The Avro Arrow has gone down as one of the great “what ifs” of Canadian history, but its cancellation in 1959 may have also contributed to one of the greatest technological achievements in human history.
When the Diefenbaker government killed the Arrow project, some of its best and brightest engineering minds were recruited by NASA and would make important contributions to putting Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon on July 20, 1969, during the Apollo 11 mission.
“Basically, one of the worst things to happen to Avro was one of the best things to happen to NASA,” historian Erin Gregory said. “The Avro engineers have been described by NASA recruiters as a godsend.”
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Bryan Erb was one of the Canadian engineers poached by NASA. Today, he lives in Houston, Texas, not far from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where he used to work.
Erb’s career took a turn on what came to be known in Canadian aviation history as “Black Friday” — Feb. 20, 1959.
Everyone had heard rumblings that the government was considering cancelling the Arrow project, but Erb says it didn’t make the day any less of a shock.
When the government finally pulled the plug, Erb says the company tried to make it ugly. He was working in a room with about 400 engineers when the announcement came over the public address system.
“There was a ‘now, hear this,’” Erb recalled. “’As of now, all employment is terminated. You can come back Monday and Tuesday to pick up your belongings.’ It was that abrupt. Wow.”
WATCH: When the Avro Arrow program was cancelled in 1959, the brain drain began.
At the time, Jim Chamberlin was Avro’s chief of technical design, a role that had put him in contact with officials at NASA. Suddenly out of work, he reached out. NASA recruiters reacted quickly. Within weeks, they were in Canada for interviews. Hundreds of out-of-work Avro engineers applied.
“Right off the top, they hired 25,” space historian Chris Gainor said. “In the months that followed, they hired six more.”
Chamberlin, originally from Kamloops, B.C., was scooped up immediately. He would go on to become the chief designer of the Gemini spacecraft program then help design the Apollo program that would take men to the moon.
Chamberlin, who passed away in 1981, would also be instrumental in planning the orbital rendezvous system of having the astronauts land on the moon using a landing module that had been attached to the main spacecraft.
While all Avro engineers were working at the plant in Malton, Ont., not all were Canadian. About half of the group hired by NASA was British.
One of the Canadians was Owen Maynard, originally from Sarnia, Ont. He was a designer on the Arrow project.
Maynard’s son Ross was six years old when the family moved to the U.S., just two months after Black Friday.
“We moved to Virginia in April of 1959 — that’s pretty quick,” Ross Maynard said.
Owen Maynard would join the agency as a project engineer on Mercury, NASA’s first spacecraft. But he’d go on to important roles on Project Apollo, the craft that would eventually land Armstrong and Aldrin on the lunar surface.
Officially, Maynard and the other Canadians were classified as “foreign alien scientists,” but it never seemed to hold them back.
“My father was shocked by the stuff they let him do and the authority he was given,” Ross Maynard said. “He’d always say something like, ‘They’re crazy.’”
WATCH: Apollo lunar lander’s legs were built in Quebec
The space race was already in full force, having been kicked off on Oct. 4, 1957, with the Soviet Union’s launch of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik.
The little satellite didn’t do anything more than emit a beeping sound, but the fact it was in orbit overhead rattled Americans. It was the height of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union seemed to have the upper hand.
A year later, U.S. Congress passed legislation setting up a civilian agency responsible for co-ordinating the country’s activities in space, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Thirty engineers from Avro joined NASA in 1959 at a time when the agency’s Space Task Group only had about 100.
“Our contribution to Mercury in the Space Task Group was considerable,” Erb said.
A decade later, Erb would replace his family’s small black-and-white television and purchase a new colour console TV for the Apollo 11 mission. The night of July 20, 1969, with Armstrong and Aldrin set to walk on the moon, Erb hosted a party of friends.
Erb calls it one of the singular moments of his life, although he did have a strange first reaction.
By 1969, he was part of the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, the group that would receive the moon rocks collected by the astronauts. As the world marvelled at the fact a man was walking on the moon, Erb said he wanted Armstrong to get back to work.
“At one point, I was quoted as saying: ‘Quit jumping and pick up the damn rocks,” he said.
This is Part 2 of Canada’s Footprint, a three-part online series on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and Canada’s involvement in it. You can read Part 1 here.
You can also find other stories and videos on the moon landing here on Globalnews.ca.
Also, watch Mike Armstrong’s documentary, ‘The Moon Landing and the Maple Leaf.’