MDA Celebrates Fifty Years of Growth and Innovation

Today marks a very important anniversary for MDA, and I am honoured to share in celebrating with the countless employees, partners, suppliers and customers who have helped us reach this fifty-year milestone.

On February 3, 1969, John MacDonald and Vern Dettwiler incorporated MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., or MDA, in the basement of Dr. MacDonald’s Vancouver home. With their vision of solving technical challenges through systems engineering, MDA began to grow and employ local engineering graduates, creating a strong foundation for the fledgling company.

Over the last fifty years, MDA has reached tremendous heights through contract wins and delivery, technological innovation and advancements, and worldwide growth.

By 1971, we were delivering on high-profile contracts including the first Landsat Multispectral Scanner (MSS) demultiplexer, an Earth observation sensor that was placed aboard the first five Landsat satellites. MSS, a scanning system used to collect data over a variety of different wavelength ranges, was followed by the Portable Earth Resources Ground Station, the world’s first low-cost transportable ground receiving system for satellites in 1974. This allowed for reliable access to satellite imagery for satellite operators. 

The assembly of the International Space Station was an astronomical task unlike anything that had ever been done before. When completed, that 400,000 kg structure would have 1,000 cubic meters of pressurized volume comprised of 15 modules; each the size of a large vehicle, trusses 70 meters long, solar panels, airlocks, robotics and various other modules. Each of the elements would need to be carefully aligned on orbit using the ISS robotic systems. This alignment would be no easy task. The Orbiter Space Vision System (OSVS)  was used for over a decade to do the on-orbit measurements needed to support ISS assembly operations, without it connecting the different elements of the ISS would have been impossible.

Canadarm2 (notably memorialized on the Canadian 5 dollar bill) and Dextre built on the success of Canadarm, providing the International Space Station with similar capabilities that Canadarm provided the Space Shuttle. These machines literally built the ISS in space and are still at work to this day. This achievement was recognized with images that grace our 5 dollar bill. MDA’s family of space robots have become iconic of Canadian technology and a source of pride for Canadians.  

The Laser Camera System (LCS) flew as a mandatory system on all Shuttle missions from 2005 onward. Tasked with the important job of ensuring the safe return of the Space Shuttles to Earth at the end of each mission, MDA’s LCS was used to inspect critical parts of the shuttle for damage on orbit and that data was utilized to make critical repair decisions and determine whether the shuttle was safe for re-entry.

MDA’s technology found its way on the ANIK series of satellites and proved to be the workhorse Ku Band capacity that brought TV to many remote locations for the very first time and created a thin route voice network in Northern Canada. Satellite antenna capabilities evolved to world-leading status with MDA’s pioneering efforts in Ka-Band multi-beam antennas. We are currently the leading supplier of satellite antennas and electronics, having our technology integrated into hundreds of programs – a true commercial success story.

MDA went on to position Canada as the world leader in the synthetic aperture radar industry with the successful launch of the RADARSAT-1 mission and ground segment in 1995. Synthetic aperture radar has the ability to see through clouds and image consistently regardless of weather and lighting conditions, proving valuable during natural disasters and 24-hour surveillance operations. This achievement is commemorated on the Canadian 100 dollar bill. In 2007, MDA launched RADARSAT-2 to extend Canada’s leadership in SAR Earth observation. Our upcoming RADARSAT Constellation Mission will further strengthen that position. 

© Canadian Space Agency

MDA is making ground-breaking advancements in supporting the expanding satellite constellation business with its Industry 4.0 manufacturing capability, with experience demonstrated on programs like O3B, OneWeb and Iridium Next.

Technological marvels have appeared in our timeline and include new world leading capabilities in satellite antennas, electronics, and payloads; robotics; systems engineering; and advanced machine vision solutions. MDA robotics are working on Mars and have visited an asteroid.

In 2020, our stereoscopic ExoMars Cameras will provide the ESA’s ExoMars rover with eyes for navigation and localisation. Today, we’re preparing for the next-generation Deep Space Gateway that will create untold opportunities for human space travel.

Asteroid Bennu
Asteroid Bennu Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

In 2017, MDA officially joined the Maxar Technologies family, strengthening our offerings by delivering integrated customer solutions with one common goal, to build a better world. Looking through that list of achievements over last fifty years, it seems we are on our way to doing just that.

While that list may seem exhaustive, it notes only a few of the many feats MDA has seen in its fifty years on Earth and in space. I am very proud of the story MDA has told over the last fifty years, and I look forward to our future achievements in the next fifty.

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