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Super tool: Canada enshrines robot space arm in museum

For 30 years, the Canadarm was the space shuttle's right hand in orbit. It now has a place in the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

Arm in arm: Astronaut Jeffrey A. Hoffman rides the Canadarm during a spacewalk on a 1993 Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. NASA

It was once described as a "glorified crane," but was so much more than that.

Tireless cargo handler, astronaut platform, and critical inspection tool, the Canadarm was an essential component of NASA's space shuttle fleet from 1981 to 2011.

This past week, it became a permanent exhibit at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa.

"This exhibit commemorates an important part of our history in space," Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore said at a ceremony to unveil the exhibit. "The Canadarm is a symbol of our country's ingenuity and expertise in space robotics. It has positioned Canada as a leader in space."

Designed and built by SPAR Aerospace, the 50-foot, six-jointed manipulator could move 586,000-pound objects while being controlled by a joystick. It helped launch and repair the Hubble Space Telescope, rescue satellites, resupply the International Space Station, and check the space shuttle for damage following the 2003 Columbia disaster.

It was also used for unexpected tasks. When astronauts discovered potentially hazardous ice that had built up on a shuttle vent in 1984, they tapped it with the Canadarm and it broke off. Problem solved.

"It was like an extension of your own arm," astronaut Joe Engle, its first operator, was quoted as saying by NASA on the Canadarm's 25th anniversary.

"I was just enamored with how neat it was, how much like the human arm it was. How intuitive it was to use the arm. It was my first exposure to real robotics."

Five Canadarms, officially called Shuttle Remote Manipulator Systems, were built for NASA, each emblazoned with the distinctive "Canada" wordmark.

The arm from the Space Shuttle Endeavor, which logged 944 workdays in space and hundreds of millions of miles, is now on display in the museum.

Check out some pictures from three decades of the Canadarm at work in the gallery below.