LONGUEUIL, Que. -- With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that landed humans on the moon for the first time approaching, Canada Post released a pair of commemorative stamps Thursday highlighting the Canadian minds and technology that went a long way to making the moment happen.
NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong's first steps on July 20, 1969 were watched by half a billion people worldwide and became a well-known milestone in human space exploration.
But Canadian engineers working for NASA played a big part in the mission, including Jim Chamberlin, who determined the type of spacecraft needed to get to the moon and was the first to realize first that flying directly to the moon wasn't the best option. He would help develop the lunar orbit rendezvous -- which involved descending to the surface aboard a landing module connected to the main spacecraft.
Chamberlin, born in 1915 in Kamloops, B.C., was the chief designer of the Avro Arrow project scrapped in 1959. He was one of dozens of engineers subsequently recruited south of the border to work with the NASA space program. He was head of engineering for Project Mercury -- the first U.S. human space flight program -- and designed the Gemini spacecraft that preceded Apollo.
"He was somebody that just shifted gears and did something else and met the next challenge," said his son, Arthur Chamberlin, who travelled from Houston for the event. "I think I would like my father to be best remembered as somebody who made a difference -- he said that should be one of your goals in life -- and I think it's important."
Owen Maynard, one of Canada's top aircraft engineers, sketched early designs of the command module used in Apollo and was credited as the person at NASA most responsible for the lunar lander used. Born in Sarnia, Ont., he was also recruited by NASA from the shuttered Avro project.
His son, Ross Maynard, of Peterborough, Ont., said he did some digging into the family archives looking into his father's papers when approached by a documentary film crew.
"When NASA hired the Canadians, NASA got really lucky. Those Canadians became instrumental members of what was called the Space Task Group," Ross Maynard said.
The influence of the Canadians "is at the heart of what those involved in space exploration were and continue to be: a bunch of hard-working, highly motivated, relentless problem-solvers," he added.
The event was held Thursday at Heroux-Devtek, the company based in Longueuil, Que., that built the landing gear components for the lunar module -- technically the first thing to touch the moon's surface that day. The legs remain on the moon to this day at the Apollo 11 landing site, known as the Sea of Tranquility.
In the 1960s, Gaston Bernier, an engineer for Heroux, was tasked with inspecting the lightweight aluminum legs, but he only learned what they were for at the very end of the process.
"It didn't mean much to us, it was a part like any other," Bernier, who was absent Thursday due to illness, said in a video prepared by Canada Post. "We never imagined it would end up there. We're happy that we succeeded."
For the Quebec company, the feat became an important part of its identity.
The Apollo 11 mission began July 16 with the goal of putting man on the moon and bringing them back to Earth. Four days after launch, the lander, known as Eagle, descended to the moon's surface. Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific on July 24, 1969, after eight days in space.
"Fifty years ago, the world watched in amazement as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the moon, it was an incredible achievement, it still boggles the mind to this day," said Doug Ettinger, president and CEO of Canada Post, who recounted watching the spectacle on a small black-and-white portable television in a trailer while camping in southwest Nova Scotia as Armstrong famously said "that's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."
Gov. Gen. Julie Payette, a former astronaut, said she has often told colleagues about the Quebec-made achievement.
"If you want to be technically correct, the first feet that touched the ground on July 20 were the feet of the lunar module," Payette recalled telling others. "Do you know where those feet were made? I do. Montreal -- Longueuil -- Quebec, Canada, you know, that country to the north?
"The point is we were there, we were there with our expertise, we were there with our manpower and we were there with our brains and our will to contribute to this huge exploration," she said.
The next step will be a NASA-led lunar mission which Canada will be taking part in -- the Lunar Gateway, a space station that will orbit the moon and serve as a springboard for deep-space missions.
Helping establish an outpost for lunar exploration is the central element of the country's revitalized national space program.
Canada's key contribution to the Lunar Gateway will be developing a smart robotic system, to be known as Canadarm3. The mechanism will repair and maintain the outpost, expected to be operational by 2026.
Ross Maynard said a lesson emerged from his research into the exploits of Canadians involved in the Apollo lunar mission.
"I've also concluded from those recollections and deep dives, if you want to do anything in this world, I would start with a critical mass of Canadian talent," he said.