Following the talk that I gave at my retirement party on 16th July 2004, Keith Mason asked me if I would extend or expand the talk and include some memories of the initial move (UCL --> MSSL) and some of the early programmes that I was associated with. So this chapter covers the period of the move and projects that were developed over the following approx. 10 years. Hopefully I will get around to write about the period 1975-85 in the not too distant future.

Writing about events that happened in the mid 60s - early 70s in Sept. 2004 is somewhat difficult for me. I was never a great diarist (still not), so lots of things are sheer memories. However, my memory was always good, even though it is diminishing nowadays. Mainly these memories are of what I worked on and what I was heavily involved with. The writing of these words has of course brought back huge memories of the past, of starting a life in Space Research, of working through so many projects over so many years and in the main enjoying them. Naturally, some memories are happy, some are sad. However, I will always remember with exceptionally good feelings the working at, and the people that I have met at Britain's longest serving and I believe still largest University Space Research Group. It has been a huge pleasure.

Hopefully readers will accept that I have written in 'my way' and that if an instrument or satellite project is not mentioned, it means simply that I know too little to include it or to do it justice.

I will however recall in a 'light-hearted' manner one incident in my memory. It was a satellite project I never worked on, but it had a great influence on me and many others at the Laboratory. OAO-C, later Copernicus, was the largest instrument of its time at MSSL and was a huge demand on both engineering groups. I had a sounding rocket problem and went to ask someone working on OAO if they could spend 5 or 10 minutes to help with my problem. 'NO, NO, I am far to busy on OAO' was the beginning of the answer. Being told of 'the importance and the schedule of OAO' for approx. 30 minutes helped neither my problem, the OAO schedule nor warmed me to the 'big project' image. Thankfully this attitude disappeared, but in later years I have heard the attitude briefly come to the surface, and then disappear again.

Sadly there are few people still around to help, but some of the recently retired people who live locally may be willing to fill in or correct with a few memories also. I can of course and will contribute my memories to anything for as long as I can.

Move from UCL to MSSL (Oct. 1965)

For me this was a big change of life style from family background that I knew so well. The move was only of 12 or 13 people and was not a huge 'planned' move, as I remember. Desks and benches had already arrived at MSSL and we effectively moved in and started working. For my work I took my 'trusted' tool-box, with a few additions and a collection of spare components. I travelled to MSSL from my family home in Hertfordshire on Monday mornings and returned on Friday evenings. Sometimes I would visit UCL on my weekly trip to deliver or collect hardware. It actually worked out that the distance was about the same as my previous weekly distance to and from UCL.

My first room at MSSL for living in was what is now the Electronics Integration Lab. I believe that subsequently I lived in all of the rooms along that face of the building (East side). As rooms were ready for renovation, I moved into an un-renovated room (I firmly believe that I have only slept in those rooms at evening time!!!!!!). Those of us who moved and lived in Holmbury House had no cooking facilities (I believe at this time we lived rent free), so this era started me eating in pubs. A tradition that I have maintained for many years. I do not know how the people who stayed there over the weekend managed. What is now the Thermal Vacuum lab. was the original kitchen and the current Electronic Drawing Office was the dining room.

The wife of the Lab. Superintendent used to provide excellent meals at lunchtime. She used to go to the village butcher and greengrocer in Holmbury St. Mary, do all of her shopping there and come back to MSSL and do the cooking. The family originally lived in Ariel House and then moved to what are now the Student Flats whilst various renovation activities proceeded. At completion of the building work at MSSL they moved into the upstairs flat in the main house as the family accommodation, but they did not remain for long. Please, 'nobody shoot me' for this memory, but this Lab. Superintendent had worked for some years in what he thought was the same or very similar capacity in a University in East Africa. At Holmbury House he tried to relive his immediate past and had a Land Rover and an estate car and on some occasions was believed to have had a rifle or pistol with him. His Doberman dog I understood actually bit a member of staff. I think it was about April 1966 that the Student Flats became serviceable and available to those of us who had first moved. Although the Student Flats were supposed to provide accommodation only to postgraduate students, I was allowed to live there because my family home was so far from the site, and travelling from home each day would have been impractical. So I lived there on weekdays, when I was not travelling for work, together with ever younger generations of students, from 1966 to 1978. My memory serves me that each year we had a maximum of three new postgraduate students. The two intriguing 'gate lodges' near the North and South entrances to the MSSL grounds gave the place a sense of grandeur, but they were never renovated. A Spanish couple lived in the South one briefly; he worked as a gardener/handyman, and she did cleaning and cooking. I am not sure if the North lodge was ever lived in after we moved in. The lodges were demolished around 1980, having become unsafe.

Room GO1 (now the Solar Office) and the current computer room (G02), originally a single room, were the first place that I had as my lab. work space; later they became the Electronics Workshop. I was the only member of the technical staff to move on the original date and was working primarily on the ESRO Solar Eclipse Campaign Arcas payload. It was a small ionospheric instrument, built in UCL, and I took it to MSSL for special testing and calibration. After completion of this task I returned it to UCL for its conformal coating (vibration protection) and electronic screening and then returned it to MSSL approx. one week later for check of operation, calibration and readiness for delivery to Engins Matra, Paris. I also worked on two Centaure payloads for the Solar Eclipse Campaign. The electronics for these instruments were as usual built by Pye Telecommunications and the sensors at UCL.

The other projects being worked on were ESRO-1 and OGO-E (Orbiting Geophysical Observatory). The electronics for these experiments were also built by Pye's at Cambridge. The engineers at Pye's were a remarkable collection of men. All of the older ones were engineers of many years experience in radio, wireless and television. I do not know how the relationship between UCL and Pye developed, but it lasted for many years. Much of the environmental testing, namely vibration and thermal vacuum testing of ESRO-1 was done at the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) at Aldermaston. This was my 'first' satellite project I was involved with and I was extremely excited about testing a unit that would then go into space. The worst part of this excitement was AWRE. I think its Civil Service attitude, mentality, approach and petty rules put me off the Civil Service for life!! Currently that is all I remember of the projects that we were working on at the time of the move.

It was mainly the Ionospheric Group (Space Plasma founder group) that first moved to MSSL. My belief was that, during continuing planning negotiations, Peter Willmore (not a huge advocate of the move) decided the move should start. So, the group he managed, moved. I was predominantly associated with Ionospheric Group projects for many years but I was a technician in the Electronics group.

I remember quite well the early days difficulties of being away from main site, stores, staff, colleagues and workshops, etc. Another memory is of the 'daily computing run' to London by train. I did not do computing then (and still do not) but my memory serves me that the people who did submitted their programmes on punched cards. This input was filed in a special bag every night and taken to Dorking where it was put on the train for London. A courier collected the bag from the station and took it to the UCL computing centre where the job was submitted. Next day the journey was reversed and the computer output hopefully arrived at MSSL at about 09:30 am. I believe it made people a little more careful about checking what they were submitting to the computer!!! One typographical error meant 24-hour delay.

We had an Israeli and an Egyptian student: at the time of the 'six day war' (1967) they both disappeared, at the end both reappeared and were friendly with each other, having spent vastly different war days. I believe one went to the embassy in London, the other went to Germany.

Help at MSSL was always available, since we were all learning together, and 'if they wanted help this week, then I may need help next month' (what an old fashioned attitude!!).

Memories of early trips

Australia '65, '68/69, '71
The original Skylark programme involved launches only from Woomera, South Australia. In later days, with the formation of ESRO (now ESA), the number of launch sites expanded. In the early days the payload (generally known as 'the round') was prepared at RAE Farnborough; later this was done at the British Aircraft Corporation (and its latter named companies) who became the main contractor for the Skylark programme at Filton, Bristol.

Adelaide is the only place where I have seen cricket test matches live. Accommodation in Australia was good. In Adelaide, where we worked at the Weapons Research Establishment (WRE) for the post-transportation tests, we lived in private house accommodation and the remarkable lady who owned the house would almost not let you out in the morning without a huge fried breakfast (with many eggs). We were driven each morning to WRE Salisbury and returned in the evening by a WRE government driver. When the launch campaign was under way we would fly to Woomera at 05:30 / 06:00 on Monday mornings and back to Adelaide on Friday evenings. The flights to and from Woomera were on Convair Metropolitan or Douglas DC3 planes. The DC3 was quite an experience.

Accommodation at Woomera was in fairly basic ex British forces quarters. Evening meal, if worked finished early enough at the 'Range Head', was in the officer's mess where you had to wear a tie to gain entry (it was called 'dress code'). If work did not finish early then it was to eat at Lake Koolymilka village. That is where we had daily lunch. It was a small village approx. 6 or 7 miles from the Range Head. Later, the ELDO (European Launcher Development Organisation) mess was more like a large hotel, but with 'self-service type' eating. Driving from Woomera village to the Range Head was done in Government-allocated cars or vans and was strictly controlled. The distance was approx. 20 - 25 miles. The main hazards here whilst driving very late at night were kangaroos!!

My next launch trip was to Karystos, Isle of Evvia, Greece, May '66. This was the site for the ESRO Solar Eclipse Campaign. It was on a nice 'beach-side' launch complex, all of which had been brought in for the special day. We stayed in the town of Karystos in a harbour side hotel and at the time of the eclipse many people stayed in rented boats in the harbour. ESRO, always knowing what their people wanted, even negotiated with the island council that they would have a 'duty free' bar in a strictly controlled building in the town where only launch campaign members were allowed entry. We at MSSL were involved in six Arcas payloads and, I think, three Centaure payloads. One Arcas and one Centaure were launched approx. 1 week before the eclipse to test all facilities. I believe there was a sea-borne campaign by NASA, so the collaboration must have been very well organised.

Solar Eclipse Project memory: I remember that a visit was planned (~ 1965) to Engins Matra in Paris, the contractor for ESRO Solar Eclipse Arcas Sounding Rocket payloads, to deliver one of our units. It was so small that it quite happily sat on the outside of my briefcase, with the paperwork inside. The helpful pre-travel advice of ESRO was simple, verbally declare the unit, saying it is for work with ESRO, of NO commercial value and everything will be O.K. I set off very early and eventually arrived in Paris at ~09:00. The discussion with the Customs officer was in two languages. He spoke French and I spoke English. A simple approach to a big problem. I was arrested and escorted to the Customs Inspectors Office and accompanied by a British European Airways (BEA) ground staff stewardess. In the late morning I was allowed to 'phone ESRO headquarters in Paris. They would come to the airport. They never did!!!!! (my first but deep mistrust of ESRO). I also contacted MSSL and the French contractor. My memory is a little thin now of ~ 40 years ago, but eventually the Customs Inspector released me at about 18:00 and the French contractor rep. came to the airport, drove me to an hotel and gave me some money for the overnight stay. I really cannot remember if it was planned as a one or two day visit. (Please note, credit cards were NOT in use at this time). I was always careful about visiting Paris after this incident. The BEA ground staff stewardess was always nervous, but also happy to see me from then on. Just think, we/I had to deliver 5 flight units and a spare and attend tests for each unit. Deliver we did, integrate we did, tests we did, and later the launch. From such beginnings to such an end in Karystos, Greece in May 1966.

My next launch campaign was to Sardinia (Sept. '67), which was ESRO's main launch site during its early programme. This was for Skylark S19 payload. The payload team from ESTeC remained my good friends for several years. The launch site was in the Sardinian mountains at Perdasdefogu, a village which was also an army, air force and naval base. Not much air force or navy work in the mountains.

Kiruna ('70/71) saw my next launches. These were in Swedish Lapland in the Arctic Circle. This became the new launch site for ESRO and it was so cold that a special enclosed Skylark launch tower was erected. I think the coldest temperature I ever remember in Kiruna was ~-38 C. The humidity was so low you could not make snow balls!! The main hazards here were snow, ice and reindeer (large reindeer!!!).

The Outer Hebrides launch site on South Uist was next. We flew from London to Glasgow and then Glasgow to Benbecula. The main hazards here were wind, rain, cattle and sheep and the locals who apparently drank large amounts of whiskey. Another slight risk appeared to be the driving. We rented cars from a small island garage. I had one small SIMCA saloon on one visit and one of the locals told me it had been rebuilt three times. The rockets used for launch here were Petrel and Skua. The launch platform was quite unique, an adapted Bedford lorry, the same size as the emergency fire engines ('Green Goddess') used today when we have fire brigade strikes. I went twice to South Uist for launches in the early 70s, once for a group of Petrel sounding rockets, all made at MSSL, and once for a special campaign with three Skua payloads. This was a special launch based on the collaboration between Peter Willmore (deputy director of MSSL) and a group (I don't remember Government or University) in India who agreed to launch rockets at approx. the same time of day (I believe they were called 'synoptic' launches). Keith Norman was in Thumba, India, and would communicate to MSSL whether the launch had taken place. I would then prepare the Skua for launch from South Uist.

In summary, I worked for some time on Skylark and then Centaure Sounding Rockets, in both the U.K. national programme and the ESRO programmes. Skylarks were ~ 18 inches diameter, and Centaure ~ 13.5/14 inches diameter. The Arcas (ESRO Solar Eclipse campaign rockets) were about 5 inches diameter, similar to the British Skua rockets, with Petrel at about 7 inches diameter.

I then moved on to satellites: WHAT a change the years would show on this front.

ESRO 1 was the first satellite for me to work on. I guess this gives it a special place in my mind. Basically I assisted with the tests at MSSL / AWRE / ESTeC. The instrument was then integrated in Paris at the Laboratoire Central de Telecommunications (LCT). Spacecraft integrated tests, i.e. vibration and Thermal Vacuum testing, were done at ESTeC, the facilities were large enough for spacecraft of those days. Sometimes a couple of us would go to ESTeC and I found myself working on a sounding rocket during the weekdays and then working on ESRO 1 at night-times and weekends, during a Thermal Vacuum test.

For the ESRO 4 spacecraft MSSL instrument I was the technician responsible for testing, delivery and then spacecraft tests. Sometimes I worked at Pye's, for standard electronic testing, acceptance of the electronics unit and doing some environmental testing. Thermal Vacuum testing at unit level was conducted at Pye's; vibration, I believe, at AWRE, and then integrating the instrument into the satellite at Hawker Siddeley Dynamics at Stevenage. I then followed all the spacecraft tests, firstly at Stevenage and then on to ESTeC. I was fortunate enough to go to the launch at the Western Test Range (WTR) at Lompoc, California. This was my first visit to the United States. I then travelled directly with the project scientist to ESDAC (what is now called ESOC) for the orbital configuration of the experiment.

ESRO 4 memory: I was working on ESRO 4, one of my favourite projects, and it came to pass that it was time for Mechanical Inspection. I remembered that I had recently seen an advertisement in the MSSL Mechanical Design Office relating to the drilling of the steel hemisphere for the manufacture of the 200 mm grid. This was in ~1970/71 and at times our Mechanical Interface Drawing may have been drawn for our use, but satisfied (with some thinking) the ESRO use. However, the ESRO guy said that because the drawing showed and detailed the hole pattern, then the rules were that they were measured. My memory was good then but is suffering currently. I told him that there were several 10s of thousands of holes.

I put the following points to him and the project engineer:
1) These holes were irrelevant to the interface
2) What was the purpose of measuring them???
3) How could they guarantee to NOT damage the grid?
4) How long would it take?
5) How would they know which ones they had measured?

I left the metrology lab. at about 18:00 saying I would be back at 19:30: if they had finished, without damage, fine; if they could not foresee finishing in that time, they should not start. I returned at 19:25 and they had not started, they had not even finished the necessary measurements adequately. They never measured the holes!!!!

Personally I remember two things from this event:
1) In those days we were ALL young and learning
2) Sometimes you had to say 'NO' to ESRO.

Finally, I am still in e-mail contact with one of the guys, retired from ESTeC (project engineer), and the other (metrologist) I met at IABG (Cluster T/V test) back during the Cluster 2 tests and we related stories like these.

GEOS was the next satellite I worked on. This brings back some really good memories (of course some bad also). The MSSL GEOS instrument was the first with high voltages that I worked on. Previously ESRO 1 and ESRO 4 probes had been low voltage, with a maximum of 28 V applied to the instrument.

Another memory that comes back to me is that this was the last instrument I worked on that was totally MSSL's. There were NO Principal Investigators / Co-Investigators, just MSSL. Naturally I came to accept the 'new' system, but sometimes found the collaborations we may have finished up in were not the ideal ones for practically building an instrument. So it is with GEOS (mid 1970s) that I have chosen to close this chapter of 'my memories of the early days of MSSL'.

I think that during GEOS, ESRO changed its name to ESA and brought in a huge number of 'managerial efficiencies', otherwise called changes. They were more demanding, more, 'we are ESA, we know what we are doing, you are only experimenters'. Above all of this, I enjoyed GEOS testing. Unit level testing, vibration, EMC, Thermal Vacuum and so many variations of magnetic testing were carried out at ESTeC. The ESA project engineer was quite reasonable and friendly and we maintained our friendship until his death in 2003. Spacecraft integration was at British Aerospace, Filton, Bristol. Spacecraft testing was done at ESTeC.

Launch was from the Eastern Test Range (ETR), Cape Canaveral (or Cape Kennedy; I don't remember which name the U.S. were using at that time) in April 1977. Sadly, the ultra-reliable Thor Delta rocket suffered an anomaly during one of the final stages of burn. The orbital performance was not correct, the spacecraft was put into a saving orbit by the fantastic teams at ESOC and, I believe, Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). My memory recalls a 'geosynchronous' orbit, rather than a 'geostationary' one. Successful operation of most instruments was achieved and ESA / NASA agreed to launch the spare spacecraft, naturally with the Flight Spare instruments. This second launch was carried out in July 1978, and was completely successful.

GEOS memory: During the latter days of the launch campaign a meeting was held between ESTeC and the experimenters relating to what work we would do. Gordon Wrenn was our Project Scientist and Experiment Manager for GEOS (as I said, at this time we did not have such titles as PI and a separate manager). We talked about the work and decided that we wanted that I should 'go up the tower' for removal of aperture covers. ESA of course went maniacal: 'What did they employ contractors for??' I believe that Gordon said: 'That is what we employ John for'. We had to say of our experiences as experimenters of going up a launch tower. Of course, because of the large number of sounding rocket campaigns we had been to, we had more launch tower experience than the entire ESTeC Project Group had. Eventually the following was agreed: No, the contractors had to remove the covers, and I would go up the tower for an inspection after the event. There was a young American (Dave Young, now Cassini CAPS PI) working on the Swiss experiment, who suggested that if MSSL could do this, then so could he. We both were finally allowed to go to the launch tower at about 03:00. I do not remember all of the details of this event, but Dave found that a portion of the spacecraft skin, very close to his instrument's aperture, was at this stage of the programme covered with an anodised layer. The instrument would not have worked successfully. The launch programme was changed and a couple of days work later we were back on schedule.

YES, of course it should have been checked before.
YES, of course it should have been built correctly.

I have recently looked at some data (rather than engineering drawings) and below I present some basic dimensions to show changes over the years. It is not exhaustive or meant to show any point other than these were sizes of spacecraft that I worked on at the start of my career, which can be compared with those of the present (Cluster); unfortunately, I do not have associated mass numbers.

HEIGHT (metres)
Main body
DIAMETER (metres)
Main body
Launch 1972
(Scout launcher)


Launch 1977
(Thor Delta launcher)


Cluster (1 of 4)
Launch 1996/2000
(Ariane 5/Soyuz launcher)




Keith Norman helped with memory refreshing and identifying some of the photographs. Martin de la Nougerede, Jim Bowles, Vera (the lady from Ewhurst) and Peter Caseley have provided pictures, some of which have been, or will be, incorporated.