Apparently, all you had to say was “Phil” to anyone in Canada’s aerospace industry over the past five decades, and they would know you were talking about Philip Lapp.
Virtually a household name in the world of aeronautical engineering in this country, the tireless Dr. Lapp tallied a string of accomplishments: He helped build Canada’s first satellite; worked on the early NASA capsules and on the doomed Avro Arrow project; was chief engineer at de Havilland Canada; and co-founded SPAR Aerospace, which built the first Canadarm.
Dr. Lapp, in a nutshell, helped launch Canada into space. In 1967, he co-authored the so-called Chapman Report, which kick-started this country’s space policy. It recommended using Canadian satellite and space know-how for commercial purposes, such as communications and resource management, instead of focusing solely on scientific research.
While the report’s namesake, Dr. John Chapman, is deemed the father of the Canadian space program, Dr. Lapp “is considered one of its main architects and was instrumental in launching Canada in space over half a century ago,” noted the Canadian Space Agency.
Dr. Lapp died of cancer north of Toronto on Sept. 25 at the age of 85. He leaves his wife, Colleen, children David, Douglas and Aimee, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Dr. Lapp’s is “a helluva story,” said his long-time friend Peter Frise, a University of Windsor engineering professor and CEO of AUTO21, a car industry research network. “He became probably the most eminent and accomplished engineer-businessman in the last 50 years in Canada.”
Over his career as an engineer, consultant and entrepreneur, Dr. Lapp had a hand in virtually every aerospace advance in this country, either directly or indirectly. A founder and former president of the Canadian Academy of Engineering, he established the Canadian Astronautical Society, which was folded into a new agency, the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute, in 1962. Also that year, NASA launched the Alouette 1, on which he’d worked. It was Canada’s first satellite, making Canada the third country in space, after the Soviet Union and the United States.
He also contributed antennas for NASA’s Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space capsules, and was part of the team that built the hydrofoil HMCS Bras D’Or, the fastest unarmed warship in the world.
At Expo 67 in Montreal, he helped design and manage the “Man in Control?” pavilion, which featured early robotics and examples of automation and posed questions about human shortcomings (thus the question mark).
In 1995, he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada. “He was a contributor to literally dozens of task forces, committees, major studies and boards of directors,” said Prof. Frise, who considered Dr. Lapp a mentor.
Philip Alexander Lapp was born in Toronto in 1928, the only son of Toronto dentist Jack Lapp and his wife, Victoria, a former ballerina. An unremarkable student, he preferred football and running the sound system during school dances to studying.
He completed his degree in engineering physics at the University of Toronto in 1950. No sooner did he finish his PhD thesis, on the method of calculating the trajectory of missiles at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, than it was classified a secret. The actual designation was “NOFORN,” meaning no foreigners could read it. As a Canadian, Dr. Lapp himself could not keep a copy.
He was recruited by de Havilland aircraft in 1954 to pioneer infrared sensors on the so-called Velvet Glove guided missiles that were to go into the Avro Arrow. The CF-105 Arrow, as the storied plane was known, was to be the world’s most advanced fighter jet, intended to serve as the Royal Canadian Air Force’s primary interceptor of Soviet planes.
But in 1959, the government of John Diefenbaker famously cancelled the Arrow. All existing jets, machinery, models and plans were abruptly destroyed. Prof. Frise, who edited Dr. Lapp’s unpublished memoirs, An Engineer from the Beach, recalled that Dr. Lapp never spoke of the project.
He was just 33 years old when he was named chief engineer at de Havilland Canada.
Dr. Lapp was one of the founders of SPAR Aerospace, formed in 1967 when the “special projects” division spun off from de Havilland and merged with a research unit from Avro Canada. Appointed a senior vice-president, he left two years later to set up his own firm, Philip A. Lapp Ltd., which specialized in services including space instrumentation, engineering education, government science program planning and policy design, public broadcasting and, eventually, information technology.
But he remained on SPAR’s board, helping to realize the Canadarm. Emblazoned with a Canada logo and flag, the robotic arm’s first flight was aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1981. It went on to fix the Hubble telescope and shake hands with its successor, Canadarm2.
In an interview with The Canadian Press two years ago, Dr. Lapp discussed the 50th anniversary of the historic first human space flight by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. “When Gagarin was in orbit, it’s probably fair enough to say that I was frustrated that we, the Western world, were beaten by the Russians again with putting a man in space,” Dr. Lapp said. “That was quite an achievement. I had to mix my feelings with an admiration that the Russians were able to do it.”
As for his own considerable accomplishments in space technology, Dr. Lapp remained self-effacing. “We didn’t blow that horn loudly,” he told CP. “Probably we should have. But this is the Canadian way, you know. So we didn’t make the exaggerated statements that you hear from other parts of the world.”