Hometown son and space legend John S. MacDonald, shown in this 2013 UNBC photo, launched his passion for electronic systems while growing up in Prince Rupert fixing marine radios. MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates is the inventors of the iconic Canada Arm installed on the international space station. (Photo courtesy of University of Northern British Columbia)

Prince Rupert space legend passes away

John Spencer MacDonald, no star shone brighter

John Spencer MacDonald was a hometown son to the Prince Rupert community. To the international space community he was the co-founder of Canada’s best known space company, MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, which launched the iconic Canada Arm. MacDonald passed away on Dec. 26, 2019.

MacDonald was born in P.R in 1936 and was an only child to his parents, Alice and Neil MacDonald. At an early age a passion for electronics was sparked with his ability to repair marine radios for local fishing boats. By the age of 16 he spent his summers travelling up and down the north coast completing maintenance on electronic systems.

“He had an aptitude for numbers, ” said his long time friend and Prince Rupert local, Ron Ciccone, “When he was manager of our junior boys basketball team, he once worked out that the score of a very close game was incorrect. From this our team then won the game. It was great.” The two friends attended Booth Memorial High School. “We used to study for exams at his house. The study sessions must have been good because we both passed,” said Ciccone about their high schools days.

The aerospace pioneer went on to reach for the stars with an education at University of British Columbia (UBC) graduating with honours in electrical engineering. MacDonald then attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he was awarded his Ph.D in electrical engineering in 1964. He returned to both universities during his career to montor and teach through two professorships.

A long and illustrious career is starred with so many accomplishments. MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates was founded in 1969, with friend Vern Dettwiler, who hailed from Terrace. MacDonald once referred to MDA as the “epicentre of the Canadian Space industry.” MDA was eventually sold with MacDonald stating it was difficult to sell, but necessary for the progression of space aeronautics. He believed the company would be better able to attract defence contracts that were not available in Canada.

Even with accolades such as, the Order of Canada, British Columbia Technology Industry Association Impact Award (BCTIA) for person of the year 2008, the first ever Air Industries Association of Canada (AIAC) life time achievement award for 2018 and co-founding Day 4 Energy, a solar powered technology company, he remained true to his roots and continued to orbit around B.C.

Ciccone said that MacDonald would over the years, and through his success, still meet with old classmates for luncheons. “He always stayed the same. He was a personable and genuine, nice guy.”

MacDonald passed away at the age of 83 and is survived by his wife of 60 years, Alfredette, his two sons and three grandchildren.


K-J Millar | Journalist
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