Space visionary MacNaughton brought Canadarm dream to reality

I was contracted by the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute to write this profile of space visionary John MacNaughton, who led  Spar Aerospace through its most dynamic growth period on projects such as Canadarm, Anik E, MSAT, and RADARSAT-1.

First impressions could lead you to believe that John D. MacNaughton is a reserved man. You might think the tall, lean engineer with the elegant style and precise manner of speaking never got really excited about anything. But you’d be wrong.

That’s something attendees at the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute’s 44th Annual Conference found out when MacNaughton, the retired president and chief executive officer of Spar Aerospace, Ltd., delivered the W. Rupert Turnbull lecture at a luncheon on April 29.

“That wasn’t the typical Turnbull Lecture,” some audience members said with apparent delight after hearing MacNaughton reminisce in an engaging and entertaining manner about his exploits in the Canadian space industry. His speech, entitled “Reflections on 35 Years in Space,” was peppered with phrases like “defying the odds”, “belly up to the bar and find out” and “most thought I was mad”. It provided fresh insights into the human drama behind such Canadian achievements as the Canadarm – stories MacNaughton knows well since he was one of the main protagonists in many of them.

One of his favourite memories concerns the Canadarm, an initiative which MacNaughton compared to a human “with a 60-foot-long bionic arm capable of capturing a 60-foot-long bus weighing 20 tons and moving it accurately from one location to another.”

The setting for the story is the crowded amphitheatre of Toronto’s Ontario Science Centre where MacNaughton was a panel member discussing significant Canadian achievements in medicine, space and transportation. The date is November, 1981 and the Canadarm had just performed flawlessly on its maiden mission aboard

the space shuttle Columbia.

“As it turned out, the panel discussion was scheduled for the day after the shuttle returned to Earth. I moved heaven and earth and got videotapes of the Canadarm performing for the first time in space,” MacNaughton related. When the people present saw the Canadarm doing its job and “Canada” written in big letters on its side, they clapped, cheered, jumped to their feet and began to sing the national anthem.

“All the blood, sweat and tears were worth it in that single moment,” MacNaughton said with a boyish smile on his face.

And it was as a young boy that MacNaughton’s love affair with aeronautics began. Born in 1932, he was raised on Vancouver Island during World War II when an invasion of Canada was considered to be a significant threat.

“It was a real fear. A two-man Japanese sub had been sighted near the Esquimalt (B.C.) lighthouse and there were a lot of air raid precautions,” MacNaughton says.

Not one to sit back and let fear rule his life, MacNaughton became what was known at the time as a junior airplane spotter. By his veteran father’s side (he fought in the Boer War and WW I), the young boy learned to identify the profiles of both friendly and enemy aircraft. The idea was to alert the authorities if attack planes were sighted. MacNaughton took to the job with perhaps a little more enthusiasm than judgement.

“Once I identified what I thought was a Messerschmitt 109. Impossible on this side of the Atlantic, of course. It turned out to be a P-40 Tomahawk and I immediately lost my status,” he says.

Humbled, but not discouraged, MacNaughton read whatever he could get his hands on about aircraft and – much to his parents’ discomfort – began to build powered model airplanes in the basement of the family home.

“The planes were very noisy, but they put up with it,” he says.

However, they may have heaved sighs of relief when their son left home to attend the de Havilland Aeronautical Technical School (now University of Hertfordshire) in Hatfield, England.

“It was the only place short of CalTech where you could get an aeronautical engineering degree,” MacNaughton explains his move.

In 1954, with graduation papers in hand, the new engineer joined de Havilland Canada in Toronto. “And, boy, was I ready for challenge and excitement,” he reports.

And, boy, was he in for it. MacNaughton’s impressive career touched all the high points of Canadian aeronautical and aerospace history. While employed with de Havilland and Garrett Manufacturing (now Allied Signal), he was involved in systems design for the Velvet Glove and Sparrow II missiles (the Sparrow was to be

placed on the ill-fated Avro Arrow), the Iroquois engine, the Canadair CL-41 (known as the Tutor trainer and used by the Snowbirds) and CL-44 (a cargo transport plane). And that all happened before he turned 40.

“I think in all of my career, I wanted to be the best and I wanted to win,” MacNaughton explains his drive to the top.

It was during his time at Garrett that MacNaughton found his niche in the industry.

“I loved the marketing. I enjoyed the analysis and talking to customers about how great our product was. The biggest thrill for me was winning orders,” MacNaughton says.

The engineer was convinced to return to de Havilland in 1962 by Dr. Philip Lapp, then chief engineer at thecompany, and a man MacNaughton says was a mentor to him. Lapp knew MacNaughton well and wasimpressed by his work.

“I wanted John back to head up the mechanical group working on the STEM (Storable Tubular Extendible Member) devices,” Lapp says. The STEM products were used as antennae or masts on most of the world’s spacecraft.

It was during that time that the aerospace firm now known as Spar was formed. Initially a section of de Havilland called the Guided Missile Division, it became known as Special Products and Applied Research when it amalgamated with Avro Canada. In 1967, the section became a separate company known by the acronym SPAR.

The products MacNaughton specialized in helped Spar emerge as a major player in a new industry.

“(The STEM antenna) marked Spar’s movement from aeronautics into space. (It) helped us participate in building Canada’s very first satellite, Alouette…it also moved us into the U.S. space program, where it was used on all their spacecraft: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab. As all of this was occurring, I’m not exaggerating when I say that I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Nothing in the world captivated more than

space and machines, and here I was, working on machines that were going into space,” MacNaughton relates.

Then came the event MacNaughton considers one of the highlights of his career and we know as a pivotal occurrence in Canadian involvement in the space program. That was, of course, winning the contract to build the Canadarm after four years of intensive development and marketing effort.

If anyone was up to the challenge of bringing the vaguely-defined Canadarm technology to life, it was MacNaughton, according to R.D. “Dick” Richmond, President of Spar at the time, and another man MacNaughton calls a mentor.

“Many visionaries cannot bring what they visualize into practical application. He had the ability to not only market the concept but translate it into specific engineering parameters,” says Richmond.

Lapp credits MacNaughton’s analytical skills, which he says allows the engineer to assess the myriad data available to him and put it together in a practical manner.

“He is the consummate engineer – a highly professional, exacting person with tremendous capacity for detail and precision,” says Deborah Allan, vice-president of public relations at Spar, who worked with MacNaughton just prior to his retirement this year.

Well, what does an engineer do after helping to bring the Canadarm to life? If you’re John MacNaughton, you continue to be a groundbreaker in the aerospace industry, travelling the world while taking responsibility forseveral satellites, including the Anik D, Brazilsat 1 and RADARSAT.

Eventually, MacNaughton’s skills were recognized by his appointment as Chief Executive Officer and President of Spar Aerospace in 1989. Under his guidance, Spar moved from a mostly aerospace company to a communications and informatics company. As Spar became one of the foremost high-tech firms in the country,

McNaughton solidified his reputation as respected leader in the field.

“He was able to bring the disparate forces of the space industry together so we could deal with a unified voice with the government of Canada,” Lapp, a long-time friend, says. “He is trusted because he is honest. I have never seen him be devious – I doubt he could tell a lie.”

MacNaughton retired from Spar last year and is currently president of his own company, providing consulting services to an international client base. He is the receipient of numerous awards, medals and distinctions and recognized internationally as a writer and speaker.

“I have been one of the few who truly has been fortunate enough to realize my dreams,” MacNaughton says. And in the process, he has helped make a few come true for Canada, as well.

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