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Important work enabled by use of the steerable telescope


Jodrell Bank's involvement in the Cuban missile crisis
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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The DCS said to me, 'Lovell, we need your help'. I said,'Why? He said, 'Because the situation with the Soviet Union is extremely serious. They have a group of intercontinental missiles posed in the Estonia or Latvia, I can't remember which, posed to launch against London and one group to launch against Berlin, and we have no means of detecting them. And I said, 'What about Fylingdale?' He said, 'Alas, Fylingdales is held up by a strike'. Now I had got to know quite a lot about Fylingdales through meeting on one of the other science committees and I had complained about their construction and I said, 'I made them alter it', otherwise they would have given a lot of false warnings, so these changes had been made and Fylingdales would have worked. So the DCS said, 'I'm afraid that there's a strike and Fylingdales cannot be ready for several years'. I said, 'Well, why don't you get over the Americans to finish it off if our people are striking? He said, 'We're not allowed to for political reasons'. He said, 'We want you to allow us to equip your telescope with the necessary transmitter so that you can locate the missiles when they are launched. I said, 'Well, sir, we can certainly do that if you provide us with the necessary equipment, and we can tell you where they're launched but we need, will need to do two things: we would need to know the exact position and when, and if we give you the launching time, you can do nothing about them'. He says, 'No problem, we can give you the precise position of these launching pads and you're not right that we can do nothing about them. We, you would be giving us ten to fifteen minutes warning and in that time we could save a million lives in London'.So, I don't know what we would have done, I said of course we will help. I went to see the vice chancellor and I told him in broad outlines what the situation was and I had instructions from him that if this unfortunate event ever happened, I was to overrule all the restrictions such as gales or snow, which at that time ruled the, whether the telescope should be used.

So in about 1960, the Marconi system had made a very powerful transmitter. I think it worked on a frequency of 408 megahertz, which we mounted on the diametrical girder of the telescope and connected this to, with the possibility of connecting it to the aerial system through a suitable cable. Now, what is not known by anyone except John Davis, who was with me through all of this drama, both with the Sputniks and the moon rockets, we had a series of senior RAF personnel working with us at Jodrell. They were in mufti and the whole thing was so secret and it could not be done nowadays because everybody would know anything, what every person at Jodrell was doing, but these senior RAF people were working with us, using the telescope on whatever observations the telescope was engaged in on those days, on tracking the moon and so on.

Well, this went on for quite a long time until the, the desperate situation developed with the Cuban crisis in October 1962 and may I remind you that the American recognisance U2 flights had discovered that the Soviets were making a launching pad in Cuba, and the reason being of course, that the missiles in those days were not long distance. They were only inter-continental with a range of a few hundred miles, not thousands of miles, and so the intention was to threaten America in this Cold War by this group of inter-continental missiles in Cuba, which would... had a sufficient range to reach Florida and other parts of America. Well, those weekends, first weekends in October 1962 were amongst the most tensest which I've ever survived. On one of the critical Saturdays I had returned home to Jodrell Bank in October, one Saturday in October, in early October, and it was the controller on the telephone, which immediately I found ringing when I entered here, and he said, 'Look, Sir Lovell, would you mind returning to Jodrell?' and I said... he said, 'There's a despatch rider here. He has a documen't. And I said, 'Well, just sign it and take it'. He said, 'No, he insists that he will only hand it to you'. You know we lived in that sort of atmosphere through that terrible weekend. Well, the rest of that story is history and Kennedy suceeded in handled the whole business and the ships carrying the missiles, taking them to Cuba were turned back and eventually a solution was worked. I always think during that week or so, the world was... civilised world as we know it, was quite close to extinction. The degree of overkill available to the Soviets and to the Americans at that time was enormous and it would certainly have been what was called MAD, Mutually Aided Destruction. From our part of view, from our point of view, we had no reason to use the telescope although we were ready to do so, because the button which would release the attack on London and Berlin was never pressed.

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: Jodrell Bank, Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviet Union, London, Estonia, Latvia, Berlin, Cuba, John F Kennedy

Duration: 7 minutes, 41 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008