|The launch of the Alouette-I satellite in 1962 signalled the start of Canada’s space program. (Photo courtesy of Communications Research Centre Canada and the Canadian Space Agency)|
Celebrating 50 years of Canada’s role in space
By Hillary Windsor
Fifty years ago this autumn, after many
small steps, Canada took one giant
leap into the future.
The successful launch of the
Alouette-I satellite on September 29,
1962, made Canada the third nation
(after Russia and the United States) to
design and build its own satellite and signalled
to the world that our country was
going to be a player in the space age.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing straight
into the stratosphere for the Ottawabased
research and design team, led by
the late John Chapman under the auspices
of Canada’s Defence Research
Telecommunications Establishment (later
to become Communications Research
Centre Canada). Although the team had
world-class engineers and scientists working
on the project and believed it would
succeed, others weren’t so sure.
“We were certainly confident,” says
Colin Franklin, chief electrical engineer
of the Alouette-I. “But NASA considered
the project too ambitious for the technology
at the time. No one believed, outside
of ourselves, that it would last.”
The public perception of the task facing
the team was not much better.
Franklin recalls reading an article published
shortly before the Alouette’s launch
that stated all the possible
things that could go awry
during takeoff and highlighted
the amount of
money being “wasted” on
the project. Still, the team
was undeterred. “I remember
looking at that article,”
says Franklin, “and it had
absolutely no effect on us.”
Despite their assuredness,
launch day at the
U.S. Pacific Missile Test
Range in California was
filled with a degree of
uncertainty. Franklin, now 84, remembers
the moment the team received word
of the satellite’s successful send-off into
orbit aboard a Thor-Agena rocket.
“There was a huge sigh of relief when it
was working, “ he says. “And then there
From start to finish, the entire
Alouette-I project took only 3 ½ years to
complete, but it exceeded all expectations.
Designed with a nominal lifespan
of one year, it spent an impressive 10
active years collecting valuable data about
the ionosphere before being decommissioned.
Its immediate success kick-started
the move to build and launch three more Canadian satellites over the next nine
years — Alouette-II, ISIS I and ISIS II
— and put Canada in the spotlight.
“The creation, launch and incredible
success of the Alouette gave Canada an
international reputation for excellence in
satellite design and engineering,” says
Franklin, adding that at the time, no one
on the team realized the long-term significance.
“We were not aware that we were
doing anything more than successfully
building and launching the program.
It was just a huge engineering challenge
and an exciting program to be on.”
In 1987, Communications Research
Centre Canada designated the Alouette-I
as one of the 10 most outstanding
achievements in the first 100 years of
engineering in Canada — a notable tip of
the hat that put the satellite in the same
company as CPR’s transcontinental railway
network, the St. Lawrence Seaway
and the CANDU nuclear power system.
For many, the satellite’s launch remains
an iconic moment in Canadian history,
shot through with personal meaning.
Former astronaut Steve MacLean, the
current president of the Canadian Space
Agency, recalls hearing about it when he
was just seven years old. “My dad worked
at the National Research Council, so he
made sure we remembered stuff like
that,” he says. “I collected stamps at the
time, and a Canadian stamp with a picture
of the Alouette on it came out. It’s
kind of a symbolic thing for me.”
MacLean says that it’s hard to predict
what the next 50 years have in store for
Canada’s space industry but hopes that
satellites will, in the next five years, provide
communications parity for the
country, especially in the North.
For his part, Franklin — who’s faced
down naysayers before — doesn’t like to
set expectations or limits on what people
can accomplish: “People have been spectacularly
wrong about forecasting the
In other words, the sky’s the limit.