Space Program Pioneer Reflects on the Past and Future for Exploration

If Larry Maynard’s small plane C-FWFB hadn’t malfunctioned in the middle of the night in 1977, one may never know what the world of satellite-based search and rescue would look like today.

As luck would have it, the emergency locator transmitter did go off in his Lake Buccaneer Amphibian due to an electrical short then Canadian Forces Base Trenton sent out a helicopter to ‘rescue’ him from his warm, cozy bed. That kicked off yet another research project for the big kid who has had his hand in so many Canadian scientific innovations.

Many of those have reached beyond the skies outside his Ottawa-area home and into the stars.

Long before the search-and-rescue coup, Maynard supplied resources to the team to launch Canada’s first satellites into space. He also moved to Saskatchewan to build the second-largest (at the time) radar to keep an eye out for any invading Russians. The project was funded by the United States Air Force.

Canadian Space Pioneer

While his initial missions focused on national security, the nerd inside Maynard always embraced the science that pushed for new limits. That’s what kept him engaged in the field until he retired in 1986, yet still consults in the aerospace industry to this day.

As he looks back on his career at age 87, he delights at the impact he had on launching space-related projects. He also notes how politics gutted some of the key agencies that drive innovation forward. While he managed to salvage some major talents and move vital work into the private sector, it’s up to the next generation to carry the ball forward.

The Early Years

Maynard smiles widely as he notes he was born at the right time in history. He was just a kid when men came back from the Second World War. While they were off fighting, fewer people trained as engineers. When Maynard graduated as a self-described mediocre student from the University of Toronto in 1956, he had more than 22 job offers.

He started work right away with the Defence and Research Telecommunications Establishment in Shirley’s Bay, monitoring arctic communications as the Cold War was building momentum. That is the site where Canadians developed Alouette I and II satellites during the late 1950s and early 1960s. As they orbited, they studied the composition and structure of the Earth’s ionosphere and its impact – and that of solar flares – on radio communications. Their launches made Canada the third nation in the world to go into space.

While Alouette and Canadarm are often hailed as Canada’s greatest space exploration achievements, an entire series of satellites that arose from Canadian labs have also led the way. They have combined the use of solar panel technology and complex, compact systems that have drawn data from the skies to feed new innovations, including space-based radar (by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates), search and rescue, weather satellite data and predictions.

Pioneer Satellite

From 1963 to 1967, Maynard lived in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the site of an 88-foot disc satellite placed at just the right angle to look over the northern horizon. The Prince Albert Radar Laboratory (PARL) also tracked the Russians’ satellites to see where they were going and when they would land back on Earth. If anything moved within 1,000 miles above, the radar recorded its every move. These early satellites measured signals which were hard to detect from the ground due to intermittent solar flares and the aurora borealis (northern lights).

During the same period, the huge radar — second in size only to one in the United States — bounced radar signals off the surface of Venus. A special computer was built there to read the weakening signals as they returned to Earth from 27 million miles away over a span of a five-minute return trip. Again, this ground-breaking world put Canada at the forefront of space exploration alongside the U.S., Britain and the then-USSR.

Maynard also expanded his knowledge outside of work, earning his master’s degree in physics at the University of Saskatchewan.

“I was like a kid in a candy store,” Maynard recalls of these exploratory years. “I loved getting up in the morning and going into the lab.”

From Defence to Communications

Ultimately, the work of Maynard and his colleagues moved from the Ministry of Defence to the Ministry of Communications. After all, defence personnel were interested in scientific research.

That’s where the plane comes into the story.

In 1977, Maynard parked his new plane on the Mississippi River outside his home in the small town of Almonte. In the middle of the night, he was awakened by the sound of a military helicopter hovering outside with lights flashing into his windows. When the military threatened to fine him thousands of dollars for the ‘rescue’ mission, he told them he wouldn’t pay.

But a light went off in his head.

“I wanted to prevent that type of satellite beacon from replicating that wrong signal,” Maynard says.

As Director of Space Applications within the federal Space Systems Group, he quietly began diverting his staff’s time to the project. What began as a discussion over coffee grew to discuss how space technology could shorten searches to save money and, most vitally, time when planes crash in harsh conditions, such as the arctic. That marked the genesis of the Search And Rescue SATellite system.

He brainstormed with LeRoy Pearce, Doug Lambert and Menno Stoffels and they realized the best approach would be to create one unique signature from each ELT that would transmit through a particular orbiting satellite via the Doppler shift on the carrier frequency. Without a budget to pursue their research, they felt limited.

At the time, the amateur radio operators were using an orbiting satellite, named OSCAR, uplink to the satellite frequency needed so the team began working on a demonstration together, pulling Allen Winter to join them.

They developed a signal-processing technique that used an orbital-elements-based prediction software package to locate the satellite in its orbit along with an accelerating hill-climbing optimization package to create two curves: one for the observed signal Doppler shift and that assumed the ‘found’ location of the downed craft. That produced the likely region of the crash location on a second satellite pass.

“Once we got into it, the need for it became so obvious,” Maynard says. “At the time, people never considered locating crashed airplanes as a big issue.”

Without a military application, it would be hard to find the money to go any further, other than saving money for military personnel out on domestic searches. The amateur radio group allowed the test to proceed as Maynard and his crew continued to fly under the radar. They tested it by hiding an emergency locator transmitter under foliage in northern Quebec and quickly found it. The Associate Assistant Deputy Minister of DND was so impressed that he offered his full support.

Then, NASA jumped aboard.

Engineer Bernie Trudell within that agency had been working on a similar concept and was thrilled with the Canadians’ success. He convinced NASA to sign on as a partner and to share the costs of a US/Canada cooperative venture. They spent $60 million to put a package on a satellite already scheduled for launch to ‘listen’ for beacons and rebroadcast them back to Earth.

“The SARSAT project went on to become an international cooperative program with the USSR, France, US and Canada that resulted in an operational system that to date has resulted in the saving of many lives through a significant saving in the search time,” according to Daniel Levesque, a French researcher who has written a full history of the project. “The Canadian industry played a significant role in this phase of the project so as to achieve an operational SARSAT system.”

At this point, more than 200 nations used this technology, Maynard adds. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Authority, this technology has saved more than 48,000 lives since it became widely used in 1982.

A New Phase of Innovation

After this success, Maynard was tapped to manage Canadian Astronautics as its vice-president of its radar and communications division. This took him away from the lab and into the role of constantly defending his budget expenses. After 10 stressful years and a major heart attack, he retired in 1986.

He immediately found more joy and purpose in the private sector.

His company, AstroCom Associates, not only leveraged his expertise, but it also allowed him to hire the best talents who were exiting the Canadian government in droves. The federal government had become enamoured with the flashy astronautic program and less interested in scientific research, he noted. As scientists were laid off, he hired 20 of the top researchers so they could keep doing their vital work alongside people from other tech firms, such as Canadian General Electric.

“The Shirley’s Bay labs went from being an outstanding world centre to inconsequential,” he said with heartbreak clear in his voice.

At the same time, he has lobbied federal ministers to keep Canadian tech firms — and their security data — out of American hands. After all, he has proven that homegrown talent can easily keep pace with scientists and innovators all over the world.

“What’s lacking is the high-risk innovation to really do the break-through work,” he notes. “We need to do the work that defies political will, which is what I did.”

(Photos courtesy of the Communications Research Centre, all taken during Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s visit to PARL in the 1960s.)

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Space Program Pioneer Reflects on the Past and Future for Exploration

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