Red, white and blue Moon

The Apollo programme was an American dream made flesh, but British scientists and engineers played a vital role in its realisation, explains Colin Pillinger

When I was a child in Bristol, you could catch a bus to the shadow factory. The name intrigued me - what kind of company made shadows? I later discovered that shadow factories copied things made by other firms that were urgently needed for the war effort. The Bristol one worked on aircraft.

One of the biggest shadow factories, Victory Aircraft, produced Lancaster bombers safely out of harm's way in Canada. At the end of the Second World War, Victory Aircraft was acquired by Hawker Siddeley, builder of the famous Hurricane fighter, and became A.V. Roe, the firm known as Avro in the UK. Hawker soon changed its name to the British Aircraft Company. Its Matra Marconi Space division turned into Astrium, which built Beagle 2.

You're already asking: "What's this got to do with the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing?"

I'll explain. Austerity in postwar Britain encouraged a number of skilled engineers from the UK aeronautical industry to chance their arm in North America - not in the US, but in Canada with A.V. Roe. The attraction was the chance to develop supersonic planes. By 1957, as Britain finally celebrated the end of rationing, the dream was realised and the Canadians had a contender for the world airspeed record: the Arrow, a fighter designed to counter long-range Soviet bombers.

Unbeknown to the organisers, a truly memorable date was chosen for unleashing the Arrow. With the far-from-home engineers taking pride of place in a 12,000-strong crowd at the A.V. Roe plant in Malton, Ontario, the band played God Save the Queen as an expat - Watford-born former Mountie, Major-General George R. Pearkes, VC - pulled the golden cord to reveal the prototype. Now you're starting to think this is a Monty Python sketch - it'll be lumberjacks next. Bear with me, though, I'm coming to the point.

The futuristic Arrow was pulled by a tractor into the weak October sunshine. Ten minutes later, it and the engineers that made it were redundant. The reason: it was 4 October, and the Soviets had just launched Sputnik 1.

Well, strictly speaking, the redundancies took longer. The Arrow project fell victim to a change of government and was unceremoniously scrapped after hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on its development. But the Sputnik programme raised the technological stakes. The space race had begun.

When the axe formally fell on Arrow in February 1959, 50,000 workers lost their jobs, the British expats among them. Fortunately, another organisation was recruiting south of the border. In the US the previous year, President Eisenhower had announced that the Federal Government would combine the disparate efforts of the US Army, Navy and Air Force to get into space under the auspices of a civil organisation: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or Nasa as it is commonly known. Its objective was to beat the USSR in the space race.

Inexplicably, American engineers didn't jump at the chance to join. It was widely thought that the Republicans would lose the next election and that the victorious Democrats would scrap the fledgeling - and potentially exorbitantly expensive - Nasa.

But the out-of-work Brits from A.V. Roe were more enthusiastic. Travelling in ramshackle second-hand cars, they decamped to pastures new - first Virginia, and then the woefully misnamed Clear Lake, near Houston, Texas. Here, in the middle of an industrially polluted swamp, the hub of America's push into space was being built. The Manned Spacecraft Center, eventually renamed the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center (JSC) in honour of the Vice-President who had championed its creation, opened for operation in 1961. The day after John F. Kennedy first visited the site in 1963, he was assassinated and Johnson succeeded him as President.

Kennedy, of course, assumed the Presidency in early 1961. In the wake of the USSR's successful launch and return of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, in April that year, JFK threw down the gauntlet with the decision - which some thought rash - to send a man to the Moon before the end of the decade and bring him safely back. The newly elected President said he had decided to undertake the endeavour "Not because it's easy".

By this time, men brought up in Croydon, Glasgow, Huntingdon, Leeds, Leigh-on-Sea, Liverpool, London, South Shields and Willenhall, who had served apprenticeships in Britain or were the product of British higher education institutions, including Imperial, Southampton, Cranfield and Wolverhampton, held key positions in the US' two manned space programmes, Mercury and Gemini.

The UK contingent's skills in computing, software development, engineering design, dynamics, and structural and stress engineering led swiftly to their recruitment to help realise the Apollo dream.

By the time Neil Armstrong made his "one small step" on 20 July 1969, some ex-A.V. Roe men had graduated to top jobs in Houston Mission Control. The contributions they had made to Apollo included establishing spacecraft tracking stations worldwide and working out the procedures for rescuing returning astronauts from the Pacific Ocean. The Brits also claim it was their idea that only one person in Mission Control, the Capcom (capsule communicator), should receive "Houston, we have a problem" calls and answer them. Consequently, one of the people who voiced the instructions during missions had an English accent. But perhaps the Brits' greatest achievement was to introduce cricket to their American colleagues.

I asked George W.S. Abbey, a former director of JSC and an Anglophile with British forebears, whether it was true that Britons had played a major role in the Apollo programme.

"Although it's believed at home that the British don't support manned space flight, you made significant contributions to Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, the shuttle and the International Space Station through the men who came to Houston, no one more so than Tecwyn Roberts," he says. Roberts, a Welshman, was influential in the design of Houston's Mission Control Center.

Perhaps the highest-profile PR event of the Apollo programme before the first Moon landing was also masterminded by a Briton, Rodney Rose, a flight director at Houston. The prayer read by astronaut Frank Borman at Christmas 1968, during what was surely the second-most dangerous development required for men to set foot on the Moon - Apollo 8's daring flight out of communication behind the satellite - should have been delivered by Borman to the congregation of his local church, where Rose was also a member. Understandably, he was unavailable for a personal appearance.

Instead, he and Rose, who put together the Apollo 8 mission plan, hatched a plot they called "Experiment P1". A recording of Borman's prayer - the first religious broadcast from space - was delivered by Rose to the church's minister just as he was winding up his Christmas Eve service.

Aviation engineers weren't the only Brits to contribute to the history of lunar exploration. We also produced the oldest surviving naked-eye map, and the first telescope maps of the Moon. The former was created by William Gilbert, the personal physician of Queen Elizabeth I and the father of magnetism.

In 2009, in addition to the 40th anniversary of the Moon landing, we are also celebrating the International Year of Astronomy to mark Galileo Galilei's first published telescope observations 400 years ago. But only Britons seem to recognise that, in respect of the Moon at least, Thomas Harriot beat Galileo to the draw in July 1609.

Perhaps the best hand-drawn maps of the Moon ever to appear were those created in the 1790s by moonlighting artist John Russell. By day, Russell was a portrait painter, but by night he would sit at his telescope recording the changing face of Earth's satellite. Training his artist's eye on the shifting appearance of shadows, he revealed important information about relief on the lunar surface. His maps, like those of Patrick Moore, were so good they were used for selecting the Apollo landing sites.

Russell used his combined talents when he was commissioned to do a portrait of Sir Joseph Banks: the president of the Royal Society is pictured with one of the artist's Moon maps in his hand.

Our inventors, too, played their part in humanity's quest to reach the lunar surface. First, 500 years ago, when Henry VIII wanted to impress Francis I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold summit, he ordered armour that completely enclosed his body. In 1962, a party from Nasa visited the Tower of London to look at the suit of armour's joints because their own design for space suits restricted the astronauts' movement.

More recently, Francis Thomas (Tom) Bacon, a fellow of the Royal Society, turned Sir William Grove's 1839 dream of the fuel cell into a practical device. It may be an apocryphal story, but President Richard Nixon is said to have put his arm around Bacon and told him: "Without you, Tom, we wouldn't have gotten to the Moon."

Tom was a direct descendant of Sir Francis Bacon, who one can justifiably claim to be the man who turned theoretical philosophy into practical science in the 16th century.

And then there was Norman de Bruyne, another Royal Society fellow, who pioneered phenolic resins. Before his work, the adhesives used by the aircraft industry, based on casein, the milk-derived protein, were centuries-old technology. The factory de Bruyne set up near the Royal Air Force base at Duxford, Cambridgeshire (the RAF base is now part of the Imperial War Museum), produced glues that revolutionised aircraft production and were later used for spacecraft.

Were it not for his work, Apollo 11's capsule might have had to re-enter Earth's atmosphere behind a heat shield with tiles stuck on with the sort of paste I used to make paper chains at infant school.

Although it was not a direct consequence, the UK was amply rewarded for all this help by having the largest contingent of scientists from outside the US selected as principal investigators analysing the samples brought back by the Apollo missions.

Fifteen groups from the universities of Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and St Andrews, plus several London colleges, the British Geological Survey, Harwell and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, made it through the selection process. They brought to the party skills in mineralogy, petrology, organic and inorganic geochemistry, radiometric dating, radionuclides, magnetic and optical properties. One group looked for diamonds that might have been produced by meteorite impacts on the Moon.

Stuart Agrell and Geoffrey Eglinton played key roles in the lunar sample preliminary examination and analysis planning teams respectively. And Keith Runcorn and Sam Polansky, two British scientists who were already fellows of the Royal Society, submitted successful proposals. But after Apollo, the number who could put FRS on their CV reached double figures.

This is where I come in: like the A.V. Roe crowd, I was recruited to Apollo because others didn't have the vision to see where it might lead. My first postdoctoral position involved studying lunar samples via a relatively new technique, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, to look for evidence of life.

The job came my way because the University of Bristol candidate earmarked for the role turned it down on the grounds that working on extraterrestrial samples wasn't a good long-term career move.

I didn't discover life on the Moon; I didn't even find any sedimentary rocks that harbour evidence of life on Earth. What I did find was that the lunar soil recorded the history of the Sun by trapping atoms of carbon, hydrogen, etc, from the solar wind, and led to some interesting chemical reactions, including the reduction of silicates to metal.

I'm still interested in the Moon and so is Nasa, although astronauts haven't been back since 1972. However, we will return, an event that will be made possible by the space shuttle's replacement, a giant rocket called Ares. This time the US says it will be for keeps, with humans occupying a permanent base, perhaps at the lunar South Pole, chosen because there could be resources there for "living off the land".

Together with colleagues from Astrium and JSC, I have just completed a study of how Beagle 2 technology might be used to prospect for lunar volatiles at high latitudes. The Apollo missions explored only the regions near the Moon's equator. If some of the craters on the Moon were caused by comets crashing into the satellite, then cometary materials could be trapped at the lunar poles, where there are places permanently in the shade that never reach temperatures above minus 230C.

The reduction processes involving the solar wind that I identified all those years ago also synthesise water. If we find water condensed at the poles as ice, it could be a key raw material for a Moonbase - not just for drinking and washing, but for making priceless rocket fuel to explore the rest of the solar system.

A job is a job and what you make of it. Forty years on, I wonder if the guys who walked away from the greatest technological project ever undertaken kick their cats every time someone says the word Apollo.

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