It was on this day in 1981 that the Canadarm Remote Manipulator System (RMS) performs flawlessly in four hours of tests on board the space shuttle Columbia STS-2.
Tests conducted by Canada’s $100 million robot arm, made by Spar Aerospace in Toronto, included manual and automatic modes of operation, ease of control, operation of joints and positioning accuracy. Its wrist-mounted camera was also put through its paces.
The remote manipulator system – named Canadarm in honor of the country that built it – flew for the first time on Nov. 13, 1981. It was only the second shuttle flight, and one of the mission’s main tasks was to test the arm out – wiggle it around a bit and see how it worked before the heavy lifting started.
The plan was to spend a few hours a day over the five-day mission doing just that, but a malfunction in one of the fuel cells threw that plan off. The mission was shortened to two days, and the Canadarm tests were canceled. They would have been rescheduled for one of the following shuttle flights if it hadn’t been for the crew’s unwillingness to let it go.
“Fortunately at that time we did not have the almost continuous communication with the ground that we have now,” Joe Engle, the mission’s commander, said. “The pilot, Dick Truly, and I told everybody at home goodnight and looked at each other and decided that, well, it’s only one night. We were young, and we thought we’d just go ahead and get as much data as we could – stay up during the night to do it.”
Engle said he doubts Mission Control was fooled for long, but no one called them on it.
“We were tired and dehydrated the next day when we were getting ready to come back in, but we did get to accomplish 90 to 95 percent of the objectives of the mission,” Engle said. “In retrospect it was so much worth it.”
Engle described the process of testing Canadarm as similar to evaluating how well your hand is able to scratch your knee. The arm has six joints – two in the shoulder, one at the elbow and three in the wrist. It’s hollow – on Earth it wouldn’t be able to support even its own weight. But in space it can lift more than 586,000 pounds. Thanks to some upgrades, the 50-foot-long arm is accurate enough to put a peg in a hole given 60/1000 of an inch in clearance.
To read more about this, click onto this NASA article.
On April 22, 2001, Colonel Chris Hadfield made history as the first Canadian to perform a spacewalk when he installed Canadarm2 on the International Space Station 400 km (249 mi) above the earth. This next-generation robotic arm was born on the success of the Canadarm, the first robotic arm ever built for space.
Canadarm proved so effective for the shuttle’s astronauts that scientists wanted one for the Station – in fact, Col. Hadfield used Canadarm when he installed Canadarm2! From the moment it became operational, Canadarm2 has been a critical component in the construction of the Station – and it will be equally important in its maintenance for years to come. Virtually every mission will rely on it – an amazing technological achievement that you can celebrate with pride as Canada marks the 5th anniversary of this nation’s first-ever spacewalk.