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The fairytale end of our debt


The Russians succeed in sending a rocket to the Moon
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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In January 1959 and remember the Americans were still with us the Russians, Soviets announced that they had launched a rocket to the Moon. We tried to locate that, but never succeeded. And I... I never know why. It was probably... and I do not know what happened to the rocket because there was never any mention of it having reached the Moon. However, it was a different matter in September of 1958, 1950... 1959, we've reached now. One day in September I was then the skipper of the local cricket team in Chelford, we... we didn't have a cricket team in this village and I was about to depart for the cricket team and... we were playing at Chelford nearby, and suddenly all the telephones started ringing. I then had a direct link with the control room at Jodrell and both that telephone from the control room and the press, the telephone, an old telephone which the press were always using, rang to announce that the Russians had launched a rocket to the Moon, so I said, 'Well, I'm very sorry, I... I'm going to play cricket. I'm... I can do nothing about it until this evening'. So I proceeded to enjoy a cricket match and the wife was... she was allocated to see to the cricket teas on that day and when she arrived at the ground, she cornered me and said, 'Look, here, you don't realise what's been happening since you left home. The press and everybody's been on the telephone, it's been ringing continuously. You'd better do something about it'. So I said, 'All right, I will call in at Jodrell on the, on the way home.

So, about... I suppose about... it may have been about 6 o'clock that evening, I called in at Jodrell and everything was proceeding normally except that the Americans were there, completely agitated. They'd been harassed from Washington to... about this probe that was going to the Moon and why couldn't they do something about it. And they said they were very sorry, but the person in control was playing cricket. Well, you can imagine what that was like to people in Washington who had no idea what the game of cricket was.

Anyhow, I... after, after that barrage from the Americans, I went into the office and in those days, there wasn't fax, it was something called telex. To my amazement, on the huge length of paper from Moscow came pouring out of this machine and it gave the azimuth and elevation calculated from Jodrell Bank for their rocket. Just that, no other words on them, so I phoned JG Davis and said, 'Look, could you come out to Jodrell? We'd better try,' and I told him what had happened, 'But we better see if we can get signals from this Russian rocket which is going to the Moon'. So we climbed into the swinging laboratory. By good fortune, there was an equipment on the telescope, which I think was being used by Palmer for something or other, I can't remember exactly what. It was probably some of his measurements of the angle of diameters. It was on a frequency of... of 408, I think, so we took a receiver into the swinging laboratory underneath the bowl of the telescope and plugged this into the aerial and the... asked the controller to direct the telescope to the position indicated by the Russians and we immediately, without the slightest difficulty, made contact and continued to track this rocket until it set below the horizon on that Saturday evening.

Well, the next day, Sunday, was quite incredible and by that time, Jodrell Bank was packed with media, the BBC and the... we couldn't keep them out of the control building. The Russian rocket was due to rise above our horizon in the early afternoon and we located it immediately and continued to track it until the evening and JG Davis then had a most brilliant idea. He said, 'Look here, why don't we... why don't we measure the doppler shift because if this rocket is really going to... to meet the Moon, we... we should know'. We should be able to know where it goes and we would get a... a tremendous change in... frequency. So we hooked up another receiver and had all this going through a loudspeaker to the assembly in the control building, and then the drama began.

Just before 10 o'clock on... on that Sunday evening the... suddenly the doppler shift began to change so... so dramatically and about a few minutes past 10 o'clock on that night, suddenly stopped. The Russians had indeed hit the Moon with... with the rocket and we were able to calculate within reasonable area, where... where, in fact, the rocket had impacted. Well, of course, there were people, messages from America, that oh no, they put in an alarm system. They couldn't possibly; they have no ability to do this sort of guidance. Well, it was... it was as well that we had measured the doppler shift because they could not argue about this and that... the results were being published and they had this... had this epic result.

Now, there's one thing I want to say that... about that before I continue this story. Very, very many years later, I think 30 years later, when I'd already retired, I... I met a Russian who had been responsible for... one of the Russian scientists who had been responsible for that probe. And to my amazement, he said, 'Well, of course, we had to rely on you to track it. We had no means of tracking it'. Isn't that incredible? They... no direct request, just a long list of azimuths and elevations for the Jodrell telescope appearing on this telex machine.

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: Megan Argo Alastair Gunn

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.

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.

Tags: the Moon, Jodrell Bank, Washington, BBC, J G Davis

Duration: 7 minutes, 33 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008