A touch of moonshine

November 5, 2004

Len Fisher repeats a common tale - that the Astronomer Royal pronounced that "space travel is bunk" a few weeks before Sputnik 1 was launched (Features, October 29). However, this "quote" has not only been paraphrased and used out of context, it has also been attributed to the wrong person.

The Astronomer Royal (who was Sir Richard van de Riet Woolley and not Sir Harold Spencer Jones) said in 1956 (not 1957), in response to a journalist's questions about flying saucers and trips to the Moon, "all this writing about space travel is utter bilge. To go to the Moon would cost as much as a major war".

Sir Richard was perfectly aware of plans to launch small Earth satellites as part of the imminent International Geophysical Year.

His only failure of vision was to discount the possibility that a major power would commit huge resources to a Cold-War project solely in an effort to boost national prestige.

Mike Dworetsky
University College London

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