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Canadarm will reside in Ottawa museum after final space trip

A 1981 file photo shows the Canadian-designed and built Remote Manipulator System (Canadarm) deployed in outer space during a flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia.


The original Canadarm's new home on Earth will be the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa.

The Canadian technological marvel grabbed the world's attention when it flexed its robotic muscles for the first time almost 30 years ago.

That's because the word "Canada" boldly jumped out in front of the cameras when the space arm moved out of the cargo bay of a U.S. space shuttle in November of 1981.

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There's been a friendly tug of war between the Ottawa museum and another in Toronto to land the ultimate symbol of Canadian space engineering.

But before it returns, the Canadarm still has to take one last trip to the International Space Station on Monday aboard U.S. Space Shuttle Endeavour, which will also be making its last visit before it retires from duty.

The shuttle was originally scheduled to blast off for the space station on April 29, but the launch was delayed because of technical problems.

A NASA spokesman has confirmed the Canadarm will be removed and sent to Canada when the shuttle is back on the ground.

But he did not have a timetable for the arm's return, adding that NASA and the Canadian Space Agency are still negotiating.

Stephen Quick, director general of the Ottawa museum, said the Canadarm's first stop will be the Canadian Space Agency, near Montreal.

"I believe they're going to try and display it a bit and, at some point down the road, it's heading our way, he said.

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Mr. Quick added that a memorandum of understanding with the space agency is such that "we are tasked with looking after the artifacts that they bring back."

Robert Godwin, curator of Toronto's privately run Canadian Air and Space Museum, said the decision to send the first Canadarm to Ottawa was made some time ago, probably early last year.

"The fact that it is coming back to Canada is always a good thing. It could easily have not happened," he said.

Spar Aerospace began developing the first Canadarm in Toronto in 1975 and it was delivered to NASA in April of 1981.

The space arm - known as the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System - was then put to work on Nov. 13, 1981, when it stretched out from the cargo bay of Space Shuttle Columbia.

Recently, some Canadians who took part in online polls about where the Canadarm should call home suggested a cross-country tour so all Canadians could get a closer look at it.

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But Mr. Godwin said he doesn't believe such a road trip for the 480-kilogram arm is a good thing.

"The Canadarm is very fragile, it's designed for operating in low-gravity environments," he said. "It's 15 metres long and very, very delicate.

"I think throwing it on and off a truck for the sake of letting more people see it probably is not the best way to handle it … and I don't think you'll find many museums would agree that this is a good idea."

Mr. Quick said the Ottawa museum wants to make sure the Canadian robotic sensation is properly displayed when it arrives.

"We're kind of working out the engineering to be able to do that," he said.

"I guess we'll be reinforcing a number of elements in the museum to be able to hang it," he said. "It's fairly heavy and it won't support its own weight."

Five Canadarms were built for the U.S. space shuttles. One was destroyed in an explosion during the launch of Space Shuttle Challenger in January of 1986. Seven astronauts were killed.

Another space arm was converted for use as an inspection boom with a special camera to examine the shuttles for damage.

Mr. Quick made his comments as finishing touches were being put on "Living in Space," his museum's first major space exhibit.

It will be inaugurated Thursday morning by a group of Canadian astronauts, who have contributed a number of items from their space travels.

"We've got Julie Payette's toothbrush [and]we have the blanket that Bob Thirsk was covered in when he came down in Kazakhstan from his long excursion in space," Mr. Quick said.

Mr. Thirsk spent a Canadian record of more than six months on the space station in 2009 and made his trip up and back on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Mr. Quick said the new space exhibit even includes a model of a space toilet.

There is also an interactive section where visitors place their hands inside the moulded handprints of Canadian astronauts and learn about their space missions.

The Canadian Press

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