Friday, 29 November 2013

Two Astronomers and the Space Race

Portrait of Sir Bernard Lovell. Courtesy Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, University of Manchester

The Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada
Vol. 107, No. 2, 63-64 
April, 2013

The death last year of Neil Armstrong has driven home the reality that the space race that culminated with Armstrong’s first step on the Moon has passed into history.  In 2012 we also lost two notable astronomers whose roles in that cosmic competition have not often been remarked upon.

Sir Patrick Moore, who died at age 89 on December 9, and Sir Bernard Lovell, who passed away August 6, not long before what would have been his 99th birthday, had many things in common, including being Englishmen who made major marks on astronomy, their skill as musicians, and their love of cricket. While their names today mean little to people outside the United Kingdom, in the 1960s both were well known in Canada, even outside astronomical circles.

Lovell spearheaded the creation of the gigantic 76-meter radio telescope at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, and in so doing became one of the founding fathers of radio astronomy. He gained fame and may have saved his astronomy program by using his telescope to track early space vehicles.

Moore was famous in the UK for the 55-year-long run of his monthly BBC television show, The Sky at Night. Because this show did not appear on Canadian television, Moore was best known here as a prolific writer on astronomy and space travel. Rare was the Canadian space enthusiast in the 1960s and 1970s who didn’t own a copy of at least one of his books. In my case, it was his Moon Flight Atlas.

While the claim in one British obituary that Moore was the world’s most famous astronomer is debatable, he was probably the world’s most famous amateur astronomer. He had come to his interest in astronomy in his childhood, but gave up his admission to Cambridge University to join Bomber Command as a navigator in World War II.

After the war, he turned to teaching, observing, and writing the first of his books, which with various editions and translations number in the hundreds.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Canada had much stronger political, economic and cultural links to Britain than it does today. Canadians in those days read more British books and periodicals than they do today, and English Canadian broadcasters used British radio and television shows that were never broadcast in the U.S. or shown there only once they had won popularity in Canada. So it was no accident that Moore became well known in English Canada at the time.

Moore had trained in Hamilton, Ontario, for his wartime service, but his postwar visits to Canada were rare – a fact that he regretted when he met a group of RASC members in Toronto in 1985.

Although younger Canadian astronomers may not know the name of Patrick Moore, many of them learn the wonders of the deep skies with the help of the Caldwell Catalogue of 109 deep sky objects that is named after Moore, its creator, whose full last name is Caldwell-Moore.

Moore was also involved in the rise of space travel. It has been widely noted that The Sky at Night debuted just a few months before the launch of Sputnik in 1957, and the show benefited from the explosion of interest in space that came with the space race that began with Sputnik and culminated with Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s landing on the Moon in 1969.

Even before Sputnik, in 1956, Moore had signed on as the first editor of Spaceflight magazine, the flagship publication of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) that remains today the English-speaking world’s most popular magazine dedicated to space exploration.

As an expert on the Moon, Moore encouraged its exploration, and he helped present the BBC’s live television coverage of the Apollo flights to the Moon. Many astronauts and cosmonauts appeared on The Sky at Night, including Neil Armstrong.

After those flights ended four decades ago, Moore continued to the end of his life to feature spacecraft that explored the solar system and probed the heavens. When Voyager 1 flew by Saturn and its moon Titan in 1980, I attended the encounter at the Jet Propulsion Centre, and a highlight for me was meeting Moore, who was there to gather material for his show and his books.

By the time of that long ago encounter, Sir Bernard Lovell was nearing retirement. Lovell’s passing in August was not as widely noted as Moore’s in part because Lovell has been out of the public eye for decades.

Lovell was director of the Jodrell Bank Observatory in 1952 when construction began on the Mark 1 telescope, which became the world’s largest steerable radio telescope. By the time the telescope was completed in the summer of 1957, it was well over budget and the subject of an investigation by the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons.

When Sputnik was launched that fall, the Jodrell Bank telescope was used to track Sputnik’s booster rocket by radar, proving its utility to skeptical politicians and members of the public, including a rich benefactor who paid off the remaining deficit on the telescope’s construction.

In those early days of space travel, both Soviet and American space authorities called on Jodrell Bank to track spacecraft sent to the Moon, Venus and Mars, and the British media became frequent visitors to the radio telescope. In 1961 Lovell was knighted, formalizing the fact that his telescope had become a source of national pride.

Lovell’s – and Jodrell Bank’s – moment of greatest international notoriety arrived in February 1966 when the Soviet Union’s Luna 9 became the first spacecraft to land intact on the Moon.

Not long after Luna 9 sent back its first data from the lunar surface, the nature of the signal changed and personnel at Jodrell Bank recognized it as being similar to signals used to transmit photos to newspapers (and later used for fax machines) because Jodrell Bank had previously been involved in communications experiments with the Echo 2 balloon satellite. When Lovell noted the nature of Luna 9’s signals to newspaper reporters who had come to Jodrell Bank, the Daily Express brought a facsimile machine to the telescope and used it to produce images from the surface of the Moon when Luna 9 transmitted more photos the next day.

The Luna 9 photos appeared in the Express and other British newspapers before the discomfited Russians could release them, and Lovell became for a brief time an international celebrity.

Only a small fraction of Jodrell Bank’s operating time was used to track spacecraft, however, and Lovell and his team made many contributions to astronomy, from the nature of cosmic rays and meteorites to groundbreaking work on quasars and pulsars. The Mark 1 Telescope at Jodrell Bank was eventually named in Lovell’s honour, and continues to operate today. Only two steerable radio telescopes are larger than the Lovell Telescope.

In October 1971, when Lovell visited Edmonton to speak at the University of Alberta, he drew a crowd of more than 800 curious members of the public, including this writer. As in the case of Moore, I believe that Lovell’s fame in Canada at the time was related to Canada’s closer links to the UK at the time, as well as his association with the exploration of space. Like Moore, Lovell was a prolific author.

In an account of his speech in the Edmonton RASC Centre publication Stardust, Lovell expressed the hope that more resources would be put into basic space research such as he was doing and less into spaceflight technology. No doubt Lovell’s concern about the emphasis on space technology was related to the space race’s emphasis on political competition at the expense of science.

The Cold War and the space race between the United States and Russia are over, and today many orbiting telescopes and spacecraft that explore the solar system have taken their places among the tools used by astronomers to do their work, alongside optical and radio telescopes. Sir Patrick Moore and Sir Bernard Lovell advanced astronomy not only with their work as astronomers but also through their roles in the 1960s space race that helped vault them both to fame.

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