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The American rockets fail to get to the Moon


The Reith Lectures and USAF Project Able
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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After the Sputnik in 1957, we continued to observe the Sputnik... second Sputnik carry the dog, Laika, and I... we... we were able to write a few papers on the nature of the reflections from the carrier rockets and particularly during their descent, during the atmosphere. I think these papers are in the Royal Society or in Nature, and then in... in 1958, when I was really in a state of great depression. In spite of all this pleasure and excitement with the telescope, we still had all this trouble with the debt and in the middle of the trouble with the public accounts committee, two things happened in the spring of 1958.

I had a letter from General CN Jacob, who was the director general of the BBC, and this had contained an invitation to deliver the BBC Reith lectures in the autumn of that year. Now, I... I do not know who made the suggestion or knew that I was capable of delivering these Reith lectures, but of course it was a great thing for me. It indicated a restoration of faith in... in me and the telescope and that was one of the great things that happened that year. I might say a bit about the Reith lectures later on. The second thing that happened almost at the... in the same week was that I received a... a message from the intelligence bureau, with whom I was, for other reasons, going to in London, saying that I... I was about to receive an important visitor from America. And, in fact, they said, 'You are to go to your local station, Goostrey, tomorrow morning and out of the local train, at a certain time they gave... there will be, in mufti, a Colonel L from the United States Air force'. They said, 'He is a very important person and he must talk to you'.

So on that appointed day, a lovely summer's day, a lovely spring day, I drove to Goostrey Station and out of the train, the local train stepped Colonel L and we talked about the nice day and various other sorts of things, and on the way to... I drove him to Jodrell. We got to my office. He looked at all the windows and all the doors, made sure they were firmly closed and I said, 'May I ask what is the reason for your flight across the Atlantic?' And he said, 'Yes, we are about to... we have just completed our Atlas Missile and we're about to use it to send a... a rocket to the Moon', so I said, 'Oh, well, that's extremely interesting. I... I didn't know you had such a powerful rocket', and he said, 'We... we are just about to test it, and we are quite convinced that we can send a rocket to the Moon and thereby get a step ahead of... of the Soviets'. So I said, 'Well, that's splendid news. I'm delighted. What is the reason for your visit?' And he said, to my amazement, 'Well, we will dispatch a rocket, but we have no means of tracking it, and we... we... I've come to ask you if we could... if you... if we use your telescope to track the rocket?' So I said, 'Well, of course, I'm... would be delighted to do so, but quite important issues are involved here. I perhaps ought to consult with vice chancellor of the university'. And he said, 'I'm sorry, I can't wait. I must... I'm returning to America immediately and I must know if you will agree to track our rocket'. So I thought, 'Yes'. I said, 'All right, we will. We will do this in... in the framework of the international geophysical year'.

So Colonel L returned to America and he had said that he would send over certain equipment and a team, but that this must be done in the greatest secrecy, so I think I informed only my very close colleague, John Davis, JG Davis, of what was happening, and it remained a secret until in July... They were going to launch the rocket in August in 1948... 1958, and all was well, nothing was said or heard about until in July the... the Americans landed. They were using the airport of Burton Wood. I think it was still in their possession, and they had sent over in an enormous plane, a... a huge amount of equipment and a vehicle, which was then towed or driven to Jodrell, big labels on it, Project... USAF Project Able, Jodrell Bank.

And before I... scarcely before the... these people had arrived, the newspapers were ringing up, saying whatever's happening? Do... do we take the... the Americans are about to launch a rocket to the Moon? You know, this was their idea of secrecy. It was completely secret and yet the... they... they then display Project Able USAF, USAF, Jodrell Bank. Anyhow, that's by the way, but we... we were then assembled adjacent to the control room, control building at Jodrell bank. A hut containing the American equipment, which was to help track this Apollo rocket and which, later on, was to play an even more important part. We got on exceedingly well with this team of Americans. They were very, very nice people and the... the years that followed were extremely pleasant ones and very active.

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: Sputnik 1, Royal Society, Nature, BBC, Reith lectures, London, USA, Jodrell Bank, Atlantic Ocean, United States Air Force, C N Jacob, J G Davis

Duration: 7 minutes, 48 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008