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Holly Johnson grew up with her eyes on the stars in a family full of engineers. She also happened to be down the street from MDA’s headquarters, where she now runs the space and robotics program developing the AI-enabled Canadarm3

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Sahar Rana/The Globe and Mail

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To understand Holly Johnson’s rocket-like rise to the senior ranks of space tech company MDA, where she oversees one of Canada’s greatest feats of engineering wizardry—the Canadarm program—there may be no better place to start than the cold, forbidding reaches of...Minnetonka, Minn.

Early last decade, fresh out of university, Johnson joined MDA as a junior engineer, working on a team that ensured the 17-metre-long Canadarm2 robotic arm performed its tasks as expected on the International Space Station. But at the urging of a manager and mentor, she soon took on an opportunity considerably smaller in scale, though not importance. Johnson was given the job of leading the design, development and testing of Neuroarm, a two-armed robotic system, inspired by Canadarm, capable of being guided by a surgeon to extract tumours from patients’ brains while inside an MRI machine.

For Johnson, that meant pulling some midnight shifts at a hospital in Calgary, shadowing surgeons to understand their workflow and environment. It also entailed at least one frigid February trip to a medical equipment customer in Minnesota—”the coldest weather I’ve ever experienced,” she recalls—to do integration testing shoulder to shoulder with the client.

Johnson draws a direct line between that experience and her current role as MDA’s vice-president of robotics and space operations, where she sits at the vanguard of Canada’s space ambitions. The opportunity “redirected” the trajectory of her career, she says, and ingrained in her the importance of keeping the end user at the centre of the engineering process: “Often as engineers, we get deep into the details and technical design that we think are good, but we have to zoom out and remind ourselves of the end user, whether that’s a neurosurgeon or an astronaut.”

At 37, Johnson’s 14-year tenure at MDA spans a period of remarkable change for the space industry, not to mention the company. As an intern at MDA in 2008, she worked with the original Canadarm, which flew aboard space shuttle missions. That was a time when space exploration was still largely the purview of vast government agencies.

Now, commercial enterprises are reshaping the cosmos. The private space industry was valued at more than US$420 billion last year, according to market intelligence company Euroconsult, and it’s estimated to grow to US$737 billion within a decade. So as Johnson leads development of the third generation of MDA’s signature technology, Canadarm3, she and her team have made commercialization a priority. “It’s a cultural shift to go from building something that is specific to a government procurement requirement to designing, building and selling five of the exact same thing for other customers,” she says.

Since taking the helm at the robotics and space division in January 2022, first in an acting capacity and then permanently in July, Johnson has ramped up MDA’s robotics and space division, adding 400 new employees and nearly doubling revenue to $194 million last year.

Under her watch, MDA has signed several critical deals. The highest-profile of those was a $269-million agreement with the Canadian Space Agency to complete the design phase of Canadarm3, the highly autonomous robotic system that will be part of the NASA-led Gateway station orbiting the moon. In another deal linked to NASA’s ambitious Artemis lunar program, which aims to return humans to the moon by 2025 (including Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen) and eventually send them to Mars, MDA joined a consortium with Lockheed Martin and General Motors to develop the next generation of robotic arm–equipped lunar rovers. The latest federal budget set aside $1.2 billion over 13 years for the CSA to put toward a lunar vehicle program.

But even before Canadarm3 makes it to the moon, technology derived from it is set to be deployed on the world’s first private space station, Axiom Station, which will take over from the ISS when it’s decommissioned in 2031. MDA signed two deals last year for robotic interfaces ahead of the launch of the first Axiom station modules in 2024.

Johnson was born obsessed with all things space. She grew up in Brampton, Ont., and her environmental engineer father would regularly point out the nearby headquarters of MDA—then known as Macdonald, Dettwiler and Associates—and its groundbreaking work on the first Canadarm. (During a trip to Disney World when she was around eight, her parents made a side trip to the Kennedy Space Center to catch a shuttle launch.) Her earliest memories are visits to her uncle’s cottage in Algonquin Park, far from the light pollution of the big city, and him pointing out the satellites as they passed by overhead.

When she applied for an internship at MDA as an engineering student at the University of Toronto, she was emphatic that she was the right fit for the company. “I remember telling the person I interviewed with, ‘I will not be the highest-ranked student in the class, but I promise I have the biggest passion for the work you do at MDA,’” she says.

That enthusiasm became Johnson’s hallmark, says the manager who recommended her for the Neuroarm assignment. “When you plan for shuttle missions and space missions every day for many years, you can lose sight of how exciting this job is,” says Mike Hiltz, a mission operations manager. “Holly’s energy and enthusiasm were a nice reminder.”

While the Neuroarm project gave Johnson a taste of leadership, she got her first exposure to MDA’s executive ranks in 2017, when she was appointed to a leadership-development role as chief of staff to then president Mike Greenley. “I often say I got more than I bargained for,” she says.

At the time, MDA was still owned by U.S.-based Maxar Technologies, which was under pressure from investors and quietly put MDA up for sale. Greenley made Johnson the point person on the sale process, which eventually saw a Canadian consortium led by Nova Scotia entrepreneur John Risley and BlackBerry co-founder Jim Balsillie acquire MDA for $1 billion in early 2020. A year later, when MDA went public, Greenley again turned to Johnson, then the company’s head of business operations. “Holly was the interface between MDA and the buyers and bankers through the entire process, with responsibility for responding to the several thousand questions that come with that kind of process,” says Greenley, who today is MDA’s CEO.

Greenley credits Johnson with introducing a “product-management mindset” to MDA’s robotics and space division, and initiating the commercialization of Canadarm3 technologies into the private space sector.

MDA has already produced hundreds of grapple fixtures, a mechanism affixed to objects like satellites and space-station modules that allows robotic arms to latch onto them. During a tour of MDA’s hangar-like lab, Johnson cocks her “engineer’s ear” toward a repetitive ticking sound coming from one corner, where two engineers use a thermal vacuum chamber to test a grapple under extreme conditions. “It’s not a car manufacturing plant where we produce dozens a day but it’s higher-volume repeat product,” she says, “and with the commercial robotic arms, we’re trying to get to that point.”

To that end, MDA is in the process of moving out of its cramped headquarters, with its warren of grey-brown shoulder-high cubicles, into a larger, newly constructed building, complete with an expanded lab facility and dedicated space for manufacturing, assembling and testing. The site will also feature multiple mission control centres. Whereas past robotic arms were operated by NASA or the CSA, Canadarm3 will be operated by MDA—whether the device is on the private Axiom station 400 kilometres away or 400,000 kilometres away on the moon.

There are any number of other “art of the possible” uses, too. As Johnson shows off relics from MDA’s past, like the space shuttle cockpit simulator astronauts once used to train on the original Canadarm, the opportunities she sees for the company’s robotics pour out: Mars missions, in-orbit manufacturing, large space-based solar arrays, lunar mining, the removal of space debris. “We’re not going to launch a Canadarm3 and have it be a one-off,” she says. “We’re going to launch it, and have multiple versions and commercial derivatives for all these emerging applications.”

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Photo illustration: Sahar Rana/The Globe and Mail

In the meantime, down on Earth, Johnson sees a role for herself in mentoring other women to pursue careers in the science, technology, engineering and math fields. She credits the support of family, mentors and her colleagues at MDA for allowing her to “be as ambitious as I want to be” but acknowledges “it’s not very common to see a woman step into increasing leadership positions in general, but in particular in unique fields such as space.”

That’s changing, she says, and as the space market explodes, opportunities will only grow, especially as Canada plays a bigger role in the sector. “This isn’t something that has to be south of the border,” she says. “You don’t have to go to NASA to have an exciting career in space.”

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