Britain's Buoyant Blast Into Space

History of British Space Science. Harrie Massey and MO. Robins. Cambridge University Press, New York, 1986. 420 pp. $89.50. Britain has always had a wealth of scientific talent. The research activities of these able minds have kept the United Kingdom at the forefront of many of the major scientific and technological advances of recent decades. This is particularly true in space science. Historically, World War II played a catalytic role in these research activities. One man, Professor Sir Harri

By | February 23, 1987

History of British Space Science. Harrie Massey and MO. Robins. Cambridge University Press, New York, 1986. 420 pp. $89.50.


Britain has always had a wealth of scientific talent. The research activities of these able minds have kept the United Kingdom at the forefront of many of the major scientific and technological advances of recent decades. This is particularly true in space science.

Historically, World War II played a catalytic role in these research activities. One man, Professor Sir Harrie Massey FRS, was to be the architect for the U.K. space program for the next 30 years until his untimely death in November 1983. Sir Harrie was a great man; small in physical stature but without doubt one of the scientific giants of this century. It was through his vision, foresight and determination that so much was achieved in British space science from the 1950s to the 1980s. Now through the eyes of this man and another key player, M.O. Robins, we can learn about this important period of British scientific history. Their book, History of British Space Science, catalogues the developments of this area of scientific and technological application, through the growth of the U.K.'s space activities into the expanding international arenas.

The book opens in 1925, the year that marked the starting point for the British space science program with Appleton and Bartlett's studies of the ionosphere using radio waves. This work generated considerable interest in the structure of the upper atmosphere, although it was not until the Second World War that a scientific investigation of the atmosphere using rocket experiments was undertaken. In 1957 the United Kingdom carried out its first test launch of a rocket.

As the authors point out, this important step took place in a typical British style. On the morning of May 13, 1953, Massey was leaving his office at University College London to take part in the annual departmental staff-student cricket match, when he received a telephone call from the Ministry of Supply, asking whether he would be interested in using rockets for scientific research. Naturally, he said yes, and the British rocket program had started.

During the next 25 years more than 600 experiments were carried out on a wide variety of rocket platforms involving the now rapidly increasing space groups and in cooperation with many overseas organizations such as NASA and ESA, and the Commonwealth countries. Many of these experiments are detailed in the book.

The United Kingdom entered the space program stimulated by the scientific and technological opportunities that it would provide. But the constant reduction of funds during recent years for the space science community has caused many scientists to leave the subject and major research groups are now being closed. The country is therefore in danger of over-reducing the key element in space studies, namely the scientists. Indeed they are a national asset. It is important to preserve them and make the best use of their unique expertise so that U.K. space science can continue to build from the solid foundation whose history has been so expertly told by Massey and Robins.

Hunt is business manager for Space and Technical Computing Services at PA Computers & Telecommunications, 33 Greycoat St., Rochester House, London, SW1 P2QS, UK.

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