Roderick Dixon: a life’s journey from Somerset to space
When our son was a young boy, he was fascinated by space. His grandmother took him to all the Star Wars films, my husband hung the Millennium Falcon from his bedroom ceiling and his Christmas toys were usually space-related. R2D2 still appears out of its box every Christmas. When he was older, we visited Cape Canaveral in Florida to make his dream come true. Had we known about Roderick Dixon, our son and many other Bermudian children might have chosen different career paths.
Roderick Dixon, who received his early education in Bermuda, was honoured in 2010 by the Black Cultural Centre of Nova Scotia for his achievements as a Black person working on the Nasa space shuttle programme; the Canadian Space Agency International Space Station programme and other space-related programmes and projects.
Mr Dixon is one of five children born to Alvin and Lucille Dixon, from Somerset. Roderick, born in 1946, was their third child. His father, Alvin, was born in Bermuda to a mother from Antigua and a father from St Vincent and the Grenadines. His grandfather and his father were carpenters by trade. Later in life, his father owned and drove a taxi; worked for a period on the Queen of Bermuda and later joined the prison service.
His mother, Lucille, was born in Bermuda but her parents were from Dominica. When she was 18 months old, her mother died and her father took her to Guadeloupe, where he later remarried and had two other daughters. When she returned to Bermuda at the age of 6, she could speak only French. Mrs Dixon worked for 36 years for Gibbons Company starting as a tailor and retiring as the manager and buyer for their children’s wear department.
Roderick attended West End Primary and Sandys Secondary School. He then went to work assembling slot machines for General Electronics, a Danish-owned company operating in Dockyard. These machines were exported to Denmark. At that time, the Dockyard was a freeport or duty-free zone for foreign companies. This is where his interest in electronics began. A former classmate who was studying electronics in Canada returned to the island on his summer break and encouraged him to further his education in this field.
In 1966 he left Bermuda for Toronto to gain further education in the electronic field. He studied general electronics, radio, television, communications and graduated from the Radio College of Canada. He returned to Bermuda hoping to finding suitable employment, but within a few months he realised he wanted to achieve a higher level of expertise in the electronic field. Bermuda lacked the challenge he felt he needed and so he made the life-changing decision to move to Canada where he obtained his Canadian citizenship.
For several years he was employed in the consumer electronic industry (TV manufacturing) as a technician and a quality control supervisor. Unfortunately he was laid off on many occasions when the facilities closed due to declining sales created by strong competition from East Asian companies. Roderick quickly realised that the consumer electronic industry in North America was coming to an end and it became obvious that they could not compete with the product quality and low wage structure of the East Asian companies.
Undaunted, he switched his focus to the geophysics instrument industry where he worked for a company in the research and development department helping to design and manufacture geophysical instruments.
To adequately prepare himself for the ever-changing job market, he attended several Toronto community colleges where he studied engineering maths, drafting and development management. At Seneca College of Applied Technology he studied management development, effective supervision, human resources and communications.
A friend told him of a company looking for qualified individuals to work on a Canadian government and Nasa programme to design and build a robotic arm to be used on the upcoming Nasa space shuttle. The company was Spar — Spar Aerospace Limited.
Roderick knew that if he could get that job he would have a chance to achieve the higher level of expertise he had thought about so many years earlier in Bermuda. He applied for the position of quality assurance analyst and was accepted initially as an engineering technician. After two years of training, he qualified as a quality assurance analyst.
Roderick Dixon believes that role models represent courage, hope, dreams, determination and dedication. He believes that true role models are those who possess the qualities we would like to have and those who have affected us in a way that makes us want to be better people.
In 2010, Mr Dixon delivered a speech at the Black Cultural Centre in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. The theme was “Canada’s Role in Space Robotics of Which I Played a Part”.
Addressing the audience, he said: “One cannot help but notice a sizeable gap when it comes to Black students in maths, science and engineering post-secondary programmes in Canada and the US. Even more noticeable, just from my experience, I’ve noticed a huge absence of Black men and women among the mid to upper ranks of the Canadian engineering community.
“Many think working on space programmes is the exclusive domain of White, middle-aged men. The reality is that Black people have played an active and important part in space exploration since the very beginnings of the space programmes.”
At the time of this writing in 2022, there are18 African-American astronauts of whom five are now active. Mr Dixon revealed that there have been countless Black scientists, mathematicians, physicists, astronomers, doctors and engineers who have made significant scientific engineering and medical contributions.
He continued by mentioning two Black Americans:
“Dr George Carruthers, an astronautical engineer who built the camera that was carried to the moon on Apollo16. He also designed and built a combination telescope and camera used on space shuttle missions. Many of the enduring images from space were made using Dr Carruthers’ cameras.
“Dr Christine Darden, a mathematician and mechanical engineer, and a recognised leader in the reduction of shock waves from spacecraft wings and nose cones. Dr Darden was recognised for her work by being contracted to work on Nasa’s Supersonic Transport Research Project.
“In the 1990s she was a group leader on Nasa’s Langley Research Centre and has received several honours from Nasa for outstanding performance and achievement.”
The Canadarm 1 is configured much like the human arm: it has a shoulder, an elbow, a wrist and an end effector. It is made of aluminium stainless steel and carbon composite with thermostatically controlled electric heaters and multilayer thermal blankets. It is 50ft in length and 15in in diameter with two controllers and display panels on the shuttle flight deck for operating the arm.
In 1975, a deal was struck between the National Research Council of Canada and Nasa for Canada to design and build a robot arm for the space shuttle.
The Shuttle Remote Manipulator System, known as Canadarm 1, was Canada’s contribution to the Nasa space shuttle programme. This opened the door for Canadian astronauts to fly on the shuttles.
The arm was designed and built by a Canadian industry team headed by Spar Limited at a cost of $100 million. The first arm, paid for by the Canadian Government, was completed and delivered to Nasa as a gift from Canada in 1981. It flew aboard the space shuttle Columbia on November 12, 1981.
Spar built four additional arms for Nasa at a cost of $25 million per arm. One was lost in the Challenger disaster of 1986.
Canadarm 1 was used in the Nasa space shuttle that retired in 2011.
Canadarm 2 is being used on the Nasa International Space Station.
One of the article’s photographs which includes Mr Dixon is of the group at the completion of Canadarm 2, which is currently being used on the International Space Station. For more than three decades, human space flight has been supported by advanced robotics developed by Canadian industry with which Mr Dixon was involved.
In 2009, after 32 years of working manned and unmanned space programmes and projects for MDA Space Missions ( formerly Spar Aerospace Ltd’s Remote Manipulator Systems division), Roderick Dixon retired. Over the years he has received numerous achievement and recognition awards from Spar, MDA and Nasa.
Mr Dixon is the proud father of two sons and he is a grandfather. He hopes that he will be a catalyst for Black students who get to know about him, to realised that a successful career in the engineering and science field is possible as a Black person.
In his retirement he describes himself as a “Mr Fix-It” and an audiophile. He enjoys researching the latest high-end audio, video products and modern jazz music. At one time he manufactured his own amplifiers and made them for his friends. He also enjoys golf, ten-pin bowling and cruising with his wife, Donna, mostly in Europe.
Mr Dixon, thank you for sharing your amazing career with me and the people of Bermuda, your island home. We are so very proud of you.
With special thanks to Lorna Dixon-Marable, Roderick Dixon’s sister