Vintage Space Fun Fact: NASA’s Canadian Contingent

Director of the Space Task Group Robert Gilruth (second from left) with, from left to right, chief assistants Charles Donlan, Maxime Faget, and Robert Piland. Here, these original members of the Space Task Group discuss contractors to study feasibility of a manned circumlunar mission. August, 1960. Credit: NASA

On February 20, 1959, 14,000 Canadians found themselves suddenly unemployed. Weeks previously, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker had cancelled continued work on the Arrow, a high performance interceptor aircraft built by A.V. Roe (AVRO) poised to break speed records. Fortunately for the 4,000 who had designed and built the aircraft, their talents made them highly desirable in the aerospace market, particularly to the young American agency working on how to put a man in space.

Five months earlier on September 25, 1958, NASA’s first administrator T. Keith Glennan announced that the space agency would become an active body in six days. Once incepted, one of the agency’s goals would be putting a man in space. Figuring out how to do that fell to the Space Task Group, a body formally created on November 5 under the direction of Robert Gilruth. In its original incarnation, the STG brought together 27 engineers from the Langley Research Centre, 10 from the Lewis Research Centre, and 8 computers (that is to say women who ran calculations).

But it wasn’t enough. There was more to do and Gilruth needed more engineers to solve the unknowns of spaceflight. The Arrow’s cancellation was, from his perspective, fortuitous.

Jim Chamberlin. Credit: Jim Chamberlin Estate via avroland.ca

It was AVRO engineer Jim Chamberlin, head of design for the Arrow project, who started making the move over to NASA. He’d met Gilruth years earlier after visiting Langley to give a talk about a flying saucer he’d tried to build. With the Arrow gone – crews had wasted no time in cutting the Arrows up for scrap metal – Chamberlin thought of the STG. He talked to his chief engineer who contacted the Canadian government who contacted NASA; the later two organizations agreed that AVRO engineers could spend up to two years helping with the Mercury program. It was a win- win situation: NASA would get the engineering expertise it needed and Canada would get its engineers back with a whole new skill set.

Chamberlin, much like von Braun had done when moving his rocket engineers from Germany after the Second World War, put together a list of the people from his design team he wanted to take down to Langley. Gilruth and three other members of the STG flew up to Ontario to interview 75 of Chamberlin’s picks.

Thirty-five men were offered positions and 30 ended up moving to Langley. By the time they arrived, the STG was still less than 100 strong. Also like von Braun and his Germans, many AVRO engineers made their move into the United States permanent. The two-year limit to the Canadian’s tenure with NASA was never enforced, and many of the engineers retained central positions in the American space agency through Apollo.

Comments

  1. says

    Those of us into cynicism darkly suppose that the bits of the Arrow went straight to Kelly Johnson, and appeared later as the SR-71. One of the reasons the Arrow looked feasible is that Canada could get titanium from the USSR, and Americans could not.

    On paper, the Arrow’s performance wasn’t all that much less than the Lockheed products, but there was jealousy there.

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