Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Bruce Aikenhead, Canadian Space Pioneer, 1923-2019

Bruce Aikenhead tries out weightlessness in 1987 on board the KC-135 'vomit comet' NASA photo.
By Chris Gainor
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 21, 2019


In 1959, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) introduced America’s first astronauts to the world. Nearly 25 years later, Canada’s first astronauts were chosen. Both groups of astronauts were trained by Bruce Aikenhead, a soft-spoken Canadian who began a long career in spaceflight after losing his job when the CF-105 Avro Arrow jet interceptor was cancelled.
His career also included service in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War and work at well-known Canadian firms including Electrohome, CAE Inc., and Spar Aerospace, but Mr. Aikenhead, who died this month, will be best remembered as one of the key individuals in the early years of Canada’s space program.
Until the Canadian Space Agency opened for business in 1989, Canada’s space efforts were spread amongst a variety of government agencies and private contractors. No one could match Mr. Aikenhead’s variety of experience in Canada’s space sector or his three years in a key role at NASA.
Shortly after Bruce Alexander Aikenhead was born, on Sep. 22, 1923, in Didsbury, Alta., his family moved to London, Ont., where he was raised. During the war, Mr. Aikenhead joined the RCAF and serviced radar equipment while attached to the Royal Air Force in England and later in India.
Mr. Aikenhead studied radio physics at the University of Western Ontario after the war and completed an Honours Bachelor of Science degree in radio physics in 1950. He married the former Helen Wait in 1947, and together they raised their family. Starting in 1950, Mr. Aikenhead worked at Dominion Electrohome Industries in Kitchener on production engineering of radio receivers, car radios and televisions.
In 1955, Mr. Aikenhead turned to aviation, joining Canadian Aviation Electronics in Montreal, now known as CAE, where he helped develop aircraft simulators. Three years later, he moved to Avro Canada in Malton, Ont., where he worked on the flight simulator for the Avro Arrow, a highly advanced aircraft that was capable of flying twice the speed of sound.
Six months after Mr. Aikenhead started work at Avro, the Conservative government of John Diefenbaker cancelled the Arrow program on Feb. 20, 1959, throwing thousands of skilled people out of work. A few weeks after the cancellation, top officials from NASA flew to Malton and hired 25 former Avro engineers including Mr. Aikenhead to work on Project Mercury, which would launch the first U.S. astronauts into space.
On the day in April 1959 that Mr. Aikenhead reported to work at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., he was assigned to join the team that would train the Mercury astronauts. He then went through his formal employment induction procedures for NASA alongside the seven astronauts, who had also started work that day. For the rest of his time at NASA, he and the astronauts worked in adjacent offices.
With his experience in simulators, Mr. Aikenhead developed a device that simulated the cabin of the Mercury spacecraft, and he helped train Alan B. Shepard Jr. and Virgil I. Grissom for their suborbital launches in 1961. Mr. Aikenhead and his colleagues were training John H. Glenn Jr. that fall for his first American orbital flight when NASA decided that its human space program would relocate to Houston, Texas.
Along with some of the other engineers from Canada, Mr. Aikenhead decided that Houston was too far away from home, and he was able to get another job at CAE working on aircraft simulators. When his friend Col. Glenn made his historic flight on Feb. 20, 1962, Mr. Aikenhead could only follow it on the radio from his new home in Montreal.
While Mr. Aikenhead's time at NASA evokes movies such as The Right Stuff, he and his family also had to live with the realities of segregation in the U.S. South as depicted in the 2016 film Hidden Figures. Once back in Montreal, Bruce and Helen Aikenhead made sure that their home was open to international students studying at McGill University.
In 1966, Mr. Aikenhead returned to the space sector when he decided to join Dr. Gerald Bull of McGill in the High Altitude Research Program, which sought to develop cannons capable of launching satellites into orbit. The program ended the following year when the Canadian government withdrew financial support, and Dr. Bull went on to notoriety by developing cannons for military clients around the world until his still-unsolved murder in 1990.
After his layoff, Mr. Aikenhead soon found a job at RCA Canada in Montreal, where he was project engineer for the ISIS 2 spacecraft, the fourth and last of Canada’s first generation of satellites that explored the ionosphere as part of the International Satellites for Ionospheric Studies program. Following the launch of ISIS 2 in 1971, he worked on the Communications Technology Satellite, which after its launch in 1976 was known as Hermes and pioneered direct-to-home and other communications technologies.
By then, RCA had been purchased by Spar Aerospace, which assigned Mr. Aikenhead to work with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) on a program to build the Space Shuttle Remote Manipulator System for the U.S. Space Shuttle. In 1981, Mr. Aikenhead moved to the NRC in Ottawa as deputy program manager for what became known as the Canadarm.
The Canadarm proved itself in early shuttle flights, and in 1983, the Canadian government followed up on NASA’s invitation to fly Canadian astronauts by selecting five men and one woman for the Canadian Astronaut Program. Mr. Aikenhead was involved in the final selections, and with his experience at NASA, he quickly became involved in training the Canadian team. When Marc Garneau was selected to be the first Canadian to fly in space, Mr. Aikenhead’s contacts at NASA helped open many doors in Houston for the Canadians prior to Cmdr. Garneau’s flight in October 1984.
Mr. Aikenhead was put in charge of the Canadian Astronaut Program in 1986, but the program was effectively on hiatus for a time because of the loss of the shuttle Challenger that year. He presided over the program’s transfer from NRC to the CSA in 1989, the shuttle flights of Canadian astronauts Roberta Bondar and Steve MacLean in 1992, and the selection of Canada’s second group of astronauts, including Chris Hadfield and Julie Payette, now the Governor-General of Canada.
In March 1993, Mr. Aikenhead retired and moved to Salmon Arm, B.C. with his wife, Helen, who died in 2005. Mr. Aikenhead was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 1997. During his retirement, Mr. Aikenhead indulged his love of jazz and opera, and became a founder of the Okanagan Science Centre in Vernon, where he developed exhibits on space science and took part in school programs.
Mr. Aikenhead’s death of natural causes in Vernon, B.C. on Aug. 5, brought quick responses from Canadian astronauts. Mr. Garneau, now Canada’s Minister of Transport, praised him as a mentor, Robert Thirsk remembered him as the “go-to guy” when astronauts needed information about space travel, and Mr. Hadfield called him “kind, smart, hard working and humble.”
Mr. Aikenhead, who was 95, is survived by his son, Steve Aikenhead; and daughters, Kasey Bernz, Elizabeth Aikenhead, Barbara Newton and Jane Swaine (who was fostered by the Aikenheads).
Bruce Aikenhead with Chris Gainor, 2007.

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