The next time The Canadarm delicately unfurls itself from a space shuttle, one can imagine it waving a fond adieu to its godfather: John MacNaughton.
While a mechanical engineer by trade, it was Mr. MacNaughton's creative and visionary approach to marketing that helped to bring international star power to the Canadarm and launched Canada into a new age of robotics and telecommunications.
In the 1970s, NASA had presented Canada with a challenge of astronomical proportions: Develop a giant arm to be carried aboard the Space Transportation System, now commonly referred to as the space shuttle. Believing that Spar Aerospace had the capacity to build something called a Shuttle Remote Manipulator System, or SRMS, Mr. MacNaughton convinced Ottawa, and Spar itself, that this was where Canada's future lay in the space business.
"John had a strong belief on how to market to the government," said Dr. Phil Lapp, a long-time friend and colleague at Spar Aerospace. "The key to his approach was to come up with the idea, and then convince the government it was their own concept and let the government run with it."
Then vice-president of marketing and planning, Mr. McNaughton dazzled NASA and Ottawa with what might be called reverse salesmanship. When he was done, Ottawa was completely on side and the SRMS had been officially renamed the Canadarm. Decked out with a red "Canada" logo, it was identified by millions of television viewers every time the shuttle's cameras broadcast it on the job in orbit. The same logo could easily have been pasted across John MacNaughton, too. The only child of a retired postmaster general of Saskatchewan and a schoolteacher, he was raised in Victoria, B.C., and groomed by his parents for a career in medicine. Instead, he displayed an early aptitude for engineering and built model boats, airplanes, and mail-order home radio kits -- all constructed to amuse himself and his friends. It was a passion for things mechanical that never abated. The summer before he was expected to leave for medical school at McGill University in Montreal, a friend decided to study engineering in Britain. That was enough for John McNaughton. With the financial support of a wealthy uncle, he soon followed.
At the de Havilland Technical School in Hatfield, England, and later London University's Hatfield College, he started buying and repairing cars and motorcycles. According to his wife, whom he met during his four-year stay in England, he owned three of each during that time.
On his 350 c.c. Velocette motorcycle, Mr. MacNaughton sped through the English countryside, his face as close as possible to both the ground and his feet. It was as near to an epiphany as most of us ever experience. "The sensation of man and machine working together as parts of the same whole sealed his decision to spend a lifetime with designs and mechanisms," said Dr. Lapp.
Back home in Canada, he found an emerging space program. In 1954, Mr. MacNaughton started work in the guided-missile division of de Havilland Aircraft. There he developed design systems for such missiles as the Velvet Glove, Sparrow 2 and Bomark. Later, he worked on the STEM antennas employed by Alouette I, Canada's first satellite. In 1967, de Havilland decided to shut down its space research division, leading a group of its employees -- Mr. MacNaughton included -- to found Spar Aerospace.
In the early years of Spar, he was involved in a broad series of space projects and programs, including the Manned Space Program, ISIS, Skylark and Dragon. Working with governments, industry, and academics, his insights into the business often showed him to be much more than an engineer. He was, said Dr. Lapp, "a visionary who could envision final products and then find the optimum pathway to completion."
At times, though, Mr. MacNaughton, saw himself more as a humble cog in a wheel.
"I remember well the night the first Gemini manned spacecraft circled the Earth," he told a group in 1992. "I was a young engineer immersed in the fledgling space industry. I was leaving work late one night and I looked up and saw a full moon. I thought: 'It's incredible, the things we have designed, touched, and agonized over are going there, they'll land there, and they'll become a monument to all of our efforts.' "
For all that, as the founding chairman of the Aerospace Industry Association of Canada's space committee, he went on to develop the AIAC's policy paper on space, which was instrumental in convincing the government to build the Canadarm and its successors.
Yet John MacNaughton did more than establish Canada's reputation in aerospace technology. He was not just the ship's captain, sitting Picard-esque on the bridge, commanding his crew to "make it so." Instead, he preferred to roll up his sleeves and show how it could be done. In 1989, he was appointed president and CEO of the company. It was not a happy time for the company. Morale had plummeted after the loss of several large contracts, and mismanagement had led to the balkanization of some divisions and to dissent and hostility among executives.
"I couldn't get these guys to address the issues," Mr. MacNaughton once told Report on Business. "Basically their attitude was 'It's your problem, you fix it.' "
Mr. MacNaughton's idea of a repair job centred on his fascination with a new piece of technology -- the microprocessor -- and its potential to change the face of the space-and-telecommunications industry. A few years earlier, he had arranged for Spar to buy a San Diego-based developer of satellite ground terminals, an acquisition that put the company at the centre of a highly competitive consumer electronics field. Little by little, he turned Spar's fortunes around by expanding commercial business and moving into international communications and software.
After his retirement from Spar in 1996, he continued as a board member and director of such groups as the National Quality Institute, an organization devoted to the improvement of organizational quality and workplace health standards in Canada. "He would come in to the NQI office and sit in his shirtsleeves and get at it with flipcharts and things. And the next day he'd be sitting in a boardroom and talking about why Canadian business leaders should look seriously at this and why it's important," recalls John Perry, a senior adviser at the institute.
All the same, space travel remained his true passion. For 40 years, he made Vero Beach, Fla., his winter retreat and he would sit on the beach in front of his condo and watch as rockets and space shuttles launched from nearby Kennedy Space Center lit up the sky.
A lifetime collector of gadgets and electronics, his Mississauga, Ont., home was filled to capacity with the latest cellphones, TVs, portable DVD players, large-band radios, PDAs, and BlackBerries -- culminating in the recent purchase of a GPS unit. "He didn't need it to navigate," his children wrote in a eulogy. "He cherished it because on its display he could watch the various satellites lock into his co-ordinates on Earth."
In 1997, Mr. MacNaughton was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.
John David Francis MacNaughton was born on April 10, 1932, in Moose Jaw, Sask. He died of heart arrhythmia on May 12, 2006. He was 74. He is survived by his wife, Joy, his daughter Jane and two sons, Paul and Neil.