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The Sciences

The Canadians Who Got America to the Moon

Vintage SpaceBy Amy Shira TeitelJuly 16, 2019 3:48 PM
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Canadian John Hodge, left, with astronaut Al Shepard and Flight Director Chris Kraft. NASA.

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There was nothing particularly different about February 20, 1959. For the workers at the A.V. Roe plant in Malton, Ontario, it was just another Friday working on cutting-edge aircraft before the chilly winter weekend. Then, out of nowhere that afternoon, the plant’s public announcement system crackled to life. A.V. Roe’s President Crawford Gordon’s angry voice addressed the workforce as one. 

“That &$@#* prick in Ottawa,” Gordon began before dropping the bombshell: Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and his Conservative government had just cancelled the Arrow project. Effective immediately, all plans were to be destroyed and finished planes’ expertly engineered fuselages cut up and sold as scrap metal. In an instant, 14,525 people lost their jobs; following down the supply chain with contractors and subcontractors, the number affected was closer to 60,000. February 20, 1959, became known as Black Friday in the Canadian Aviation industry.

The Arrow  

The Avro Arrow — properly the CF-105 — wasn’t just the pinnacle of Canadian aviation engineering; it was remarkable on an international scale. The Arrow was an experimental, delta-winged, supersonic interceptor jet that was more technologically advanced than anything the Soviets or the Americans were flying in the early years of the Cold War. Without specialized engines it could fly at Mach 1.98 (almost twice the speed of sound and around 2,400 kilometres per hour); with its designed engines installed it could easily surpass Mach 2. 

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The Avro Arrow’s unveiling in 1957. Library and Archives Canada/PA-210520

Avro had begun development on the Arrow two years earlier in 1957 as a response to the possible threat of the Soviet Union attacking North America by flying over the Canadian Arctic.  It was Canada’s defense strategy, an interceptor that could prevent the country being caught in the Cold War crossfire. But the Arrow had been overshadowed by the space age from the start. The first production model of the plane was unveiled in a public ceremony on October 4, 1957, the same day the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. Instead of the headlines Avro managers had anticipated about the Arrow, newspapers in Canada and the US carried stories of the first artificial satellite the following morning.

Nevertheless the program continued. Test pilot Janusz Zurakowski made the first flight on March 25, 1958, and five Arrows were built in the year that followed. But everything stopped on a dime when the program was cancelled. 

Rumours circulated on the reason behind the cancellation. Cost was one factor; the whole program had a roughly $1.1 billion price tag (adjusted for inflation that’s a little more than $9.8B Canadian or about $7.5B USD). For that cost, and though it was cutting edge technology, Avro hadn’t been able to secure a buyer for the Arrow. Politics likely played a part, too, with the recent change in Ottawa from a Liberal leadership to a Conservative one, not to mention Diefenbaker and Gordon didn’t get along well.

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Test pilot Janusz Zurakowski after the first Arrow flight on 25 March 1958. Library and Archives Canada/C-61731

The Engineers

Faced with the sudden end of his career, Jim Chamberlin felt lost. A transplant to Malton from Kamloops, British Columbia, he held a degree in Engineering from the University of Toronto and was a thirteen year veteran with Avro having joined the company in February of 1946. In that time he’d served as chief aerodynamicist on the C-102 Jetliner (the first jet transport to fly in North America) and the CF-100 Canuck jet interceptor, largely responsible for the flying characteristics of those aircraft. When Avro began the Arrow project, he became its chief of technical design. His whole career had been a dream come true for someone who, as a boy, delighted in designing and flying his own model airplanes. Now, Avro’s chief of technical design was a jobless aviation expert in a world rapidly turning its interest towards space, but it wasn’t just Chamberlin. His whole team of experts was facing an uncertain future.

The Space Agency

The news of the Avro Arrow’s cancellation reached Robert Gilruth in Virginia. Though now in his role as head of NASA’s Space Task Group, the group charged with leading America’s program to launch a man into space before the Soviet Union, he had been following the Arrow since its early development. 

Before NASA’s inception, Gilruth had served as Assistant Director of the space agency’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the NACA). In that capacity, part of Gilruth’s work had been running wind tunnel and free-flight test of early models of the Arrow at Langley and the NACA’s firing range on Wallops Island. He’d been impressed with the Canadians whom he considered a uniquely gifted group of engineers: brilliant, mature, and the perfect mix of talented and professional. Hearing the Arrow program had been cancelled, Gilruth saw a chance to get those minds working on the problem of American space flight. The Space Task Group was close to falling apart under the pressure of figuring out human spaceflight, and with the future of space so uncertain, he was having a hard time finding people willing to take the professional risk of working for the space program. The Canadians, he thought, might fill the gap.

Within hours of the Arrow’s cancellation* (Maynard, Oral History) Robert Gilruth reached out to Jim Chamberlin with the offer of bringing former Arrow engineers to NASA to work on the fledgling space program. Chamberlin in turn put forth a number of his former team members to Gilruth for consideration, and the interviews started immediately.  

The Interview

Owen Maynard found himself facing Robert Gilruth, Paul Purser, and Charles Donlan, all of whom had rushed up to Malton from NASA to interview him. Gilruth spoke first, and he didn’t beat around the bush.

”Are you interested in the Man-in-Space Program?” 

A native of Sarnia, Ontario, Maynard flew with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War (though he never saw combat) before taking a job with Avro while earning his aeronautical engineering degree at the University of Toronto. In his professional life, he worked on the layout of the Avro Jetliner as well as the design and testing of the CF-105 Avro Arrow weapons pack and landing gear. Planes had been his life, and he was barely aware of any Man-in-Space program. He of course had read about Sputnik and knew it was theoretically possible to put people in space so had an idea of the challenge NASA was facing, but didn’t know any more specific details. He didn’t even know how he’d earned an interview with NASA, though suspected Jim Chamberlin had put his name up for consideration. He also knew he wanted to be a part of it.

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Canadian Owen Maynard, centre, with Tom Kelly of Grumman who built the LM. NASA

“Yes, I’m interested in everything from the flying in it to the engineering of it,” he told Gilruth. Though his off-the-cuff application for the astronaut corps was rejected, he was offered an engineering job with NASA and waited less than a day to accept.

More Avro engineers had similar experiences, including chief engineer Robert Lindley, chief of project research Mario Pesando, project manager on the Arrow Carl Lindow, John Hodge, Fred Matthews, and Tec Roberts. They were interviewed on Friday and offered full civil service jobs with any probationary period on Saturday. (Hodge, Oral History)

Thirty-two accepted the offer to join the Space Task Group in the challenge of putting an American in space. Getting into the United States to work as foreign nationals on a government program was another matter. The Avro engineers worked closely with the Canadian government to fast track getting passports for themselves and their families while NASA and the American government figured out the logistics of importing this new workforce. Everything was done fairly quickly and in a way that satisfied both governments.

The Canadians

On April, 9 1959**, the same day the world met the Mercury astronauts, the Canadians joined the Space Task Group at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. They didn’t all know each other; many met for the first time while getting fingerprinted to go to NASA.

The initial idea was to keep the Canadians together as their own group. This was in part on account of the US-Canadian contract; they were technically on a six-month assignment. Keeping them together would make it easier for them to return to Canada when Avro figured out its future in the post-Arrow landscape. But Avro never recovered, and the Canadian government’s loan of engineers became permanent as the Canadians spread throughout NASA and its main contractors when NASA took on the challenge of landing men on the Moon.

Robert Lindley went to work with McDonnell Aviation in St. Louis where he led the contractors work on the Gemini spacecraft. Post-Apollo he joined NASA as director of engineering and operations for manned space flight with the shuttle program before becoming director of project management at the Goddard Space Flight Centre in 1972. Mario Pesando went to RCA in Massachusetts to work on part of the Saturn V program. Carl Lindow went to Boeing where he became project engineer on the Saturn S-1 and Saturn S-IB development.

John Hodge became a flight director in all three Apollo-era programs— Mercury, Gemini and Apollo — leader of the blue team. Fred Matthews served as back-up flight director to Chris Kraft and was in charge of monitoring flight controllers at tracking stations around the world. Tec Roberts led the trajectory group in mission control and played a significant role in laying out the design of the Mission Control Center in Houston.

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The Arrow design team: Bob Lindley, Jim Floyd, Guest Hake, and Jim Chamberlin. via http://scaa.usask.ca

Owen Maynard is perhaps the most recognizable Canadians. Though John Houbolt pioneered the use of Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) as the mission mode for Apollo, Owen Maynard was among the first members of the Space Task Group to see the wisdom of this method. After learning about it, Maynard started working on his own sketches of a “landing bug” that became the first concepts of the lunar module, work that helped sell the idea of Lunar Orbit Rendezvous around NASA. It also propelled Maynard to the role of chief of the LM engineering office in the Apollo Program Office at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. Even Tom Kelly, the engineer who led the LM’s development at Grumman, recognized that Maynard was the person at NASA most responsible for the design of the LM. 

In 1964, Maynard was promoted to chief of the systems engineering division in the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office making him, in effect, Apollo’s chief engineer. Though his superiors — program managers Joseph Shea and George Low as well as program director Sam Phillips — became synonymous with the program’s development, Maynard was the one responsible for ensuring the pieces of the Apollo spacecraft worked together as well as with the launch vehicle. After the Apollo 1 fire on January 27, 1967, Maynard moved back to systems engineering. His group developed the A to G mission sequence for Apollo test missions leading up to the first lunar landing. He left NASA in 1970.

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Canadian Jim Chamberlin in the Gemini Program Office. NASA

When Jim Chamberlin joined NASA, he quickly became one of Robert Gilruth’s close advisors where he played a major role in the final design of the Mercury spacecraft, becoming head of engineering for the Mercury program. He was another early adapter of LOR and began developing alternate mission concepts for a lunar landing mission using a Gemini spacecraft as the mothership and a dedicated lunar landing “bug” for the surface mission. In 1961, Chamberlin became the first program manager for the Gemini program where among other things, he became one of the more outspoken proponents for the Rogallo Wing to spare the spacecraft the dangers of a splashdown landing. He was awarded NASA’s Gold Medal for his work on the program. In 1963 Chamberlin moved to the Apollo Program Office where he became something of an all-star trouble shooter. He solved problems affecting every part of the Apollo spacecraft — the LM, CSM, and Saturn rocket — as well as units the astronauts would use on the lunar surface. He was even beginning to draw up plans for the space shuttle before he left NASA in 1970.

Oh, Canada! 

By cancelling the Arrow program when he did, Deifenbaken inadvertently gave the American space program its most fortuitous break since when Wernher von Braun found and surrendered to American troops after the Second World War. In true Canadian style, the Arrow engineers never demanded accolades for their work, but many within NASA considered their contributions invaluable. Case in point: When John Glenn sat in the lead car during a ticker tape parade through New York City after his successful Friendship 7’s mission, Jim Chamberlain sat waving from the second car, an appropriately quiet Canadian move. 

That same year, 1962, the Hawker Siddeley Group dissolved A.V. Roe Canada and folded all remaining assets into a subsidiary company. Avro Aircraft officially closed its doors. 

[*The timeline here is inferred from oral histories. Sources (Maynard, Hodge) say their unemployment post-Arrow’s cancellation was less than a day, though I haven’t been able (yet) to find records of the Canadians’ interview to verify the date. We’re going to go with it for now, and one of these days I’ll dig through NASA’s archives in the basement at headquarters because I think that’s where that answer is.]

[**Again, this date is inferred from oral histories. Some accounts say “in April” while others give a date, so it’s not clear (yet) if they presented themselves to NASA as a group or in smaller groups.]

Sources are linked in the body of the text.

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