On the Passing of Robin Garland, Canadarm Engineer and Mentor

Late last week, I learned that Robin Garland, my former engineering mentor at MDA had passed away. Almost everything that I value about being an engineer was taught to me by Robin.

With the combination of a pandemic shutdown and me no longer working at MDA, I find myself somewhat distressingly unable to participate in a proper send-off, toasting his passing amongst his peers and mine. So, I thought I’d write up a very abridged history of how this man made me the engineer that I am today.

Twenty years ago, straight out of university, I interviewed for a junior engineer position at MDA (then MDRobotics and formerly SPAR Aerospace). One of my interviewers, who would later become my manager, roughly described the position as, “We’ve got this old guy who knows everything about the Canadarm and if he ever gets hit by a bus, we’re screwed”. They were looking for someone to be Robin’s understudy, downloading his decades of extensive knowledge and experience on the Canadarm. I sometimes wonder just how huge the grin was on my face at that moment in my interview.

If you don’t know the name Robin Garland, not to worry… he wasn’t in any history books. But he was an instrumental part of the team at SPAR that developed the Canadarm for the Space Shuttle. In fact, his career mirrored that of the Shuttle. He was there from the start, involved in the arm’s design & development, build & test, and qualification for spaceflight. He was there for the build of the three follow-on-production Canadarms that gave each of the four Space Shuttles their own arm. He was there for the build of the fifth arm, replacing the one lost in the Challenger accident, assembled from the refurbished qualification hardware built with the first arm. He stayed in the Canadarm program for his entire career as it evolved to a long-term sustaining program, as the company also evolved from SPAR to MDRobotics to MDA. He only retired when the Space Shuttles did the same. He closed out the program that he helped start, effectively turning off the lights as he left.

While the overall sustaining engineering program for the Canadarm at MDA employed well over 100 staff back then, it was the small close-knit Production group in which I worked with Robin and 10 or so other engineers and technologists. We were jointly responsible for the physical maintenance of the Canadarms and their associated subsystems when they came back to us from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for refurbishment, repair, or integration of new upgrades. Each of us had a semi-speciality for the arms’ subsystems and components: gearboxes, motors, end-effectors, brakes & clutches, composite booms, ground-support equipment, testing, software, etc… But Robin’s responsibility was the entire arm. From a technical perspective, he was at the top of the pyramid. He and I would work together to bring an arm in, oversee its disassembly to the extent needed to hand-off some piece of hardware to the engineer who would take it from there, then reintegrate everything back together before sending the arm back to the Cape.

When I first started, I had been told that several earlier engineers had been unsuccessfully assigned to Robin before me, and that he blew through all of them in short order. Because of that, some whispered to me that he was difficult to work with. Not once did I ever have that opinion of him. Robin was nothing but patient and encouraging with me. It was an honour to not only be given the opportunity to work on Canada’s premier space technology, but also to have the chance to learn from Robin how it was designed and built (along with many stories from its development that never made it into the history books… and probably for the best).

Many of the original engineering drawings from the late 70’s for the Canadarm bore Robin’s signature as he was the one that had literally drafted them on paper well before computer-aided design. In particular, he drew the complex assembly drawings for the arm’s Shoulder and Elbow joints. I often relished the opportunity to not-so-subtly point out his relative age when we were leaning over a full-size drawing. I would point to the date next to his signature and say, “Hey look, I was 2 years old when you drew this one, Robin”! His response was invariably a curt “Piss off!”.

Robin’s memory could best be described as infuriatingly precise. He could recall the exact drawing number of just about any of the hundreds upon hundreds of part and assembly drawings that comprised the Canadarm. I would often spend hours trying to solve a technical problem on my own; examining every drawing, change record, and non-conformance record that I could find; only to admit defeat and ask Robin for help. It would always playout the same: He would sit back in his chair, quickly search the index in his memory, say something like “Yes I remember this one… Back in ’83 we had to shave that part down by .0008 inch to make it fit”. He would then open his filing cabinet, thumb through the densely packed yellowed papers that had not made it into our records system, pulled the single sheet that fully detailed the entire solution from two decades earlier, and told me to bring it back when I was done with it. Walking back to my desk, my response was invariably a muffled “God… Dammit”.

In an age where mentorship is sorely lacking in the engineering profession, I am consistently conscious of how incredibly fortunate I am to have apprenticed under someone of Robin Garland’s caliber. Good engineering practices were incredibly important to him and he drove those into me in a way that never really felt like a lesson or a chore.

Robin taught me how to breakdown any problem and figure out an engineered solution; how to document my work; how to always do the right thing; how to always take pride in my work, even for the smallest and menial of tasks; how to help and guide those you lead; and how to defend and stand up for those around you.

Most importantly, Robin taught me that engineers are human, trying their best to find creative solutions to technical challenges. We are all fallible and make mistakes. He taught me that it is how we deal with our mistakes that define us as engineers. I am the engineer that I am because Robin taught me how to think like one.

Robin Garland: An engineer’s engineer. Rest in peace.


Gavin S. Hay, P.Eng. | Principal Engineer