Dr James Peters writes:

Sixty years ago this week, the Jodrell Bank radio telescope was involved in one of the most dramatic events of the Space Race.

On 4th October 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I. The public was immediately captivated by this small, metallic sphere which circulated the Earth every 98 minutes. For Western governments, however, Sputnik was worrying evidence of Soviet technological superiority, and the US government responded by committing huge resources to space research.

Sputnik I satellite

Somewhat unexpectedly, Sputnik also proved to be the making of Jodrell Bank. Although the radio-telescope became operational in the summer of 1957, the year had been a difficult one for Jodrell Bank’s director, Bernard Lovell. He had fallen out with H. C. Husband, whose firm had built the telescope, following a highly critical Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee report on the project’s delays and cost overruns. This had been accompanied by a good deal of negative media coverage.

The launch of Sputnik helped restore the Observatory’s reputation. The Jodrell Bank telescope was the only facility in the West which could track Sputnik’s launch rocket. The authorities, unlike the public, were more interested in this than the satellite; Sputnik had been launched by an inter-continental ballistic missile, and this had obvious implications for Cold War nuclear strategy.

Improvising with great ingenuity, Lovell’s team attached the necessary radar equipment to the telescope and on the 11th October they picked up definite signals from Sputnik’s rocket as it flew over northern England. The media presented this as an heroic triumph for British science, and this public relations victory took some of the heat off Lovell (the USSR even sent him a telegram of thanks).

Sputnik tracking record
Jodrell Bank Observatory’s tracking record of the Sputnik I rocket.

The Jodrell Bank Observatory archive contains a wealth of material on the Sputnik episode. The documents which relate to the prehistory of the satellite’s launch are particularly interesting. Lovell had been working with government agencies since 1956 to ensure that Jodrell Bank could track human-made objects, including missiles and satellites.

Far from Sputnik being a shock, Lovell had been told by a confidential source in Moscow that a Soviet satellite might be launched as early as August 1957. Lovell’s main concern was whether the telescope was properly configured to track it. The Ministry of Supply had refused to fund the equipment which Lovell needed to do this, forcing the Observatory to make frenetic improvisations once Sputnik had launched.

The archives are also interesting on the public’s reaction to Sputnik. The satellite caught the public imagination in a quite unexpected way. Jodrell Bank was deluged with letters from the public reporting sightings (many of which were inaccurate). In what could be seen as an early exercise in “citizen science”, people took great trouble to communicate to the Observatory what they had seen in the night sky.

Letter reporting a sighting of Sputnik I.

Many correspondents also expressed their pride in what Jodrell Bank had achieved, and criticisms about the cost of the telescope were forgotten (temporarily, at least). As a result of Sputnik, the Jodrell Bank telescope, with its distinctive physical appearance, fixed itself in the public consciousness as proof of Britain’s continuing scientific prowess.