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Hashtag Canadarm

By Dick Bourgeois-Doyle


Last week, my face broke into a broad grin when I saw #Canadarm trending on Twitter.

The hashtag rose through social network ranks with news that our country would build a next generation Canadarm for a new space station that will orbit around the moon. Many other Canadians would have smiled too, pumped up with the pride generated by the word and technological achievement it brands.

But, as an admirer of clever science communications, I curled up the edges of my lips because I recalled how the name “Canadarm” was coined, how it was promoted, and how it came to grab onto the Canadian mind.

The word was first uttered publicly at a 1981 news event by Dr. Larkin Kerwin, then President of the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), the government agency charged with managing the project. Though the name “Canadarm” now strikes many people as natural and apt, it did not catch on immediately nor did it pop off Dr. Kerwin’s lips spontaneously.

His use of the name followed weeks of brainstorming and calculation. To his credit, the late Dr. Kerwin recognized the public engagement limitations of “remote manipulator system,” the official term for the robotic device. The NRC president thus challenged his communications staff to do better, and they generated lots of ideas.

Dr. Kerwin, who later served as head of the Canadian Space Agency, told me in a letter after his retirement that the NRC Communications Branch staff deserved credit for coining the name “Canadarm,” specifically Wally Cherwinski, a Cambridge-trained scientist who fell into sports journalism playing hockey in England leading him into science comms at NRC. Dr. Kerwin lauded Wally and his colleagues for championing the use of the novel name in circumstance that did not always embrace innovation in communications.

One challenge arose from the view that, even though this was a new word, it had an English-only feel and seemed to have no French equivalent. Things like “La bras d'or du Canada” and even “La Bras Nord” were bandied about. But translators felt more comfortable with technical terminology that had some parallel, like “le système de manipulation à distance,” in French. For a long time, government communications products and documentation on the project also biased the ordained “remote manipulator system” terminology in English.

Surprisingly, even some journalists resisted and purposely eschewed use of the word “Canadarm,” perhaps feeling it too cute and suspecting that government communicators may be trying to remotely manipulate the media.

But the NRC Communications Branch staff persisted in flogging the term through NRC materials, verbal conversations, and opportunism.

They, of course, enjoyed the support of their president. But they also had the powerful backdrop of the gigantic Canada wordmark gleaming on the bright white surface of the Canadarm. The wordmark may have been the foundational communications coup in the project.

The requirement to have it displayed prominently on the robot arm came after edgy negotiations with NASA, which had a policy against “billboards in the sky.” The U.S. space agency’s eventual acceptance of a giant Canada and maple leaf flag embedded in the technical specifications attests to how much NASA valued Canadian participation in the Shuttle program. Or, maybe the Americans were happy to have our country tagged with a high profile, experimental device that could very well have failed in the extremes of space.

It, as we all know, did not fail, and the Canadarm’s successful deployment not only brought “smiles all around” (that’s Canadian for jumping up, cheering, and clapping), but also boosted efforts to promote its novel name in hustling media relations.

Around this time, for example, the NRC communications team seized on word that actor James Doohan, "Scotty" on TV's original Star Trek, would be in Ottawa and invited him to the NRC Space Division labs where a model and computer simulations of the Canadarm were on display. Duly coached, he gave media interviews and raved about the technological achievement with repeated reference to “the Canadarm.”

In reviewing the archived CBC story this week , I laughed twice: once when Mr. Doohan said, “it’s amazing that they can do these things with the low budget that they have” and then again at the end of the clip when he got into a car to leave NRC. The aforementioned Dr. Cherwinski jumped into it with him. Many other creative events were staged to link the name and the device.

However, the tipping point came when NASA officials started referencing “the Canadarm,” giving the word a credibility that only external endorsement can. This practice took hold in the wake of the Canadarm’s first flight in 1981 when U.S. astronauts Joseph Engle and Richard Truly came to Canada for a tour that went through Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, and Toronto.

In those days prior to the possibility of bumping into a Canadian astronaut at the mall or supermarket, the Americans had a celebrity that opened doors on Parliament Hill and drew media crowds wherever they went. Despite NASA’s robust science communications support, the U.S. astronauts relied heavily on the media relations team at NRC for briefings and logistical arrangements in this foreign land.

Engle and Truly didn’t need much prompting to speak highly of the Canadian companies and the Canadian contribution to the Shuttle program. They did, however, get distinct encouragement on how to cite it in interviews and news conferences, being told that “here, it’s known as the Canadarm.”

Later, an important milestone was passed when a key media holdout, then CBC Science Reporter Terry Milewski, began filing reports with reference to the “Canadarm.”

Over the next decade, the Canadarm performed as close to flawlessly as defined by any reasonable expectation, and with each success flying in space, its name grew deeper roots on earth.

It is a word now listed in authoritative dictionaries and echoed in the next generation Canadarm2 and Canadarm3. Today the French pages of the Canadian Space Agency website list the system as “Le Canadarm,” cementing the word’s status as the label on a symbol of national pride for all Canadians.

I am not sure how you would measure it, but I am convinced that this recognition and pride would not have been achieved if Canadians were asked to remember and reference it as the “remote manipulator system.” I also believe that big dividends can flow if we support innovation in science communications in tandem with our celebration of scientific and technological innovation.

The unkind might suggest that the replication of Canadarm1, Canadarm2, and Canadarm3 echoes the limited imagination of Hollywood sequels like Hangover 1, 2, and 3. But I smile, preferring to see it as a celebration of clever communications and another effort to innovate in the national interest.

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