|John S. MacDonald. University of Northern BC photo|
Special to the Globe and Mail
January 17, 2020
Engineer and entrepreneur John S. MacDonald stamped his name on the Canadian space business by building a technology, space and information services company literally from the ground up.
MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. or MDA, which Mr. MacDonald founded in 1969 in the basement of his Vancouver home with fellow engineer Werner (Vern) Dettwiler, began producing computer systems, but turned to space when an opportunity arose to build a ground Station in Canada for the Landsat-1 remote sensing satellite following its launch in 1972.
By 1998, when Mr. MacDonald retired as chair of MDA, the company had overtaken Spar Aerospace as Canada’s largest space contractor and acquired Spar’s space business, including the work of building the Canadarm for the U.S. space shuttle and the International Space Station.
Just four days after Mr. MacDonald died in Vancouver on December 26 due to cerebral amyloid angiopathy, MDA was back in the news with the announcement that it will return to Canadian ownership in 2020 after two years under the wing of Maxar Technologies Inc.
John Spencer MacDonald was born in Prince Rupert, B.C. on August 13, 1936. He demonstrated his interest in electronics early when he repaired radios in fish boats there while in high school. Mr. MacDonald renewed his links with the area later in life when he served as Chancellor of the University of Northern B.C. from 2010 to 2016.
After earning an undergraduate degree in applied science at the University of B.C. in 1959, Mr. MacDonald earned a master’s degree in 1961 and a Ph.D. in 1964, both from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After teaching at MIT, he returned to Vancouver where be began teaching electrical engineering at UBC.
Mr. MacDonald married his wife Alfredette in 1959 after having met her while on a summer job with Atomic Energy of Canada in Chalk River, Ont. They soon had two sons, Neil and Jay.
Although Mr. MacDonald enjoyed teaching, he noticed that many of the young engineers he was training at UBC were leaving the province to find work, and as he explained to science writer Barry Shanko in an interview, “I wanted to do something meaningful in an engineering sense.”
The result was that he and Mr. Dettwiler founded MDA, which started by building monitoring and control systems for microwave networks and pipelines. Mr. MacDonald was president of the firm until 1982.
MDA principal scientist David Sloan alerted Mr. MacDonald to the fact that the Canadian government wanted to build a ground station to receive images and other data from Landsat. As a result, MDA built a major part of the Canadian ground station, and armed with new designs for portable digital ground stations, MDA went on to capture a major part of the world market for portable civilian ground stations for remote sensing satellites.
Working with the Canadian Centre for Remote Sensing and its director general, Lawrence W. (Larry) Morley, Mr. MacDonald and MDA turned to remote sensing using synthetic aperture radar, where radar signals are used to create high definition images. Satellites and aircraft using this type of radar can obtain images at any time of day or night, and are not impeded by cloudy weather. The images are useful for mapping, environmental monitoring, and following masses of ice.
MDA developed a digital processor for synthetic aperture radar that flew on Seasat, an American ocean research satellite that was launched in 1978. When the Canadian government launched Radarsat-1 in 1995, Spar Aerospace was the main contractor. MDA was a major subcontractor on Radarsat-1, and it created and sold a whole variety of data products from the satellite for many different users.
Around that time, MDA drew up a concept for Radarsat-2 which had much greater capabilities than the first Radarsat. Spar Aerospace resisted Mr. MacDonald’s pleas to incorporate MDA’s ideas into its Radarsat-2 proposal because it considered them too risky. So MDA bid on the job with its own concepts and in 1998 won the competition to build Radarsat-2. Spar soon left the space business and sold its space divisions to MDA.
“My basic thesis was that if we’re going to compete in the first half of the 21stcentury, we have to have a much more information-rich spacecraft than Radarsat-1,” Mr. MacDonald recalled.
The second Radarsat was so powerful that the U.S. government declined to launch it as it had done for previous Canadian satellites because of security concerns, and so Radarsat-2 was launched by a Russian rocket in 2007 and became another success.
MDA has since built the twin-satellite Radarsat Constellation Mission, which was launched last June atop a Falcon rocket, and has continued work on the Canadarm robot arm on the U.S. space shuttle, Canadarm-2 on the International Space Station, and a new Canadarm planned for the U.S. Lunar Gateway space station. MDA also became known for the information products it has developed from remote sensing data, including images and maps tracing the movement of ground surfaces and sea surfaces, and images of icebergs, oil spills, and areas affected by natural disasters.
When asked about his major legacy, Mr. MacDonald said: “It’s the people that rank with the best of the world in advanced technology in B.C. and Canada.”
While he tried to hire the best people for his technical teams, Mr. MacDonald did not rely on credentials. He once took on an engineer who expressed surprise at his hiring because he hadn’t yet completed his degree but saw numerous employee diplomas decorating the office wall. “We don’t need any more wallpaper here,” Mr. MacDonald replied.
After 1998, Mr. MacDonald served as chair and CEO of solar energy company Day4 Energy Inc. from 2001 to 2014.
Mr. MacDonald was an avid amateur astronomer and enjoyed sailing the B.C. coast. He and his wife enjoyed travelling to every part of the world.
Mr. MacDonald has earned many honours and awards, including the Order of Canada in 1988. He is survived by his wife, two sons, and three grandchildren.