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A visit to the Telecommunications Research Establishment in Malvern


America successfully lands on the Moon
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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Oddly enough I was also very friendly with the Americans, particularly with the American chap called Mueller, who was then directing the manned space programme, and I said... you know, I told him that the Soviets would not attempt to land until they were certain they could return the man safely to Earth, and so George Mueller said to me, 'Oh well, we're... we're going to send a man to the Moon in...' whatever it was, 1969 – 'and we're quite certain we should get him back'. And I said, 'Why are you so certain?' He said, 'because we can, we have duplicated everything in the flight'. I said, 'Everything?' He said, 'Well, he said one thing we haven't been able to duplicate, and that is the lift-off from the lunar surface'.

Well, as you know, everything went perfectly and Neil Armstrong was the first man to put a foot on the Moon. We were tracking that through the telescope, with five thousand people in the visitors' centre at Jodrell, and the interesting thing is that we had both the live recording from the Moon and the retransmission from NASA, and the retransmission from NASA was delayed over the actuality from the Moon by a minute or so, and we could only assume that this was in case there had been some tragedy on the Moon.

Now, the same time as that happened, the... the Soviets had launched another rocket and we were tracking this rocket as well as the American lunar one, and shortly before Neil Armstrong and Aldrin were due to lift off to return to the mother ship round the Moon and on their journey back to Earth, the Soviet rocket reached the Moon, signal stopped and that was that. Nothing further happened, and we were a bit mystified because we thought at least it would continue to transmit as the lunic, photographic lunic had done and so we, we did nothing further about it, except that I... about an hour later, I received a telephone call from Moscow. 'We are... we believe you have been tracking our space probe to the Moon. We urgently need a record of your recordings'. So I said, 'Oh, well, that's quite all right, I will send it to you, I will let you have... I will send it through the usual diplomatic bag tomorrow'. 'No, our emissary's already in the air on the way to your airport, would you mind taking your last records to the airport and handing it over to him?'

Commander Tolson was then my chief engineer, and I said, 'Look here, Tolson', I told him what had happened. I said, 'Do you mind taking this tape' – we made a copy of it ' do you mind taking this tape to... to the airport and there is a... a man from the Soviet Union is going to land there at 6 o'clock this evening. He won't come into the airport. Do you mind standing at the barrier and handing it over to him?' And that was that. That was done.

And, of course, what had happened? As we knew later on, less than a year later, the Soviets repeated this mission and this time, the system worked. It was an automatic recovery of lunar rock. The... the rocket landed. It scooped up the lunar rock and returned it safely to Earth. Now, you see, just think for one moment, if they had succeeded when... and Neil Armstrong had not succeeded and they're getting away from the Moon, what a political drama that would have made at that critical time in the Cold War. I think then things calmed down very much as far as Jodrell was concerned, and we had very little more to do with the... either the American or the... or the Soviet space programmes.

Bernard Lovell (1913-2012), British radio astronomer and founder of the Jodrell Bank Observatory, received an OBE in 1946 for his work on radar, and was knighted in 1961 for his contribution to the development of radio astronomy. He obtained a PhD in 1936 at the University of Bristol. His steerable radio telescope, which tracked Sputnik across the sky, is now named the Lovell telescope.

Listeners: Alastair Gunn Megan Argo

Alastair Gunn is an astrophysicist at Jodrell Bank Observatory, University of Manchester. He is responsible for the coordination and execution of international radio astronomical observations at the institute and his professional research concerns the extended atmospheres of highly active binary stars. Alastair has a deep interest and knowledge of the history of radio astronomy in general and of Jodrell Bank in particular. He has written extensively about Jodrell Bank's history.

Megan Argo is an astronomer at the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory researching supernovae and star formation in nearby starburst galaxies. As well as research, she is involved with events in the Observatory's Visitor Centre explaining both astronomy and the history of the Observatory to the public.

Tags: USA, the Moon, NASA, Jodrell Bank, Soviet Union, Moscow, George Mueller, Neil Armstrong

Duration: 4 minutes, 57 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008