a Canadian contingent at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The officials from the National Research Council and Spar Aerospace, which built the arm, burst into spontaneous applause when the arm first appeared on screens there. They then smoked cigars and smiled broadly, the Globe and Mail reported.

. There was a contingency plan ready if the arm dramatically malfunctioned. Small explosive charges would have blown it off the shuttle and into space. The extreme measure would have been taken if the arm had stopped the cargo bay doors from closing, which would have prevented the shuttle from safely re-entering the earth's atmosphere.
Medium: Television
Program: CBC Television News Special
Broadcast Date: Nov. 13, 1981
Guest(s): Jay Ingram, Garry Lindberg, Peter Matthews
Host: Knowlton Nash
Duration: 5:54

Last updated: November 15, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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