Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 71

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 technology—as 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 1950s—even though it stood proud in its gantry for all to admire as we drove past Hatfield on the A1. Very reluctantly—because Ministries felt more important if they had secrets to guard—Blue 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 Blue Streak.

  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 Knight—passing 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 one—that 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 ruling—the pathological fear of failure—was of course not mentioned.

  8.  In an interview I extracted from Jones the information that his Ministry—probably the most secretive of all Ministries when it came to accounting for its expenditure of the public's money—had 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 from orbit.

  9.  "It doesn't put us into the satellite business, but it puts us halfway there—if 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 economical means."

  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 work—disastrously 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 jobs.

  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 launchers.

  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 prices—we 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 warheads—even 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 launchers.

  19.  I had difficulty pulling together all the threads of events in 1960. Much was happening simultaneously in defence, aviation and space—accelerated 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 inventors—and 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 SC1—soon overtaken by Bill Bedford and the Britsol Siddeley 1127.

  21.  The US Air Force watched British developments with close interest—and especially, while they were introducing their 8-jet B52 bombers, the parallel development by Britain of three different V-bombers—the 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 Norfolk—a 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 arrival—but 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 eggs—so we covered that story instead—to 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 come—and 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 century—into 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 in orbit.

  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 launched—just 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 public—and of course the US Air Force—of this, I sat in the dark below and between the pilot and co-pilot—the inside of the Vulcan was more like a cellar than a flight deck—recording: "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 impressed—as well as deafening—the 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 before—with 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 everybody!"

  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 2—which 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, each—and especially Hawker Siddeleys—insisting 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 was abandoned.

  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 published—and 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.

November 2006

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