Canada contributed the Canadarm and Canadarm2 for the Shuttle and ISS, respectively. With the Lunar Gateway Canada will contribute the Canadarm3. How did Canada come to make the Canadarm in the first place? Do they continue to just because it's "tradition" now or is there something particular about the Canadian Space Agency that makes them especially suited for robotic arm design/construction?

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    $\begingroup$ Canada sits on top of the U.S.; Canadian robotic arms sit on top of U.S. spacecraft. $\endgroup$
    – Vikki
    Commented Feb 15, 2020 at 17:08
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    $\begingroup$ We have very talented engineers in Canada. Why the surprise. $\endgroup$
    – Old_Fossil
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ US people have the right to bear arms, Canadians - to robotic arms. $\endgroup$
    – IMil
    Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 1:01
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    $\begingroup$ Which raises the question: why does the Space Shuttle not use a bear to deploy payloads instead of a robotic arm? $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 13:24
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    $\begingroup$ @user253751 We had a bare arm on our patch imgur.com/a/pPIxep8 $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 20:11

3 Answers 3



Business concerns require a small, tightly integrated supply chain. Paying attention to this is one of the many reasons for the successes of the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX). The problem with tight supply chains is there are only a few big winners. Political demands oftentimes result in large, loosely integrated supply chains. If NASA operated like a business it would be dead because there would be a dozen or so happy senators pitted against seven dozen rather unhappy senators. From the very beginning, NASA has touted how many states (almost all of them) participate in / contribute to NASA's missions.

Where it makes sense, it has helped NASA to have other countries participating in NASA's missions. Cancelling a NASA program that involves international partnerships would be tantamount to breaking a treaty. The Canadarm and its successors represent one of those areas where it makes sense to have international involvement.

  • $\begingroup$ I wonder if there's a method to maintain this without inducing space-shuttle levels of suck. We can't have 5-10 not-overlapping ISS or Mars-mission sized projects. $\endgroup$
    – ikrase
    Commented Feb 14, 2020 at 20:29
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    $\begingroup$ In the absence of evidence that Canadarm was chosen primarily to appease Canada, wouldn't the US choosing a non-American manufacturer over an American one be the opposite of "politics"? If they chose an American manufacturer do we also assume that was "politics"? When is the choice not politics? $\endgroup$
    – Schwern
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 18:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Schwern - US automakers had been heavily researching and developing robotic arm technology for over a decade before the decision was made. The same goes for the US medical and nuclear power fields. The Shuttle, including its robotic arm, could easily have been made a 100% domestic endeavor. The decision not to do so was purely political. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 20:38

I think there is a better answer than just saying "Politics". That is just too glib and shallow. There is obviously more substantial reasons behind the development and use of Canadarm than partisanship and perhaps these reasons should be explored.

At the time the shuttle was being planned in the post-Apollo era, although there may have been many kinds of robotic handlers being developed, not all of them had the technology that suited the harsher environment of space and also were sufficiently developed to provide a reliable arm. Many vendors might have been willing to research and develop such an arm but few had one that could be demonstrated.

By a quirk of serendipity Dilworth, Secord, Meagher and Associates (DSMA Atcon) of Toronto had already researched and created a long reach robotic handler for hazardous environments in the 1970s as part of the CANDU nuclear reactor programme.

It was the closest to what NASA required and they won the contract for CANADARM as a result. Later the technology was used by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) for CANADARM2, who later became Maxar Technologies.

Source: The Canadian Encyclopaedia

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    $\begingroup$ Great background info! I have to say I was astounded at how little commonality there was between the SRMS and SSRMS. Getting the SRMS active was like cranking up a stick shift sportscar; the SSRMS was like preflighting a 747. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 15, 2020 at 1:08
  • $\begingroup$ @ Organic Marble -- I am no expert on the matter at all, however, consider all the stuff attached to the ISS, compared to structures of the Shuttle. Of course any structure at all is something one wants to be absolutely sure to not damage while manipulating a robotic arm. There are many more things hanging off the ISS, and they are not solely the equipment of a single nation, but represent all sorts of International investment. That thought alone suggests that safety protocols would require International dev and approval for safety. And there's those huge essential solar arrays. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 15, 2020 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ @always_learning the SRMS was used to put the ISS together. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 15, 2020 at 15:47
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    $\begingroup$ This is very nice, but it ignores that the US was the lead in robotic arm technology at the time NASA chose to have Canada build the Shuttle's robotic arm. NASA could easily have chosen an all-domestic route for the Shuttle robotic arm, and things might well have gone better/easier had they done so. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 15, 2020 at 16:21
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidHammen But did any of these US leaders have a pre-existing design which was closer to project requirements at the time of the competition? Or did they have to develop it more from scratch? Whether you are technologically leading or not, having a working model closer to the requirements mitigates risk compared to not having one. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 19:39

Good day all. I the hope that you find the following information valuable, from my memory: having worked on both programs as an engineer at the prime Canadian contractor SPAR (late on SRMS and at the start of SSRMS), I was told by the veterans at the time that Canada had a particular expertise in very high precision gears, and that was one of the reasons that Canada proposed the Canadarm as its contribution for the Shuttle Program. I am not getting into politics here :-). As a complement of information, the SRMS on the Shuttle Program was an analog system with fixed-parameter analog control loops in each of the 6 rotation axes, coordinated by a unit inside the Shuttle, with the arm permanently mounted on its base. Interesting fact: I was told that it could be jettisoned if it couldn't be folded back in the payload bay. Its successor, the SSRMS on the ISS program, incorporates many differences, including 7 degrees of freedom with digital control loops that have the capability to be adapted in real-time, coordinated by redundant units on the arm, with an end effector that was also much stronger, capable of handling a fully-loaded Shuttle as a payload (this has not been used). The big improvement with the SRMS that challenged us designers, was that the SSRMS needed to be completely symmetrical about the elbows, and that both ends could be detached (not at the same time...) so that the SSRMS could do a slinky-style walk across the ISS (this is used regularly); in other words, we needed to design a robotic system where the wrist of the arm could also be the shoulder... tricky but it worked in the end.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to space stack exchange! The SRMS definitely could be jettisoned, the highlight of any training flow. Also the SRMS had digital SPAs (servopower amplifiers) at least in its later incarnation. Each joint had its own CPU. The original arm was analog I believe but that was before my time in PDRS. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 17, 2020 at 19:49
  • $\begingroup$ Re I am not getting into politics here You got into politics the sentence prior to that with and that was one of the reasons that Canada proposed the Canadarm as its contribution for the Shuttle Program. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 18, 2020 at 15:22

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