Submission from Reginald Turnill
As BBC Aerospace Correspondent, Reginald Turnill
has covered spaceflight, and especially human spaceflight, since
1956. He was at Cape Canaveral and Houston for all the Mercury,
Gemini and Apollo missions, and created Jane's Spaceflight
Directory. His other books include Farnborough: The Story
of RAE; Celebrating Concorde; and The Moonlandings.
This paper provides a first-hand account of
the negative decisions which have led to Britain being the world's
only major country not to participate in human spaceflight. Other
submissions will no doubt draw attention to the need for a more
positive space policy aimed at reviving academic and public interest
in advanced technologyas supersonics and Concorde did for
many years. It concludes by drawing attention to Mr Roy Gibson,
the first DG of the ESA and then BNSC, who must be the most distinguished
civil servant never to receive an award.
1. In the mid-50s my job was to watch and
report on the US and Soviet scientists working themselves, their
populations and their rocket engineers into a state of near-hysteria
in the technical contest to be first to establish men on "the
high ground" of space,the Moon. Alongside it all,
I was monitoring successive British Government decisions to pull
out of the missile race, with accompanying ditherings as to whether
past missile investments could be put to some use in space technology.
2. Mention of Hawker Siddeley's Blue Streak
intermediate range missile, had been forbidden by the Ministry
of Defence in the late 1950seven though it stood proud
in its gantry for all to admire as we drove past Hatfield on the
A1. Very reluctantlybecause Ministries felt more important
if they had secrets to guardBlue Streak ws finally declassified
in 1958. But the decision to abandon it as a defence weapon, even
when sunk for protection in concrete bunkers, was not announced
until April 1960, when its future already looked bleak.
3. The question in 1958 was whether the
millions consumed during its development could be recovered by
using it as a spacecraft launcher. As you know, Peter Thorneycroft,
then Aviation Minister, was given the task of trying to create
a joint European and Commonwealth "space club" around
4. At the same time the Government was vacillating
about Black Knight, a 35ft-tall research rocket developed by Saunders
Roe in the Isle of Wight. At the still all-British Farnborough
Air Display in September that year its makers had enthusiastically
prepared a site in the Guided Missiles section on which they planned
to display a full-size mockup to the public.
5. To most people rockets and missiles still
meant weapons of war and the ability to deliver nuclear bombs,
and few as yet thought of them as potential spacecraft launchers.
Arriving at my first Farnborough, I expected to make Black Knight
a major feature of my radio and TV stories, but when I hurried
there with the camera crew on Press Day the site was empty, and
the Ministry of Supply remained obstinately silent about the reasons.
6. Not until eight days later, on the last
Sunday evening, with thousands jamming the exits on their way
home, did officials manning the Ministry of Supply stand produce
from under the counter a one-twelfth model of Black Knightpassing
word to their rather limited number of friends that it was on
display. I was not among the friends.
7. Called to account at a Press conference
next day, Minister of Supply Aubrey Jones said the model had been
produced a few hours after Black Knight had been successfully
test-fired in Australia. No aircraft was ever shown at Farnborough,
he explained, unless it had accomplished ten hours of test-flying.
There were no rules governing the display of rockets, so he had
made onethat none should be shown at Farnborough unless
it had been successfully test-fired. He still thought he was right,
he said, despite all the criticism. The actual reason for his
rulingthe pathological fear of failurewas of course
8. In an interview I extracted from Jones
the information that his Ministryprobably the most secretive
of all Ministries when it came to accounting for its expenditure
of the public's moneyhad spent £5 million on Black
Knight. It was a one-stage research vehicle able to reach an altitude
of 600 miles, and was intended to explore the problems of heating,
etc, when a space vehicle was re-entering the Earth's atmosphere
9. "It doesn't put us into the satellite
business, but it puts us halfway thereif we choose to go
there" he said. Trying to sound less critical, I asked how
Britain had managed to produce Black Knight so cheaply, compared
with American efforts. "We do all our research, compared
with the Americans, on a shoe-string", he boasted. "That's
one of the exciting things. We do achieve results by much more
10. This, however, did not quite tie-up
with what his fellow Minister, Harold Watkinson of Transport and
Civil Aviation, had told the pre-show dinner guests of the Society
of British Aircraft Constructors. Insufficient attention had been
paid, he said, to the need for planemakers and airline operators
to earn some sound profits. There were then still six years to
go before relationships between the aerospace industry and Harold
Wilson's Labour Government were to explode into public snarling,
but Whitehall was already becoming noticeably impatient with demands
from these industries for subsidies and financial backing.
11. These were the years when Governments
as well as the Services and the airlines, began to prefer American
products to those produced in Britain. The catch phrase was that
it was so much cheaper to buy them "off the shelf" from
our US ally than to invest millions of pounds doing our own development
workdisastrously encouraged by a shortage of skilled labour
and no serious worries about unemployment. Needless to say, this
approach was warmly applauded as sensible and far-sighted by our
much shrewder American competitors. The unions, obsessed with
trying to improve the conditions of their lowest-paid workers,
were less interested in long-range prospects for engineers and
technicians who were still in short supply and could easily get
12. The British-built V-bombers and their
stand-off bombs were still not fully operational, but I was already
covering the arrival from the US of "the ultimate weapon"60
Thor IRBMs (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles). We were told
that they were "intelligent monsters", 65 feet long,
8 feet in diameter, able to work out their own trajectories if
and when they delivered their H-bombs on the 1,500 mile journey
from the Norfolk coast to their Soviet targets. They lay prone
in their specially-built air-conditioned shelters, ready at the
touch of a button to roll out on their private railway, raise
themselves into the vertical position, slurp up around 50,000kg
of liquid hydrogen and kerosene, and set off.
13. Having described their arrival and explained
how national pride was salved by arrangements that they could
be fired only when both US and British Air Force officers produced
their twin keys, I almost forgot about them until I returned for
the dismantling story six years later. In between, RAF crews faithfully
serviced their 60 intelligent monsters, their boredom relieved
with occasional trips to Cape Canaveral to make test-firings of
the oldest of their charges. For most of that time the Thor IRBMs
had been "sitting ducks", totally vulnerable to a Soviet
first-strike. But one supposes they did give British engineers
and technicians some second-hand, but much restricted familiarity
with the technology of what later became the Delta space launcher.
14. A modest beginning to a national space
programme was announced to the House of Commons by Prime Minister
Harold Macmillan on 12 May 1959. Expenditure, he said, would be
in hundreds of thousands. rather than millions of pounds. He appeared
to be in substantial agreement with a Labour MP who queried whether
there was any value in the work apart from "keeping up with
the Joneses". Neither by nature nor education said Mr Macmillan
was he "inclined to swallow everything that scientists told
him", but he was impressed by the universal opinion of the
distinguished people who had been consulted.
15. Foremost among these was Prof (later
Sir) Harrie Massey , who was appointed to head a British space
research team sent off to Washington to discuss possible co-operation
on satellite launchers. But the main British effort, it was made
clear, would be directed at the design and construction of instruments
for satellites, rather than either complete satellites or complete
16. Space research was made the responsibility
of Quintin Hogg, former MP, then Lord Hailsham, Lord President
of the Council. I interviewed both him and Massey after they had
held a news conference following the Prime Minister's announcement.
Massey, calm and courteous, was always an effective advocate of
British space activities, but he made it clear from the start
that his preference was for "instruments automatically operated",
and he specifically ruled out even biological studies of animals
in space. The attitude of this much-respected scientist was to
make it impossible to obtain any effective support in Britain
for manned spaceflight for the remainder of the 20th century.
17. Lord Hailsham, as always, found it a
great effort to bring himself down to the mental level required
for a radio and TV interview. He did not relish my questions about
"hitching a lift" in American satellites, and whether,
once we had started, Britain would "go for the moon".
"Is there no hope then that the Dan Dare
of the future won't be American and won't be Russian, but will
be British?" "Well I don't know, I don't know at all".
"You're not offering us any hope." "Well, I don't
know why you should call it a hope. I'm quite happy with the Earth,
but I dare say we can arrange something for you in one of our
satellites of the future."
18. By then Prime Minister Macmillan had
accepted the US offer to supply Skybolt missiles at knock-down
priceswe would not, it seemed, have to contribute to their
development costs. This air-launched missile would be dropped
from an under-wing pod up to 1,000 miles from its target by second-generation
British V-bombers. The independence of Britain's nuclear deterrent
would be maintained by the fact that Skybolt would carry British-made
nuclear warheadseven if they could not reach their targets
without US help. Macmillan, it was clear, had also half-committed
Britain to follow Skybolt with the purchase of US Polaris missiles
for launch from submarines. The rivalry of the US Air Force and
Navy in promoting these weapons I will come to later; and already
Britain's few knowledgable space enthusiasts foresaw a bleak future
for British technology in the anticipated spin-off area of space
19. I had difficulty pulling together all
the threads of events in 1960. Much was happening simultaneously
in defence, aviation and spaceaccelerated so far as Britain
was concerned by the appointment in December 1959 of Duncan Sandys
as the country's first Minister of Aviation. He immediately started
to force the famous aircraft companies to merge themselves into
two large groups by the simple expedient of telling them that
any company not merging would get no more Government contracts.
Handley Page, Britain's oldest aviation company, refused to comply
and was driven into bankruptcy.
20. In the US the state of mind was vividly
illuminated when an Air Force general in the Pentagon told me:
"The real danger is that Russia will invent something we
haven't invented!" This sort of panic mentality meant that
it was a golden age for the inventorsand there were some
areas which the US was glad to leave to Britain. They included
vertical take-off aircraft, and within days of building a broadcast
around the General's remark I was watching Tom Brooke-Smith giving
the first demonstration at RAE Bedford of the Short SC1soon
overtaken by Bill Bedford and the Britsol Siddeley 1127.
21. The US Air Force watched British developments
with close interestand especially, while they were introducing
their 8-jet B52 bombers, the parallel development by Britain of
three different V-bombersthe Valiant, Vulcan and Victor.
With Moscow only 1,500 miles away from London, the V-bombers needed
only one-third the range of their US rivals. Nevertheless, the
RAF decided to demonstrate to the world that by means of inflight
refuelling, the Vickers Valiant V-bomber could fly 8,100 miles
non-stop from Singapore to Marham in Norfolka gimmick perhaps
to attract export orders.
22. So, one day in May 1960 a BBC camera
crew and I set off from Northolt Airport to cover its arrivalbut
I never learned whether it did arrive. Two small RAF Ansons were
provided to ferry newsmen who had dutifully signed forms absolving
the Air Force from any liability in the event of accident, to
Marham. The second Anson, carrying the camera crew, suffered an
engine failure on take-off, and the pilot shut down the good engine
instead of the failed one, and ended by pancaking on to the roof
of an Express Dairy egg factory. Happily the only serious casualties
were thousands of neatly-packed eggsso we covered that
story insteadto the great annoyance of the RAF and the
Valiant bomber crew.
23. Next day I was back on the Skybolt story,
demanding from Harold Watkinson, now the Defence Minister, what
would happen if the United States suddenly cancelled Skybolt,
as had happened so often with such ambitious projects. No problem,
retorted Watkinson: "We are full partners in the project,
so any such decision would have to be made by both partners together".
It was not a bit like that when cancellation did comeand
even I did not believe it possible that an ally could be given
such short shrift.
24. Between doing a sensational "lead"
that the Skybolt deal had been accompanied by an unannounced US-British
plan for a round-the-world H-bomb patrol with their combined fleets
of nuclear bombers, I visited the College of Aeronautics at Cranfield.
There was little interest in my report from there that because
of the urgent need for training in space technology the College
was about to start a 12-months' course on the subject.
25. "Is it possible," I asked
the unfortunate professor, "for Britain to teach space techniques
when she hasn't got a space programme of her own?" "Yes
Mr Turnill, we don't see any difficulty or inconsistency because
we believe that space technology is just a continuation of aeronautical
engineering along a particular line." Britain and its young
scientists have indeed been fortunate that such people have never
given up. The result has been a steady flow of British scientists
right through the second half of the 20th centuryinto the
space programmes of course of other countries.
26. In the second half of 1960s the Soviets
followed up the shooting down of Gary Powers in his high-flying
U2 by shooting down a USAF RB47 reconnaissance aircraft, with
six-crew aboard, because they alleged it was inside their territorial
waters over the Barents Sea while taking a sideways radar look
at Soviet defence systems.
27. Ten days later two Soviet dogs were
launched into orbit and safely recovered, and I was interviewing
Squadron Leader Peter Howard of the RAF's School of Aviation Medicine
for an explanation of why the Americans sent up monkeys and the
Soviets dogs. Physiologically, explained Peter (who became a friend
as well as an Air Marshal in the ensuing 30 years) a dog was more
like a man; but while monkeys were smaller they had the great
advantage that you could train them "to push buttons and
work knobs" as men would have to do. The Soviets, we were
to discover, were eight months away from placing Yuri Gagarin
28. A week after that I was in a Vulcan
of 617 Squadron, describing the RAF's new procedure for getting
Britain's V-bomber fleet into the air within two minutes of a
warning that Soviet missiles had been launched against us. The
theory was that the BMEWS radar warning system could give us four
minutes' warning that missiles had been launchedjust time
to boil an egg, said some wag. But, it was argued, if we could
get the V-bombers, with their H-bomb loads, airborne in half that
time, there would be no point in the Soviets launching their missiles
in the first place, since the V-bombers would utterly destroy
Russia no matter what damage their missiles did.
29. To convince the publicand of
course the US Air Forceof this, I sat in the dark below
and between the pilot and co-pilotthe inside of the Vulcan
was more like a cellar than a flight deckrecording: "This
is the Bomber Controller. Scramble, scramble, scramble."
Five pairs of hands reached in all directions for those knobs
and buttons envisaged by Peter Howard; pilot and co-pilot, facing
forward, used a new procedure to start all four engines simultaneously
instead of in sequence. Behind them, three technicians facing
backwards and looking at TV displays and radar screens, were equally
busy, arming and targeting their weapons. We lifted off the runway
at Scampton, Lincolnshire, in 1 minute 57 seconds.
30. At the Farnborough Air Show a week later,
Valiant, Victor and Vulcan squadrons took daily turns to demonstrate
that they too could achieve such take-off times. It certainly
impressedas well as deafeningthe visiting public,
but the hope was that the numerous "military attaches"
attending from London's Soviet Embassy would be even more impressed
and send warnings to Moscow in their intelligence reports. The
cold war was at its frostiest.
31. At this time America felt that they
needed British approval of their policies as never beforewith
the result that a few days after the end of Farnborough, I became
an "honorary major-general" in the US Air force for
a memorable three weeks. Seventeen British air and defence correspondents
were provided with a 40-seater Convair of the US MATS (Military
Air Transport Service, fitted out with a seat and worktable for
each of us for a 20,000 miles tour around US military establishments,
in Greenland and Iceland, culminating in top-level briefings at
the Pentagon and State Department.
32. In addition to periodic broadcasts during
the tour on America's long-range missile and space policies (the
fulfilment of which I followed for 20 years afterwards) I had
a fascinating encounter with Dr Edward Teller, an excitable scientist
world-famous as "Father of the H-bomb". He was foremost
among top-level Soviet-haters, who scared us with their mindset
of "If we've got to have a war, let's get it over with".
Teller sat across the table from me criticising his fellow scientists
for arguing that the Soviets would learn nothing of military value
by their planned space probes to Mars and Venus. "That's
all very well" he declared with passion, "but what I
want to know is: what KIND of nothing?"
33. At that time Teller was campaigning
for the resumption of nuclear tests, arguing that the US had given
the Soviets a huge military advantage by suspending tests and
saying that they would never be the first to make a nuclear strike.
This was a miscalculated risk, he told us. More tests were needed
to develop smaller rockets and bases. How would nuclear explosives
work in a vacuum, and what kind would be needed to destroy military
satellites? The Soviets might be doing nuclear tests far out in
space, where it would be difficult to detect them, with none of
the radioactive fallout coming back to earth.
34. Then came rival briefings from US Air
Force seeking to convince us that what was needed was their airborne
ballistic missile Skybolt, while the US Navy (who were to win)
argued that they should be allowed to develop the submarine-borne
missile Polaris. General Raborn, its chief advocate, told us:
"It's sort of like Marilyn Monroe; it can do something for
35. Meanwhile Peter Thorneycroft, in pursuance
of Macmillan's orders 18 months earlier for "a modest beginning"
in space, had completed talks with Australia, Canada and France,
aimed at persuading them to join a European/Commonwealth "space
club" using Blue Streak as a first stage launcher for placing
"heavy satellites" in Earth orbit. There was no obvious
role at that time for Canada, but it was probably that stimulus
that led to Canada becoming a major player in the space game in
later years; Australia was eager to join in anything that would
enable the Woomera rocket range to survive.
36. The French alone seemed lukewarm. It
was all much too British-led. But they were obsessed with fulfilling
de Gaulle's insistence on an independent French nuclear strike
force, and the need to replace out of date bombers with long-range
missiles as a delivery system. They wondered whether a version
of Blue Streak, suitably de-Anglicised, might save them a lot
of development money. So the French had told Thorneycroft that
they would consider it and let him know.
37. So, as 1961 began, hopes rose that there
would be a future after all for the British scientists and engineers
who had built a reservoir of knowledge during their work on space-related
defence projects. After weeks spent touring Europe, Aviation Minister
Peter Thorneycraft attended a 12-nation conference at Strasbourg
which agreed in principle to the idea of forming a European space
club around the abandoned Blue Streak missile. Britain contributed
that as the first stage of a space launcher free of charge, and
also agreed to pay a major share of an (under)estimated £70
million needed to fund a five-year test programme. Arguments followed
as to whether the second stage should be Britain's Black Knight
or France's Veronique, with other countries contributing their
specialities in instrumentation, metallurgy, etc.
38. It was three years later before seven
European nations, plus Australia, agreed to form ELDO, the European
Launcher Development Organisation. Europe would challenge US-Soviet
supremacy with a launcher consisting of Britain's Blue Streak
carrying France's Coralie as 2nd stage, West Germany's Astrid
as 3rd stage, and test satellites provided by Italy. Belgium was
to provide the ground guidance station, and the Netherlands telemetry
links and other equipment. Australia, of course, was providing
the use of Woomera.
39. That was Europa 1, and accompanied by
quarrels, failures and some limited success, 10 test firings were
carried out at Woomera. The Australians didn't want to know when
it was pointed out that Woomera was not near enough to the Equator
for launching satellites, so during that time the cunning French
built a launch site at Kourou in the South American jungle near
Cayenne, of pepper fame.
40. And in November 1971 I was there with
the world's space correspondents to witness the first flight of
Europa 2which also had a French 4th stage perigee motor
said to be able to place a 200kg satellite in geostationary orbit.The
British, French, German and Italian teams were talking to each
other, but only to complain about each other's lack of co-operation.
It was impressive to watch, from some miles away, the rocket rising
from the midst of thick jungle. But no one was surprised when,
two and half minutes later, a screen showed it going off course
and exploding. I had a convenient circuit and within minutes the
BBC was broadcasting my description of Blue Streak exploding.
41. There were more explosions among the
warring rocket teams, eachand especially Hawker Siddeleysinsisting
that their stage was not to blame for the disaster. A press conference
opened with a violent attack on the BBC, my broadcast having come
straight back on World Service. Later came threats to throw me
and my old friend Ronald Bedford of the Daily Mirror, into
the swimming pool. We managed to extract ourselves, and went off
to bed. It was the London Evening Standard man who finally got
manhandled, and in an alcoholic poolside fracas the senior Hawker
Siddeley man ended with a broken arm.
42. Later of course Blue Streak was declared
innocent, having been overstressed by the course deviation, and
a replacement Europa 2 was aboard a French ship bound for Kourou
for another attempt when, on 27 April 1973, the whole project
43. Lessons were learned. Out of it all
grew the European Space Agency, and our own Roy Gibson was appointed
its first Director General. A born peacemaker, his policy of "just
return", guaranteeing that every member country would in
the long run get full value for its investment, turned ESA into
the world's finest example of what international collaboration
can achieve. When a media campaign led to the formation of the
British National Space Centre, Roy Gibson was appointed the first
DG of that, and asked by the Government to propose a space policy.
He did so, and it included a number of "menu" or alternatives,
with varying costs. The Thatcher government rejected the whole
of it, and declared it "classified" so that it could
not be publishedand indeed to this day it never has been.
Gibson was forced into a resigning position, and his remarkable
services to this country have never been recognised in any way.