What the Heck Have Canadians Contributed to Space Exploration?

canada space exploration
Harvepino | Shutterstock.vom

The third country ever to have a presence in space (by launching a satellite), Canada has a long-standing space tradition, with some contributions that helped push human space exploration further.

Canada’s space industry encompasses hundreds of private companies, universities, research centers, and governmental departments. It’s an enterprise that counts thousands of technical professionals, scientists, and engineers as compatriots.

In 2015, according to the “State of the Canadian Space Sector”, the Canadian space industry generated about $2.7 billion USD in revenue and employed over 24,000 people.

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Not only a considerable economic force for the country itself, the Canadian space adventure has also exemplified some of the most important moments in human space exploratory history.

Here we share with you the historic dates and iconic figures that have highlighted the Canadian space journey.

Toronto Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory, 1839

Canada’s fascination with space goes all the way back to the 19th century, with Sir Edward Sabine, an originally Irish astronomer who devoted most of his career to studying Earth’s magnetic field.

To determine the causes of fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field that affect the accuracy of navigational compasses, the British Empire undertook the construction of a number of magnetic observatories.

The city of Toronto was chosen to host one of these institutions. The Toronto Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory is the oldest scientific institution in Canada and was created (in 1839) under the auspices of Sir Sabine.

Alouette I, 1962

In Canada, as in the U.S. and other countries, the astronomer relationship with space remained confined to observatories for the rest of the 19th and almost half of the 20th century.

When the Soviets launched Sputnik October 4, 1957, we all knew we could go “up there” rather than just looking at it.

On September 29th, 1962, Canada became the third country in the word–after the Soviet Union (Spunik), and the U.S. (Explorer 1, 1958)–to launch a satellite, which became named the Alouette 1.

alouette 1
Alouette 1 | Wikimedia Commons

Three years later, Alouette I was followed by Aouette II. Both satellites are now inactive.


Debuting on November 13th, 1981, the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System, commonly known as Canadarm, is a mechanical arm that was created for the NASA’s space shuttle Columbia.

Canadarm was used to manipulate and deploy payloads, as well as serve as support for astronauts during their spacewalks.

Canadarm | Wikimedia Commons

Before they were both retired, Canadarm accompanied the Space Shuttle program over 90 total space flights.

CANADARM 2, 2001

Launched on April 19th, 2001, the 17 metre-long Canadarm 2 was built to both assemble the International Space Station, and then be a part of it as a robotic arm to capture and dock spacecraft coming from Earth.

Still active, Canadarm 2 is immortalized in a Canadian space-themed five-dollar banknote, which also features Dextre.

DEXTRE, 2008

You may have assumed that Canada’s third generation of robotic arms was named Canadarm 3, but that’s not the case. Dextre is a much more sophisticated space robot than either of its predecessors.

Dextre, launched on March 11th, 2008 and is still active, is responsible for several maintenance and repair chores on the ISS and helps astronauts expend less time doing hazardous extravehicular sorties.

Canadian Astronauts

Canada’s contribution to space exploration go beyond its robotic arms. Many Canadian astronauts and physicists have brought their know-how to the table and accompanied the development of space-faring humanity.

On October 5th, 1984, Marc Garneau was the first Canadian astronaut in space, when he joined the Challenger crew (the STS-41G mission) as a payload specialist.

Over the years, especially after the creation of the Canadian Space Agency in 1989, several other Canadian astronauts followed, including names like: Julie Payette (who helped in the building of the ISS), Chris Hadfield (first Canadian Commander of the ISS), Roberta Bondar, Steve MacLean, Bob Thirsk, Dave Williams and others.

What had you known about Canadian space history? What important moments did we leave out?

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