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The Canadarm: ‘What is this big arm?’

The Story

Ten years after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Canada is about to become a player in manned space flight. A revolutionary robot arm built in Canada will soon be blasted skyward. But people are wondering just what this "big arm," looks like, Take 30 host Marilyn Weston says in this CBC Television clip. Bill Chisholm of Spar Aerospace Ltd., lead contractor for the arm project, uses a chalk drawing to help explain the high-tech marvel. The arm is as long as two telephone poles. It will ride into space folded in the cargo bay of a shuttle, America's new reusable spacecraft. In orbit, the arm will come to life, unfolding its joints at the shoulder, elbow and wrist. Engineered for zero gravity, it should be able to pluck a 40,000-kilogram satellite out of space -- a universal first. On earth, though, Chisholm says, "it couldn't pick up that coffee table." 

Medium: Television
Program: Take 30
Broadcast Date: Aug. 30, 1979
Guest: Bill Chisholm
Host: Marilyn Weston

Did You know?

• Canada's space age began Sept. 29, 1962 with the launch of Alouette-1, an atmospheric studies satellite. Canada became only the third country to have a satellite in space, after the Soviet Union and the United States. Canada enjoyed further success in the field with the launch of the Anik communications satellites.

• In the late 1960s, NASA envisioned a reusable spacecraft and asked other countries to help develop it. In 1974, NASA administrator Thomas Paine specifically requested Canadian help building the revolutionary Space Transportation System, or shuttle. The National Research Council looked at the shuttle plans, and evaluated its own capabilities. NRC scientists decided to build the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System - a robot arm to grab and manoeuvre satellites.

• In 1975, the NRC and NASA signed an agreement for construction of the arm. The Canadians faced a daunting task. The robot's thousands of parts had to be engineered and designed from scratch. Each part had to meet rigorous NASA standards for stiffness, weight, heat tolerance and durability. Canada's development and construction costs for the first arm were projected to be between $70 million and $80 million. Final costs tallied $108 million.

• The first Canadarm was given free to the Americans. In exchange, NASA agreed to buy three more for a total of $74 million. Four more were actually delivered between 1983 and 1993 to outfit the shuttle fleet, including one to replace the arm destroyed during the Challenger shuttle explosion in 1986. The NRC acted as project manager but the arm was designed and built by Spar Aerospace Ltd., CAE Electronics and DSMA Atcon Ltd.

• Engineers considered many designs for the robot but finally decided they couldn't improve on Mother Nature. Canadarm is remarkably like a human arm. Its robot shoulder has 60 degrees of freedom. The elbow has pitch movements and the wrist can pitch, roll, and yaw. A grappling device called an "end effector" simulates the work of fingers. The arm's nerves are copper, its bones graphite-fibre synthetic tubes and its muscles electric motors.

• The name Canadarm was coined by NRC head Larkin Kerwin. He first said it publicly at the 1981 ceremony where NASA officially accepted delivery of the first arm.


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