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Jodrell Bank's involvement in the Cuban missile crisis


Work for the Air Ministry
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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Now, that is not quite the end of my story. As a result of this activity, and of our work with the... on the Soviet intercontinental missiles, which had been used as a launching rocket for their Sputniks, we had acquired a good deal of information, which was of great value to the important people in England who had to deal with future attacks from the Soviet Union. And I had received, one day, an invitation which I... from Sir Morris Dean, who was then the permanent under secretary to the Air Ministry, and he asked me to meet him in London and have lunch with him. I did so and it must have been in the 1950s and, I think, about 1950, in the middle of 1950, in the middle of the story I have already been relating. And he said, 'I have a small group of scientists of whom you'll know, who are acting as scientific advisors to the air staff, and we'd be very pleased if you would join that group'. So I took a bit of advice and I did agree to join this small group of half a dozen of us who were acting as scientific advisors to the chief of air staff.

Those meetings were extremely worrying, but of extreme interest, and most of them were taken by the deputy chief of air staff, who's a very nice person. He was a son of a person I had known very well earlier on and I quite enjoyed attending those meetings although they were so worrying. One learned many things, which it would have been better not to have known, such as the Soviets had 49 armoured divisions lined up against the West. Well, how would we... how could the West possibly stop them? And only one means, by using tactical nuclear power. In that case, there would be rapid escalation to strategic nuclear power and it was an uncomfortable aspect of my life to live through, but nevertheless of great interest. It became even more... even more interesting when one day, the deputy chief of air staff this must have been 1958, or '59 he said, 'Lovell, do you mind staying behind after we close the meeting? I have a problem', so I said, 'Certainly', and he said, 'We want your help', and look, I'm going to relate this story now because it's public property. Not many people know about it, but if only they go to the public record office, they can find the story I'm now going to tell you.

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: Soviet Union, Sputnik 1, England, London, Morris Dean

Duration: 3 minutes, 28 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008