09/28/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 11/27/2012 05:12 EST

Satellite pioneer says NASA originally considered Alouette too ambitious

MONTREAL - Colin Franklin remembers the challenge of starting from scratch to build the Alouette-1 satellite which launched Canada as a space-faring nation 50 years ago.

When it went into orbit in 1962, Canada became the third country in the world, after the then-Soviet Union and the United States, to have a satellite in space.

At 31, Franklin was chief electrical engineer and the oldest member of the team in 1959 when work began on the satellite to signal the beginning of Canada's space history.

"Most people working on the project were younger than that," Franklin said in an interview. "I remember somebody sarcastically commenting that we were the farm team."

Alouette-1 was launched by NASA from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Sept. 29, 1962.

Franklin says that from the very start, the project had its doubters, with many experts considering it too ambitious.

"The spacecraft was complex and exceptionally advanced for the technology of the time," he said. ''In fact NASA considered it too advanced for the available technology.

"NASA was skeptical the thing would work, but nevertheless they supported us."

But Franklin, now 84, says the U.S. space agency was keen on having international partners and suggested that Canada go ahead — even though the satellite program had to be developed from scratch.

"Transistors were just in their infancy in those days (and) there were no textbooks and virtually nothing in the way of reports and there was really nobody else to go to at the time.

"We were really having to develop a new art in space mechanics and space electronics because there was very little precedent for what we were doing."

Franklin says the program was sold to NASA on the basis of acquiring new information on the properties of the ionosphere, but another objective was to develop Canadian space capability.

Different regions of the ionosphere make radio communications possible by reflecting radio waves back to Earth.

"Certainly in those days, it was very important in long-distance radio communications," Franklin added.

Alouette-1 orbited 1,000 kilometres above the Earth for 10 years, probing the ionosphere below and sending data to ground stations.

The satellite's distinguishing features were its long extendable roll-up antennas. One pair measured 45.7 metres from tip to tip and another pair was 22.8 metres. The antenna concept was later used in many variations for American satellites.

The satellite pioneer also boasted that the batteries used to power the 145-kg Alouette lasted 10 years, "at a time when satellite batteries would last no more than one year at the most.

"The success of Alouette gave Canada an international reputation for excellence in design engineering," he said. "And in particular it gave de Havilland of Toronto, which later became Spar Aerospace, the credibility to bid on the Canadarm."

De Havilland's "Special Products and Applied Research" division was acquired by Spar in 1968. Spar's space robotics unit in Brampton, Ont., was sold to MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) in 1999.

Steve MacLean, the head of the Canadian Space Agency, agrees the first mission by Alouette-1 opened the door to Canada's future in space robotics.

"It set the tone for being credible when we entered into other areas such as robotics and it's true that because of our credibility, NASA felt that we could handle the robotic missions," he said in an interview.

MacLean proudly pointed to Canadarm1, which was used extensively on the now-retired U.S. space shuttle fleet. He also lauded Canadarm2, which was installed on the International Space Station and helped build it.

Five Canadarms were built for the American shuttles.

The CSA boss, a former astronaut, says the iconic Canadarm helped get him into space.

The space arm first flexed its mechanical muscles on Nov. 13, 1981, when it was deployed on Space Shuttle Columbia.

MacLean was chosen as one of the first six Canadian astronauts in December 1983.

"We came in on the heels of Canadarm1's success and were in part selected because of Canadarm1's success." he said.

The Canadian Space Agency comes under the responsibility of Industry Minister Christian Paradis, who says Alouette-1 paved the way for Canadian innovation in space.

"Today, the Canadian space sector has established a world-class reputation in niche areas such as earth observation, space robotics, space science and exploration and satellite communications." he said in a statement.

Development is already underway on the next generation of robotic arms. One prototype is a 15-metre arm that can fit aboard future smaller spacecraft. Another is smaller — a 2.5-metre-long mechanical arm designed to repair satellites in space.

The Canadian space industry now employs 8,256 people and contributes $3.4 billion to the economy.