Monday, 3 February 2014

Sir Winston Churchill and the Space Race

Chris Gainor dressed as Sir Winston Churchill in 2013. At left is Olive Bailey, who worked as a codebreaker during World War II at Britain's top secret facility at Bletchley Park.

In my hometown of Victoria B.C., I am known for my public appearances dressed as Sir Winston Churchill, the incomparable British statesman who as prime minister faced down Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime in World War II.

My interest in Churchill was sparked by his central role in the history of the twentieth century, but over time I have become more interested in Churchill's interactions with new technologies.

In his ninety years from 1874 to 1965, Churchill led an extraordinary life that encompassed many changes in warfare and technology. In 1898, he took part in the last great cavalry charge by the British Army, at Omdurman. His last major speech before he stepped down as prime minister in 1955 focused on his concerns about the hydrogen bomb.

Churchill was known for promoting new technologies, including aircraft and tanks in World War I, and radar, computing devices to aid code breakers, nuclear weapons, artificial harbours and many other inventions in World War II. Indeed, Churchill was also known to champion many ideas that failed, such as making an aircraft carrier out of ice.

In his role as a facilitator of technology, Churchill is one of the creators of today's world. In spite of the vast numbers of books that have been written about him, I have yet to see a good book on Churchill's relationship to technology.

What about space exploration? Humanity's thrust into outer space began after Churchill retired in 1955, and so there is relatively little to say about him and the final frontier. Yet Churchill had a role in facilitating space flight when he brought Nazi Germany's rocket program to the attention of Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator. 

In the summer of 1944, Churchill wrote Stalin about the German V-1 and V-2 missile programs and asked for permission for British experts to visit a former German rocket test range in Poland that had recently been taken by Soviet forces. Stalin responded by sending in a team of Soviet rocket experts, who found that the Germans had taken away most evidence of their rocket work before they surrendered the territories.

In spite of this, the Russians were able to gather pieces of the V-1 and V-2 and associated equipment, including a V-2 combustion chamber, to take back to the Soviet Union. The Russians were astounded by the size of the V-2 rocket, and at the end of the war, Stalin ordered his rocket experts to build rockets like the V-2. The knowledge the Soviet experts gained, some of it with help from German engineers who went to work for them after the war, helped them build far bigger rockets after Stalin's death, rockets capable of launching nuclear warheads to the United States and satellites and spacecraft into orbit and beyond.

 As for the British, their experts were allowed into the test range, but only after the Soviet team had done its work.

Russian rocket pioneer Boris Chertok later wrote: “In many respects for our future [rocket] activities, Churchill’s appeals to Stalin were truly decisive.”

Churchill left 10 Downing Street after an election defeat as the war was ending in 1945, but he returned as prime minister  in 1951 and served until his retirement in 1955. During this time, both the Soviet Union and the United States armed themselves with nuclear weapons, and the cold war between them was widening. 

While Churchill was preoccupied with mediating the differences between the two superpowers, his government was also creating Britain's own nuclear deterrent. This included a decision to develop an intermediate range ballistic missile that became known as Blue Streak. In 1960, long after Churchill left office but before the missile was completed, Blue Streak was cancelled.

The second Churchill government's work on Blue Streak led to two short-lived British space efforts. Blue Streak was used as the first stage for the multinational Europa launcher, which itself was cancelled in the early 1970s, and an associated program, Black Knight, led to a rocket that launched a British satellite in 1971.

Churchill lived to see the beginning of the space race with the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the first humans in 1961. In October 1959, as the first Soviet space probes were reaching the Moon, Churchill had this to say:

 "Let no one believe that the lunar rockets, of which we read in the press, are merely ingenious bits of prestige. They are manifestations of a formidable advance in technology. As with many vehicles of pure research, their immediate uses may not be apparent. But I do not doubt that they will ultimately reap a rich harvest for those who have the imagination and power to develop them and to probe ever more deeply into the mysteries of the universe in which we live."

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