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Space: the final frontier. The race to that very frontier in the 1960s remains one of the most historically and culturally significant periods in history. It resulted in a moon landing so incredible that, since it was first beheld by the public eye, it was believed to be a hoax. While the lens of history tends to focus on the dramatic relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, there is an overlooked tale of how the True North managed to land on the moon seconds before Neil and Buzz took their giant leap for mankind.
The story of how Canada landed on the moon begins in the early 1950s, almost twenty years before the first manned moon landing in 1969. In 1953, the Royal Canadian Air Force called for the production of a new twin-engine, supersonic aircraft. This beast was intended to act as an intercepting aircraft for potential Soviet air threats in the Canadian North. The project, commenced by A.V. Roe of Canada and named “Avro Arrow”, very quickly revealed itself to be at the forefront of aeronautics research and development. As the project continued, the Diefenbaker government came under pressure from the United States to abandon development of the Arrow in favour of the American Bomarc project. Both the Soviets and the Americans had migrated to the use of unmanned crafts (as opposed to an onboard pilot) for defense purposes. As a result, the U.S. wanted Canada to establish Bomarc stations at various locations in the Canadian North instead of relying on their own manned Arrow – however sophisticated its technology.
The Arrow was arguably the most advanced aircraft of its kind. It could reach speeds close to Mach 2 (which is approximately 2500 km/h) with altitudes of above 50,000 feet. For comparison purposes, in order for Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins to successfully make it to space, Apollo 11 needed to be traveling at around 40, 000 km/h. While that may seem like the difference between a slug and a racecar, the sciences behind the Arrow are necessary predecessors to overcoming the natural forces that keep us on the ground in the first place.
Despite the magnitude of the Arrow’s accomplishments, there were several serious and fatal hiccups in the program’s trajectory. The first big issue took place on October 4th, 1957 – the day of the Arrow’s unveiling. This was, by some cruel twist of fate, also the date the Soviet Union’s first satellite, Sputnik I, was successfully launched into space. Moreover, the program was racking up a bill much higher than anticipated – from an initial $2 million to $12 million. Paired with increased pressures from the United States, Diefenbaker controversially shut down the Avro Arrow program in February of 1959.
Afterwards, somewhere between 50 and 100 of the top minds working on the Arrow were recruited to work with NASA , in hopes of securing them the winning title of the Space Race. As it turns out, one of the brilliant minds behind the landing gear of Apollo 11’s lunar module is one of the Canadians recruited at the conclusion of the Arrow. The contribution of Canadian engineering was undoubtedly important to the Space Race as well as establishing an important precedent for international comradery in space. It also, more importantly, is how Canada managed to (kind of) land on the moon first – but (very politely) let the U.S. take the credit.
Tongue-in-cheek aside, the collaboration between Canada and the United States demonstrated here set the stage for future collaboration in space as well as providing a solid foundation for advanced Canadian robotics programs. Since then, the collaborative union between NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) has given life to many other fantastic projects, most notably the Canadarm.
Successes from Canadian space programs are not just seen outside the atmosphere – they directly impact Canadians every day. For example, the state-of-the-art Image Guided Autonomous Robot technology that makes the Canadarm and its successors possible is being applied to medical research. The assistance of these robotics could help in early detection of cancers, and using the delicate technology to assist making surgeries more accurate, less invasive, and up ten times faster than a surgeon’s hand alone. These advancements are also leading to the creation of the KidsArm, the first tool of its kind to assist in pediatric surgery. All of this means reduced recovery times so patients can get home faster.
While we may not be recognized as the first to the moon, the Canadian space efforts have accomplished some pretty amazing things, and, hopefully, will continue to do so for many generations (and star dates) to come.
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