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Canadarm and Collaboration: How Canada’s Astronauts and Space Robots Explore New Worlds by Elizabeth Howell
Quest Volume: 28 #3 (2021)
In the late 1980s and early 1990s Canadian author Lydia Dotto published two books on the evolution of Canada’s space program and its astronaut corps that were very well received. As one might expect from an experienced and respected science writer, Dotto had woven together complex technical subjects and human-interest stories to present a comprehensive and detailed—yet very readable and enjoyable—overview of the country’s emerging role in Earth orbit up to that time. Since then, other similarly framed works have appeared occasionally, each one seeking to both refresh and add to the story as new developments occurred. John Melady’s Canadians in Space: The Forever Frontier was a notable release in 2009, followed by Bob McDonald’s richly detailed and illustrated Canadian Spacewalkers: Hadfield, MacLean, and Williams Remember the Ultimate High Adventure in 2014.
The latest book in this particular genre to appear is Elizabeth Howell’s Canadarm and Collaboration: How Canada’s Astronauts and Space Robots Explore New Worlds. The back cover expands on this promising title by further stating it will deliver a “tale of Canada’s international space exploration involvement from the 1960s to the present day.” With a foreword by retired Canadian Space Agency (CSA) astronaut Dafydd (Dave) Williams (STS-90 and STS-118), readers are well situated for a concise overview of all activities from the launch of the country’s first satellite in September 1962 right up to its most recent participation in ISS Expeditions 58/59 from December 2018 through March 2019.
One would think that given the length and scope of Canada’s space program this would be a weighty tome rich in detail, but oddly, Howell seems to struggle at times to fill the pages of this rather compact essay. Summing up and glossing over the first 30 years of Canada’s space program history in just two chapters, this tale including much of the development and application of the book’s implied main focus—the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System or Canadarm–is simply bypassed by the author stating that these topics have already been written about or are well covered elsewhere. Unfortunately, the author does not identify where one might go looking—though to be fair a couple of quotes were drawn directly from better-known publications, thus one could guess where to start. Even more recent topics such as space science, remote sensing, and Canadian roles in the Space Shuttle-era and beyond tend to get short shrift, skipping over many details that would have greatly helped readers better understand the context of Canada’s role in international space endeavors. There is rather limited discussion of Canada’s role in space robotics in this book; similarly, the mysterious Canadian space robots the book’s title mentions are never introduced or explained.
Instead, too much of the book is devoted to following the author on a meandering journey through a wide and loosely connected series of gossipy musings. The topics range from how the tea was served during the author’s visit with former CSA astronaut Julie Payette at Rideau Hall (where she was serving in a vice regal appointment as Canada’s Governor-General; she was not royalty as the author implied), to conversations with the author’s bank manager regarding the purchase of Russian rubles for her trip to witness CSA astronaut David Saint-Jacques’ ISS Expedition 58 launch at Baikonur. Interspersed with snippets of interviews with various politicians, CSA officials, astronauts, and those with a general interest in science, somewhere along the way the book shifts from describing events in the third person to following the author’s journey in the first person, but this does little to improve the reader’s enjoyment of the overall narrative.
These annoying issues aside, the book is not entirely without merit. Favorably, notable among the author’s recorded conversations is her interview with Dr. Roberta Bondar, now age 75, who was one of the six candidates chosen by Canada’s National Research Council (NRC) to form the country’s first astronaut group in 1983. An accomplished medical doctor and neurologist with a strong interest and research record in life sciences, Dr. Bondar subsequently completed NASA payload specialist training before joining the crew assigned to fly the first International Microgravity Laboratory (IML-1) aboard STS-42 in January 1992. A very busy mission that was not without its complications, it was nevertheless a success overall with the crew returning safely home after approximately eight days in orbit conducting a multitude of scientific experiments. Not surprisingly, Bondar enjoyed considerable attention at home immediately afterward. Among other important scientific accomplishments, she was forever to be known as Canada’s first female astronaut and, up to that time, one of fewer than two dozen women to have flown in outer space.
Unfortunately, there were also hints soon after the mission that Dr. Bondar’s performance in orbit had not gone over well with NASA officials. Contemporary interviews published in Lydia Dotto’s 1993 book, The Astronauts: Canada’s Voyageurs in Space, corroborated some of the difficulties experienced during the mission as well as some of the controversy that followed. Dotto also quoted Canadian officials at the time implying that it contributed to Bondar not being considered by the NRC as a candidate for the more intense NASA mission specialist training program, an essential step that could lead to further opportunities for spaceflight. Bondar was very vocal in her disappointment with this outcome, and as reported it seemed to have influenced her sudden decision to resign from the CSA altogether in September 1992, just seven months after her Space Shuttle flight.
Though the exact reasons that led to the sudden demise of Bondar’s astronaut career remained something of a mystery at the time, Howell’s new interviews with both Dr. Bondar and Roland Doré, who served as the CSA president from May 1992 to July 1994, have now revealed that she was in fact effectively fired—having been officially terminated from the astronaut corps altogether by both agencies. Howell writes that Doré confirmed this in stating, “After Mission STS-42 in January 1992, NASA decided that Roberta Bondar would not fly again on any USA space vehicle and consequently was withdrawn from the NASA astronaut program. CSA was informed of this decision. The vice-president responsible for the CSA astronaut program in 1992 knew the [reason] why. It seems that Roberta Bondar was not told the reason for NASA’s decision.”*
Thus, after nearly 25 years of speculation this remarkable revelation captured in what is otherwise an unremarkable book is its main saving grace, and perhaps the best reason for considering adding this book to one’s own space history library. However, for those looking for a more comprehensive overview of Canada’s space efforts writ large, this author still recommends Dotto’s, Melady’s, and McDonald’s books mentioned above instead.
* Howell, E., Canadarm and Collaboration, 81-83.
About the Book
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Title: Canadarm and Collaboration: How Canada’s Astronauts and Space Robots Explore New Worlds
Author: Elizabeth Howell
Publisher: ECW Press (Toronto)
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