The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) awarded MDA Corporation a $22.8 million contract to develop a third-generation robotic arm, dubbed Canadarm3, destined for NASA’s newest space station, the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G).
“Canada’s aerospace workers have been a continuous source of inspiration since the first satellite was launched in 1962. They have the right stuff,” said Jerry Dias, Unifor National President. “This funding will allow our members to continue to work on the leading edge of technological innovation and advanced manufacturing, furthering Canada’s contribution to international space exploration and research. This is a proud moment for us all.”
Workers at MDA, formerly Spar Aerospace, developed and manufactured the first and second generations of Canada’s space-bound robotic arms. The first generation of Canadarm was delivered in 1981 for use in NASA’s retired space shuttle program. Five arms were built in total for the shuttle program. One was lost in the Challenger disaster. The larger, second generation Canadarm2 was delivered in 1991 and continues to operate on the International Space Station. The CSA’s support for the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway program and the Canadarm3 contract has been the culmination of years of strategic planning, lobbying and advocacy work. Unifor and other labour organizations, industry, and coalition partners have long supported funding and procurement for long-term space manufacturing policy reform formalized in the Don’t Let Go Canada campaign launched in 2018.
“It wasn’t long ago that the industry hit with tough times and contracts and government procurement dried up threatening to end made-in-Canada space technology,” said Maryellen McIlmoyle, Unifor Local 673 President. “We are thrilled to see that Canadian aerospace workers’ role in manufacturing advanced robotics is secure for years to come.”
Throughout the 2000s, Canada’s space sector saw serious decline, raising concerns about the federal government and the CSA’s commitment to the development and manufacture of new technologies for use in space. Without a national long-term space policy and insufficient government procurement, Canada fell from 4th in space funding as a share of GDP among G7 countries 1992 to last by 2016. Further concerns about the health of the industry were raised by the proposed sale of MDA’s space division to a U.S. company in 2008. This move was vehemently opposed by Unifor’s predecessor organization, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW). The proposed sale was ultimately blocked by the federal government, but Canada continued to lack a robust plan for the space industry.
By the 2010’s, MDA struggled financially and was briefly rebranded as Maxar Technologies in 2017, and its headquarters were moved to the US. Canadian ownership of MDA was restored in 2018. Although Canada continues to lack a formal long-term space policy, the Canadarm3 contract secures MDA workers with a high-profile project that provides valuable and important work.
“This contract will pay dividends across several sectors of the economy. There is no doubt in my mind that the work our members do at MDA will inspire the next generation of aerospace workers,” said Scott McIlmoyle, Unifor Local 112 President. “This contract is proof positive that our members’ skills, dedication, and capabilities are vital to Canada maintaining its role as a spacefaring nation.”
Funding for the next generation comes as part of Canada’s $1.9 billion investment in the domestic space industry over the next 24 years, which amounts to approximately $80 million annually.
Canadarm3 is projected to launch in 2026 and will deploy the most advanced robotics and artificial intelligence-based control and mission planning software for use in space. The new lunar space station is expected to be the next frontier of international technological research and development, and what is learned from astronauts on the lunar station, with Canadarm3, will be applied to plans for crewed missions to Mars.