A bird, a plane? It’s the Alouette!

Listening to the radio, watching television, and using our GPS navigation systems are all forms of technology that today’s society considers to be the norm and takes advantage of. Yet, all these privileges would not have been possible without Canada’s initiative to study the Earth’s atmosphere and launch its satellite, the Alouette 1, in 1962.

The Alouette http://www.sciencephoto.com/media/334327/view
(Accessed February 28, 2018)

The launching of the Alouette is a significant moment in Canadian technology, nationalism, and international relations. The Canadian satellite, successfully launched in California on September 29, 1962, provided valuable information on the ionosphere for ten years. The program was headed by the Canadian Defense Telecommunications Establishment in association with a NASA program that was interested in mapping the ionosphere. The program successfully strengthened Canada’s position in space exploration, technology, and made it one of three nations, at the time, to have a satellite in orbit. Canada’s involvement in early space exploration connected the country to Great Britain and the United States under the Diefenbaker government- a controversial partnership, but one that was hoped to secure Canada a share in American and British developments. Canada’s involvement with the United States’ space program also has relations to the Cold War and the two country’s territorial proximity. Regardless of the relationships used to create the Alouette, the launch consolidated Canada’s position as a powerfully, advanced country- particularly because of its research on the ionosphere. The satellite, which was removed a decade after its launch, showed the international community that the country of less than a century old was an influential force in international relations and technological development. The 1962 launching of the Alouette is significant in marking Canada as a major technological player within the international community and promoting a new shift in direction, from European partnerships to one with an American focus.

What is the Alouette?

How Satellites Work
(Accessed: February 28, 2018)

The Alouette was the first spacecraft to be designed and constructed entirely by Canadians. It was built to study the ionosphere, an electrically charged layer of the upper atmosphere, with aims of advancing communication possibilities. The idea was to have radio waves bounce off the ionosphere, thereby allowing information to be transmitted over long distances. Previous methods of communication were also unreliable because signals were often disrupted by the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights. The Alouette was designed to understand such phenomena and develop methods to improve communicative technology.

With its unique structure of a 150-foot antenna, it remains the “longest aboard any space vehicle to date.”[1] This structure, designed by the Canadian, George Klein, allowed the satellite to receive and transmit radio waves over a wide range of frequencies.

After the First World War, Canada’s science program was largely undeveloped. However, starting in the 1930s, as the Second World War was transpiring, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) began researching the ionosphere, as improvements in communication technology could benefit the Canadian Navy.[2] During the 1940s, much of the research was conducted by the National Research Council of Canada (NRC). However, with the emergence of the Cold War, a separate board was set up, the Defence Research Board (DRB). Its branch, the Defence Research Telecommunication Establishment (DRTE), was responsible for studying the lower layers of the ionosphere. After understanding these lower layers, interests to study the upper atmosphere garnered national attention in 1957, especially following the Soviet Union’s successful launch of their satellite on October 4, 1947.[3]

1961: Alouette engineering team                      (From the left to right: C.A. Franklin, R.K. Brown, J. Barry) http://www.friendsofcrc.ca/Projects/Alouette/Photos/61r0479.jpg                      (Accessed: February 28, 2018)

John H. Chapman http://physics.uwo.ca/images/history/people/John_Chapman_allouette.jpg                              (Accessed February 28, 2018)

As a result, Canadians and Americans united to discuss possibilities of building a satellite that could bounce radio waves off the top of the ionosphere, working with knowledge already understood involving ground-based radio waves and lower levels of the ionosphere. In 1958, the DRB then proposed building the “topside sounder” which would satisfy such objectives.[4] Together, America’s NASA and the Canadian government began working on launching a vehicle, which they named Alouette 1; Canada would design, build, and fund the satellite, while NASA would be responsible for launching it. Thus, a team of scientists under the direction of John H. Chapman, a physicist at the DRTE, would be responsible for developing Canada’s first satellite. The official launching of the satellite further marked this historic moment.

3-2-1: Blast off!

By September 29, 1962, the Canadians had successfully constructed the first satellite that could reach Earth’s furthest atmosphere. The Alouette 1 was launched into space from Point Arguello, California near Vandenberg, an American air force base.

Vandenburg Air Force Base
(Accessed February 28, 2018)

It was a black and silver satellite, 34 inches high and 42 across, weighing 320 pounds. At 2:05 am Toronto time, only 14 minutes behind the estimated time of launching, the missile lifted. At first, it flamed into life in the 95-foot American Thor-Agena B rocket on the launching pad. Then, it slowly began to rise in the airs in a cloud of orange and blue flames. As it accelerated, it made a monstrous noise and went straight up, too bright to be looked at with bare eyes, until it quickly faded in the sky and disappeared. Six minutes later, it was 600 miles downrange, running perfectly well. At 3:01 am, the Alouette went into orbit high over the coast of Madagascar. A US tracking station established in College, Alaska watched over the satellite as it began to probe the ionosphere. The satellite now circled the earth every 105 minutes, never getting closer than 150 miles from Toronto and never again visible to the eyes.[5]

Canadian and American Scientists celebrated the launch that they described as a “complete success.”[6] They expected the satellite to send information about the ionosphere for at least a month. Although the Alouette was designed to operate for an entire year, scientists were cautious to make such claims, as they were wary about raising expectations. After all, it was Canada’s first major satellite. To NASA, they stated that it would operate for three months; to the public, they shortened its life expectancy to one month. Collected ionospheric data was sent directly to multiple stations around the world: ones in Britain, America, and Canada.

The Alouette project began in 1959 when Canada joined the NASA program regarding ionosphere mapping. This program, contributions made by Chapman and his scientists, and the successful launch of Alouette immediately strengthened Canada, as it gained an international reputation for its advancement in science and technology as the third nation to enter space.[7]

1960s Canada: Beginning a New Era

Due to the technological advancements exhibited through the launch of the Alouette, a powerful, modern Canadian identity was established. As previously discussed, Canada was not a leader in the scientific world prior to the Second World War; it was severely lacking and inferior to other countries, especially when compared to the United States. With the discovery of the ionosphere making a headway at the end of the Second World War, Canadian governments quickly recognized the importance of scientific developments.[8] Furthermore, Canada had attained considerable recognition and reputation amongst its allies as a leader in this field, and both the United States and the United Kingdom took a serious interest in supporting further efforts after the war.[9] The Alouette had exceeded worldwide expectations; It marked the beginning of Canada’s recognition as a respected country, especially in the field of science and technology. Canada continued to progress throughout the decade, which propelled Canada’s ranking in the realm of science.

“For a brief period, Canada surpassed all other Western allies and nations … with a demonstration of advanced technical capability then matched only by the Americans and the Soviets. Not even the launch of the British experimental satellite Ariel 1 in April 1962 attracted as much attention as Alouette 1… Arguably, it was among Canada’s best technological achievements in the early post-war era.”[10]

Today’s Technological Success
(Accessed February 28, 2018)

As a young country, the launching of Alouette 1 in September 1962 was most significant to Canada because it affirmed Canada and its capabilities as a nation. This was an achievement worth honoring; even NASA and the National Academy of Sciences, once skeptical about the launch, complimented Canada on its success and contributions.[11] Broadcasts to private homes over a long distance were now possible; television programs could be distributed across the nation and a trans-Canada telephone system was feasible.[12] Canada’s 1962 achievements allowed society to become more interconnected and instant, making today’s technology possible.

Following its immediate noteworthy achievements in 1962, Canada continued to amaze the world. In February 1967, a 258-page report proposed by Chapman, Upper Atmosphere and Space Programs in Canada, laid out blueprints for Canada’s future space science program; it advocated for the creation of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), a Canadian communications institution with Canadian launching abilities.[13] Through the CSA, research to understanding the Ku-band, a more complex frequency wavelength, began in the 1970s with the satellite Hermes.[14]  Additionally, Canada began to contemplate with the notion of humans in space. It seemed like an outrageous agenda at the time, but on the twentieth anniversary of the launching of Alouette 1, Canada stunned the world once again, with the establishment of the Canadian Astronaut Program.[15] Going from a nation with few expectations to one capable of creating something spectacular and extraordinary that not even technologically advanced nations, like the United States and the United Kingdom, could achieve, the launching of Alouette 1 marks an important point in Canadian history for nationalism and science.

Canada and the United States: “United we stand, divided we fall”

Although the launch of the Alouette marks a turning point in Canadian society, one of the most noticeable effects can be found by looking beyond the Canadian border, to our southerly sister. Canada’s presence in space is intimately connected with its change of focus in international partnership from Great Britain to the United States. Although Prime Minister John G. Diefenbaker was elected on a staunchly anti-American platform, he was well aware that he would have to make some concessions if “Canadian industry is to have a reasonable chance at securing a share in the benefits of the expected United States effort”.[16] In hopes that “Canada may claim status as a junior partner” with the United States, Diefenbaker’s cabinet refused space partnership offers from European countries, who were also excited to use Canada’s north for tests.[17]

Canada and the United States partner up for space
(Accessed February 28, 2018)

In light of this, it is noteworthy that the head of the Canadian Space Program was not a man with scientific know-how but rather the former ambassador to the United States, Norman Robertson.[18] He might not have been a rocket scientist, but he had already rubbed elbows with American diplomats. Considering the constant threat of a nuclear attack posed during the Cold War, it makes perfect sense that Canada wanted to ally itself closely with the United States of America – Russia would not have been an appropriate option. Further, it can be suggested that this partnership was unavoidable (like a conjoined sister) given the territorial proximity of both nations and the necessity of protecting the continent, as a whole, from airborne missiles. Nevertheless, it was understood from the beginning that Canada was not going to be the biggest spender in this partnership. Indeed, “complex space research, orbital research, space stations and lunar and planetary exploration were all politically perceived at the time as well beyond the scope of Canadian financing or national necessity.”[19] Thus, Canada would seek to increase its military proximity to the United States without overspending – a source of grievance felt by Americans even today. As a symbol of the increased importance attached to an American partnership (and this idea of piggy-back riding) as space operations amplified, we would like to reiterate that the Alouette was actually sent to space on the back of a US launcher that took off in California. Despite the Cold War being over and the declaration of space as an international zone, the Canadian shift in focus towards the United States continues to be apparent. The process and result of the Alouette were symbolic on an individual (scientists) and national level (Canada and its partners).

Final Thoughts:

While the launching of a satellite into space is not a celebrated accomplishment in today’s society, that does not appropriately demonstrate the feat of the Alouette in 1962. After the launch of the Alouette, Canada’s contribution to space exploration proved beneficial; Canadian parts were involved in the Apollo 11, Voyager 2, and the space station. Many Canadian astronauts have since voyaged into space and played an incredible role in the understandings of space and science. The Alouette stands out as a moment that matters in Canadian History for multiple reasons. First, the incredible achievements of the Canadian Defense Telecommunications Establishment are, in large, due to a strong partnership between Canada and the United States at this time. Second, the accomplishment of the Alouette itself marks a scientific leap that acted as a pivot in Canadian history. Lastly, the Alouette recognized Canada as an important player in the international community. At a time of tense international relations between countries, Canada, a country of only a few years of age accomplished extraordinary achievements upon the launching of the Alouette, a moment with lasting impacts on technology, international relations, and national identity, still palpable today.


[1] J. O. Thomas, “Canadian Satellite: The Topside Sounder Alouette,” 139, no. 3551 (January 18, 1963): 229.

[2] Christopher Gainor, “Canada’s space program, 1958–1989: A program without an agency,” Acta Astronautica 60, no. 2 (2007): 132.

[3] Ibid.,133.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Paul Rush, “Canada third to have satellite”, Toronto Daily Star (1962, Sep. 29), 1. Retrieved from https://proxy.library.mcgill.ca/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1426387699?accountid=12339

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 4.

[8] Andrew B. Godefroy. Defence and Discovery Canada’s Military Space Program, 1945-74, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011), 8.

[9] Ibid., 22.

[10] Ibid., 95.

[11] Ibid., 109.

[12] Rachel Gotlieb, “”Instant World”: Canada and Space-Age Design in the Sixties,” in Made in Canada: Craft and Design in the Sixties, ed. Alan C. Elder (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 32.

[13] Gainor, “Canada’s space program,” 133.

[14] Ibid., 135.

[15] Ibid., 136.

[16] Andrew B Godefroy, The Canadian Space Program From Black Brant to the International Space Station (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2017), 32

[17] Ibid, 75

[18] Ibid, 21

[19] Ibid, 33.


Alouette Canadian satellite, ca. 1962. NASA/Science photo library.

Atlas Missiles on Alert, 1960. Vandenberg, Ca. Wikiwand.

CRC 61-RPL-0479, 1961. FriendsofCRC. Canada.

Gainor, Christopher. “Canada’s Space Program, 1958–1989: A Program Without An Agency.” Acta Astronautica 60, no. 2 (2007): 132-39. Accessed February 15, 2018. doi:10.1016/j.actaastro.2006.07.006.

Godefroy, Andrew B. Defence and Discovery Canada’s Military Space Program, 1945-74, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011.

Godefroy, Andrew B. The Canadian Space Program From Black Brant to the International Space Station. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2017.

Gotlieb, Rachel. “”Instant World”: Canada and Space-Age Design in the Sixties.” In Made in Canada: Craft and Design in the Sixties, edited by Alan C. Elder, 29-39. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005.

How Satellites Work, July. 2017. ScienceABC.

How Has Technology Changed the World Today in Communications, March 29, 2016. The World Beast.  

John H. Chapman & his Satellite, ca. 1962. Western University.

Luncheon to Promote Cross Border Partnership- Register Today, February 14, 2012. Pacific Customs Brokers Ltd.

Thomas, J. O. “Canadian Satellite: The Topside Sounder Alouette.” 139, no. 3551 (January 18, 1963): 229-32. Accessed February 15, 2018. doi:10.1126/science.139.3551.229 .

Ufoguy1962. “Alouette 1- Canada’s First Satellite”. Youtube video, 1:25. Posted [November 2010]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LXtDXtHe10E.

Rush, Paul. “Canada third to have satellite.” Toronto Daily Star (1962, Sep. 29). Accessed February 16, 2018. https://proxy.library.mcgill.ca/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1426387699?accountid=12339






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