High above Earth, 350 kilometres up and moving at 28,000 Kp/h, a marvel of Canadian ingenuity achieved a first for mechanized men.
Dextre changed a fuse — not one of his own, but one on the 13-year-old International Space Station (ISS).
Dextre is a Canadian-designed and manufactured robot with a flexible waist and two arms that can reach just about anywhere and do just about anything. The ISS has three robotic cranes, but Dextre was fittingly mounted at the end of the Canadarm2 for the task of replacing a faulty circuit-breaker box on the outside of the station.
Working diligently in the vacuum of space right through midnight on Aug. 28 (or whatever passes for midnight during a 91-minute orbit), Dextre completed the task successfully, turning the lights back on and earning himself the title of “electrician” from the humans around him.
NASA’s retirement of the famous shuttle fleet has given many the false impression that Earthlings were no longer travelling to outer space. The simple but diverse achievements like Dextre’s that are taking place almost every week demonstrate that while the Space Race is long over, the Space Age continues.
The historic rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union gave space exploration the tremendous boost it needed to carry men and machines out of the atmosphere and all the way to the Moon, but now co-operation is the key. Each country and agency involved in exploration has evolved its own role — plus, now there are many more participants: dozens of privately funded research and engineering teams that are building and testing small spacecraft for use in commerce and tourism. Within two decades, those teams could make spaceflight commonplace.
Russia, which inherited a fleet of Soviet rockets and capsules as well as many experienced cosmonauts, is now the only country capable of transporting sufficient people and supplies to the ISS. It’s doing a fine job. The retirement of the American shuttle left the tried-and-true Soyuz rocket the only vehicle available to take medium-sized loads into orbit.
True, in August, a crewless Soyuz rocket crashed five minutes after lift-off because of a clogged fuel line, but such accidents are rare. Since 1957 almost 4,000 Soyuz have launched and fewer than 10 per cent of them experienced trouble. A new unmanned launch to carry cargo to the ISS is scheduled for the end of October and more people are supposed to be taken up to the station in November and December.
NASA (which is still the only agency that has put humans on another celestial body) is now again meant to be reaching beyond Earth’s orbit — and to fill the only market niche left for it: the megaweight market. The U.S. agency recently revealed designs for what it calls the Space Launch System (SLS), which consists of a heavy-lift rocket and a multipurpose capsule that can hold up to six crew. NASA says the SLS will not only take humans back to the Moon, but will also carry them to Mars. Once they get off the ground, the new NASA rockets will pay for their keep by lifting all the really big stuff into space — the loads even Soyuz can’t handle.
In addition, NASA has never abandoned its mandate to send robotic spacecraft on reconnaissance missions throughout the solar system and beyond. Even now, probes are exploring Mars, Saturn and Mercury and detecting planets orbiting other stars. New probes are being sent to the Moon, to Jupiter and to two different asteroids.
Canada’s role in all this has always been an important supportive one — and very active. Besides Dextre’s notable achievement, recent Canadian space news includes the graduation of two fresh astronauts from NASA’s Johnson Space Center and the test of a lunar rover on an ancient meteor crater in Labrador. By all accounts, the little machine feels quite at home on the remote shores of Kamestastin Lake.
Canada’s role in space may never be glamorous, but it will endure if our efforts continue to reflect our well-honed practical skills. The Russians and Americans might be able to go to other planets, but obviously they’ll always need someone along who knows how to change a blown fuse.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.