Hidden Cold War History at Jodrell Bank Observatory!

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Teaching the Cold War at the Jodrell Bank Observatory

Dr Kristy Ironside and Dr Thomas Tunstall-Allcock

When asked to list the various battlegrounds of the Cold War, one might readily point to the 1962 showdown between Kennedy and Khrushchev over missiles in Cuba, as well as the Korean and Vietnam proxy wars, but not the University of Manchester. However, as we recently learned and as we discussed with a group of year 10 and sixth-form students on 27 January, the Jodrell Bank Observatory, part of the University’s astrophysics programme, found itself caught in the middle of a fierce competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to conquer the skies.

In 1945 Sir Bernard Lovell came to Jodrell bank as a University of Manchester astrophysicist researching cosmic rays. His arrival was to prove fortuitous. During the Second World War, Lovell shifted his focus to developing radar systems for military aircraft.  He returned to his work on cosmic rays after the war, using ex-military equipment, but quickly ran into a number of logistical problems.  For one thing, it was difficult to conduct his research on campus, due to electrical interference from the trams along Oxford Road.  To avoid this, he moved his equipment to an outpost of the University’s botany department in Goostrey, Cheshire. In late 1949, after witnessing the early successes of the Transit Telescope, Lovell began to consider plans for building a large steerable radio telescope in conversation with Charles Husband. This would eventually be realised in 1957 as the Mark I Telescope, now the famous Lovell Telescope. Amid straitened post-war circumstances, Lovell struggled to find the necessary resources to complete the telescope, often using salvaged materials, even the discarded components of a battleship.  Government funding for the project proved inadequate and controversial.  Lovell initially estimated that the telescope would cost around £60,000 to build. By 1952, that sum had risen to £333,000, a figure that also proved to be an underestimate. In the end, Lovell spent £670,000 building the telescope. The project was heavily criticized in Parliament as a boondoggle, and there were even calls to have him arrested on charges of overspending public money, especially since it was still unclear what purpose the telescope served.

All that changed when the Soviet Union launched its first ‘sputnik’ satellite into orbit on October 4, 1957, taking the world by surprise and signalling the start of the ‘space race.’ The telescope was not needed to listen to Sputnik-1’ s bleeps because this could be done with much simpler radio equipment, but it was the only telescope in the world capable of detecting the ICBM missile the sputnik was attached to. The Jodrell Bank Observatory was catapulted to a position of global prominence, Lovell’s critics were silenced, and new funds poured in – not only from the British government, but also from the United States. The launch of Sputnik prompted panic within the American government that Russian technology was outstripping their own, fears which only deepened as Soviet successes (first satellite in space, first dog in space, and first human in space) continued to mount. Desperate to monitor Soviet rocket launches, and to use Jodrell Bank’s facilities to track their own rapidly expanding efforts, both the US Air Force and NASA were soon paying substantial amounts for access to the telescope.  This was soon followed by efforts to employ Jodrell Bank’s capabilities to track potential offensive missile launches. The Jodrell Bank telescope briefly became an “early warning device” for a Soviet nuclear attack.

The Soviet Union also envisioned an important role for the Jodrell Bank Observatory, which could provide independent verification of its accomplishments. When the Soviet Union launched its Luna-1 rocket into space in January 1959, many believed it had never happened.  As a result, when it launched the Luna-2 rocket in September 1959, Soviet authorities sent Jodrell Bank the rocket’s coordinates and frequencies; soon afterward, Jodrell Bank confirmed its existence. They asked Jodrell Bank to monitor the landing of the Venera-4 probe on Venus in 1967. Soviet scientists also came to Jodrell Bank on scientific exchanges and, in 1963, Lovell accepted an invitation from Mstislav Keldysh, the president of the Soviet academy of sciences, to visit the Soviet Union.  He was brought to a defence base on the Black Sea coast where, Lovell claims, the Soviets tried to poison him with radiation.  Lovell told reporters in 2009 that he wrote of the attack in his journal and a full account of the events would be made public after his death.  Lovell died in 2012, and his archive remains – to our knowledge – untouched by historians.  It is housed in the special collections of the John Rylands library.

The Jodrell Bank Observatory remains an active research site. However, in 2015, it was awarded funding from the National Heritage Lottery fund for its ‘First Light’ project, which aims to conserve and restore the heritage of the site and create a space for visitors to “learn about the journey to explore our place in the Universe.” Under the banner of its outreach and educational efforts, we were contacted this past fall by Julia Riley, Head of Education at the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre, about putting together a programme for schools looking at the pivotal role the Observatory played in the Cold War and in the space race.  As historians of the United States and the Soviet Union, we were both very excited to contribute.

In our lectures to students, we provided background on the larger geopolitical context of the Cold War, the competition between communism and capitalism, and the atmosphere of fear and anxiety that ordinary citizens and scientists alike lived and worked in. Tom spoke about the pervasiveness of the Cold War in American society, demonstrating the ways in which it affected politics, education, and popular culture. His lecture ended by emphasising the impact that the Sputnik launch had in the United States, prompting the efforts that would see a man walk on the moon just over a decade later.  Kristy talked about the importance of the space program in the context of the Soviet Union’s ongoing project of building a communist utopia.  Putting a man in space was portrayed as proof of the superiority of Soviet power and of the Soviet Union’s revolutionary advance.

During hands-on activities, students worked with primary sources drawn from the Observatory’s archives, including letters, telexes, press clippings, and visitors’ books. Working with our brilliant student volunteers, the students were asked to evaluate Lovell’s objectives and his efforts to conduct objective scientific research in a highly politicized context. In their presentations to the group, students painted a picture of Lovell as a complicated figure, committed to the advancement of knowledge and striving to clear a neutral path for his ground-breaking research.  One thing is clear: the Jodrell Bank Observatory is not only an invaluable resource to astrophysicists looking above them but also to historians looking behind them.  It is an excellent teaching resource that will hopefully be made fuller use of as the heritage project unfolds.  The history of the observatory, along with the figure of Sir Bernard Lovell himself, vividly demonstrates the international and transnational nature of space research and the complexities of the Cold War.

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