John MacDonald, Canadian space tech pioneer, dies at 83

John MacDonald

John Spencer MacDonald, a UBC alumnus and co-founder of the pioneering space technology company MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (now MDA), has died at the age of 83.

Born in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, MacDonald studied electrical engineering at UBC, where he received an honours bachelor’s degree (1959), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received his master’s degree (1961) and doctorate (1964). He taught briefly at MIT before joining the faculty of UBC Applied Science in 1965.

In 1969, MacDonald and his friend Vern Dettwiler founded MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, which went on to develop industry-leading robotics, satellite systems and other products for clients such as the Canadian Space Agency, NASA and the International Space Station.

Among the iconic company’s world-famous innovations are the synthetic aperture radar instrument, which enables satellites to acquire high-resolution images of Earth despite the presence of darkness, cloud cover and other obstructions, and the Canadarm, a remote-controlled mechanical arm used by NASA’s Space Shuttle Program for three decades.

After retiring as chairman of the firm in 1998, MacDonald — alarmed by the steep decline in Arctic sea ice levels over recent decades — co-founded a solar cell technology company called Day4 Energy in 2001, serving as its chairman and CEO until his retirement in 2014. He also served as chancellor of the University of Northern British Columbia between 2010 and 2016.

MacDonald was an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Canadian Academy of Engineering and the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute. He also made significant contributions to major organizations around the world, including the National Research Council of Canada, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, and the Sectoral Advisory Group on International Trade (Automotive and Aerospace) during the Free Trade Negotiations with the United States.

Among MacDonald’s numerous other honours were the British Columbia Technology Industry Association Impact Award for Person of the Year, the Impact Award for Emerging Company of the Year (for Day4 Energy), alumni UBC’s Research and Innovation Award and the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada Lifetime Achievement Award.

MacDonald is survived by his wife, Alfredette; his two sons, Neil (Ashly) and Jay (Kristin); and his three grandchildren, Lochlann, Tyne and Tristan. For more information about MacDonald’s life and accomplishments, or to share memories or condolences, please visit his obituary page.


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