Sputnik, Lovell and the dream that inspired me

October 5, 2007

On the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik , Colin Pillinger recalls the boyhood wonder that helped mould his career

In the middle of a splash of green that used to be a playing field, at the not-so-fashionable end of Bristol, stands a giant oak tree. It is symbolic of the school I attended as a teenager. Indeed, it is all that is recognisable to me except for the "temporary" classroom where I first hung my satchel in 1954.

When I went there it was called Kingswood Grammar School (KGS to those of us inside and "the cow sheds" to those who weren't). Going to grammar school was considered a bit soft. I was never sure why - the secondary modern school and the new technical college where most of my friends were had more desirable buildings, especially in winter, when compared with the long low hut with paper-thin walls. It wasn't surprising when the whole lot burnt down, except for the "temporary" block that was made of asbestos.

It doesn't sound much like an academic hotbed, does it? Nor the place to throw up a hero of the space race. Not me, I hasten to add, but in October 1957 KGS did just that. As the world listened agog to the "beep, beep, beep" from Sputnik , the first artificial satellite, the pupils were encouraged to stare up, not just at the heavens, but at the Honours Board. Even after more than 30 years of the school's existence it didn't take long to read, but there it was, the second name - A. C. B. (Bernard) Lovell, the man in all the papers because he was tracking Sputnik with his telescope at Jodrell Bank.

Just above Lovell was another name familiar to us: Brian Sammons, our chemistry master, aka Fishy. Surely he must have known this Lovell bloke? "Yes." So Fishy went up in our estimation. Our headmaster, who also taught physics, delighted in telling us Lovell was an old boy.

My form, 3L1, occupied the classroom nearest to that Honours Board. It was only a few yards from the headmaster's study, with the chemistry lab just a little further on. So I probably got exposed to the part that our school played in Sputnik more than most. I was 14 at the time. I couldn't wait to be 15, when I could leave school. And I probably would have had it not been for Mr Hocking, my form and maths master, who summoned my parents to the school and told them I should stay on, even do science A levels and perhaps go to university.

Nobody in my family had ever been to university, but chemistry, physics and maths A levels it was, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I interrupted Sir Bernard, as he now is, the other day as he was mowing his lawn. I'm glad to say he is well at 94. We talked about his recollections. He hadn't intended to have anything to do with Sputnik , though he knew a satellite launch by the Soviet Union was imminent. "Yes," he remembered Brian Sammons - "older than I was". Then he went on to relate the story of how Sputnik saved his bacon. Jodrell Bank had run out of money. There was no means of "driving" the newly constructed telescope to point it at what you wanted to observe in the sky. Nobody had been paid and the builders were on strike.

Then came the call from the military. Khrushchev had launched "a weapon against which there was no defence". They had to know where it was. So back came the workforce, and the control room was finished in double-quick time. The giant telescope, which now bears Lovell's name and is in as good a fettle as the man who made it, locked on to Sputnik 's carrier signal and the bills were paid. Lovell had saved the world.

That's something else I share with Bernard Lovell - the experience of believing you are doing the right thing for science when the powers that be are reluctant to pay for it. It must be something in the Kingswood water!

I will always be grateful for the role he played in Sputnik , even if it was, by his own admission, as an afterthought. I wish other kids could have the same inspirational old boys to encourage them to consider science careers.

What did Sir Bernard want to ask me? "Are you going to have another go at Mars?" And that's the point. Beagle 2 had lots of people who were really peripheral to the main event but nevertheless there were all manner of local boy-makes-good stories all over the UK.

We need more Beagle 2 s, projects that everyone believes they played their part in, and maybe there could be 500 stories like mine in another 50 years.

Colin Pillinger is professor of planetary sciences at the Open University. He has a new book, Space Is a Funny Place. Contact psrg@open.ac.uk

October 4 was the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1 .

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