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OU Lecture 2007: Yuri and me

Updated Tuesday, 26th June 2007

When the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin came to visit Karl Marx's tomb in Highgate, local schoolchildren turned out to see him, among them young John Zarnecki, who was particularly inspired.

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Can you believe that we have been in Space for fifty years? It's incredible. I find it hard to believe. Fifty years! But half a century ago a lot of people doubted that it could actually happen. In 1956, Sir Richard van der Riet Woolley was Astronomer Royal and advisor to the government on Space. Everybody was listening very carefully to what he had to say on the subject.

"Space travel is utter bilge."

Which just goes to show – never believe the experts. The following year he might have thought very differently because on October 4th, 1957, the Soviet Union launches Sputnik 1. It had four aerials transmitting this characteristic sound and it orbited the Earth once every ninety-six minutes. A month later the Soviets are at it again when Sputnik 2 is launched. It's bigger. It carries more instruments and this time there is a dog on board – Laika. Although there is enough food and water on board for ten days we believe that Laika actually died within a few hours in Space when the insulation within the cabin failed. But Laika was a national heroine and the Soviets had put a living creature into orbit. The first US programme, the Vanguard Project, had its teething problems but in January, 1958, the Americans successfully launched Explorer 1 which goes into orbit and it discovers the radiation belts around the Earth, the Van Allen Belt – a very important discovery, the first of many, many scientific discoveries made from Space.

So the US is in the Space race and it's rocket launch after rocket launch. Sometimes it seemed almost every week. The Soviets put a man into orbit. The US responds. The Soviets space walk. The US take a stroll out there as well. I can't convey to you the excitement that this generated for me, a young lad growing up in the Sixties at the same time that Space exploration was well and truly beginning. I can't imagine how you couldn’t get caught up in the excitement of this time. The triumphs, the disasters, the impossible achieved. It was a truly incredible time when one event could pull together entire nations in a breath-holding moment. I have to confess that for me it was the drama of the whole thing that grabbed me as much as the science and the technology of it.

Now I’ve called this lecture Fingers Crossed – Fifty Years of Space Exploration because, when I step back and think about it, despite all the fabulous technology, all of the testing that we do to make sure that things go right, sending missions across the Solar System is an incredibly risky business because we don't always know what the conditions are going to be like at our targets until we actually get there. That was certainly true in those early days and it still is sometimes true today. Over the years as a space scientist, I have had my share of good fortune and bad fortune, with some great successes but equally the occasional problem along the way. And I would like to share some of those moments with you tonight.

Now, my first slice of good luck, I think, happened just to be growing up in the 1960s. It wasn't just the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, England winning the World Cup – I saw all of those live. But I really became hooked on Space exploration in 1961 and a chance encounter with this man – Yuri Gagarin – the first man in Space and overnight the most famous man on Earth. In the Summer of ’61 he embarked on a world tour. The UK was his first port of call. He met the Queen; he met the Prime Minister and then me. Well nearly. I was at school in Highgate in North London and Highgate’s most famous resident is here on your right. Karl Marx – Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery.

So every Russian dignitary had to come and pay their respects. We were given the afternoon off school. Now most of my friends went off to play cricket or football, play with their Game Boy or whatever it was you did in 1961. But for some reason I decided to go to Highgate Cemetery to see what was going on. Here is Yuri Gagarin saluting Karl Marx. You can see this policeman here – I was standing just behind him. Just a few feet from Gagarin and to my surprise I was bowled over by the experience. This man – he was very small, much smaller than I expected. He seemed to be dwarfed by this big army hat that he was wearing and he had been in Space for ninety-three minutes. I couldn’t believe it. And that was the moment for me. I wanted to do something in Space. I didn’t know what but I wanted to have a part of it. So my mind was made up. I actually started to concentrate on my studies – well at least for most of the time – and I went to university and I got a degree in Physics.


With thanks to:

  • NASA
  • ETV
  • AFP/Getty Images
  • Movietone
  • Asif Siddiqi
  • BBC Archive


The Open University Lecture 2007

This is part 1 of 10

Next: The dirty window





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