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Space exploration: Quatermass as a British failure

George Kerevan asks

Do you recognise the name Quatermass?

As in Professor Bernard Quatermass, head of the British Rocket Group?

Before explaining the significance of the good professor (a hero of mine) let us first consider Mars.  

Last week India launched a space probe to Mars. As I write, the vehicle has run into some technical trouble – it still needs to reach a higher Earth orbit in order to achieve the gravitational sling-shot that will (literally) fling it towards the Red Planet.

However, in a sense, the mission has already garnered the global publicity and national enthusiasm that was intended. India is in space.

Here in the UK, India’s galactic aspirations met with much tut-tutting. How dare they take foreign aid from us and spend it on the frippery of space technology instead of feeding their own people went the refrain.  Actually, India’s Mars mission cost a meagre £50m – a sum Westminster or Holyrood could spend in an afternoon without batting an eyelid.

In fact, India has been in space for years. It began half a century ago when the first Indian launch pad was set up in a coconut plantation in the southern state of Kerala. A church was the main office, the bishop's house was converted into a workshop and a cattle-shed became the research lab. They do things frugally in the Indian space programme, but the point is they do them.

There are now 21 Indian-launched satellites circling the Earth, carrying telephone communications and TV broadcast, doing weather forecasting, and providing remote education and healthcare.
Isro, India’s equivalent of NASA, earns money from launches through its commercial arm Antrix. Since 1999, Antrix has launched 35 satellites for organisations in France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, South Korea, Indonesia, Argentina, Israel, Canada, Denmark, Japan, and the Netherlands.
India’s Mars project has as much to do with commerce as prestige. Antix wants more of the global space market whose 2012 revenues in 2012 totalled a massive £188 billion. Note: the average salary of an Indian space engineer is around £12,000, giving Antix a major cost advantage.

India’s main rocket, the PSLV, is regarded as one of the most reliable in the world, with over 20 consecutive successful launches to its credit. Antrix sees Indian satellite launches being the main competitor to France’s Arianne by the end of the decade.

Already, India is spawning private space companies.

For instance, there is Mumbai-based Earth2Orbit, founded by Susmita Mohanty. She launched her first company, MoonFront, an aerospace consultancy in San Francisco, back in 2004 before working for Boeing in business development for the International Space Station. Mohanty is also a protégé of Arthur C. Clarke, the doyen of British science fiction writers. 

What I find marvellous about India’s space programme – and the Mars probe – is that it is totally and utterly aspirational – the sort of aspiration that has all but disappeared in Britain, where we dumped out own space programme back in the 1960s.

India has desperate, grinding poverty. But the Indians realise the route out of that poverty is not Western hand-outs but local entrepreneurship married to scientific and technical progress. It also requires national enthusiasm and national goals. India has that in spades.

If you wander along to the National Museum of Flight at East Fortune you will be able to see the sad remains of Britain’s original space programme – the carcass of a giant Blue Streak launcher. Blue Streak was meant to be Britain’s to orbit, including manned launches. When we abandoned space, the remaining Bluestreaks were given away. Of the four still in existence, one is in Scotland, one in Germany, one in Belgium and one in Leicester – a good example of deliberate amnesia.

Which brings us back to Professor Quatermass and forgotten anniversaries…

By now everyone with a television knows that this month is the 50th anniversary of Dr Who. I remember seeing the very first episode - in black and white - which makes me almost as old as the Doctor himself.

Sadly, few people know this is also the 60th anniversary of a much more interesting and significant TV sci-fi hero - Quatermass.

Professor Bernard Quatermass, head of the British Rocket Group, no longer has the same popular resonance as the various (increasingly raucous) incarnations of the Doctor. But on July 18th 1953 – only months after the Coronation first had the nation first gathered collectively around its television sets – Professor Quatermass had both adults and children cowering behind the living room sofas for the very first time.

For anyone over 50, brought up in the first, golden era of British television, mention of the word Quatermass still invokes genuine, spine-chilling horror. The first time pubs did literally empty, as folk rushed home to turn on the box, was down to the professor.

Quatermass was the invention of Nigel Kneale, who died in 2006. Kneale was one of the most original writers and innovators during that first television age, when screens were used for experiment rather than as a form of cultural aesthetic for the masses.  In four brilliantly different series Kneale and Quatermass challenged our perceptions of Britain, of science, of humanity and of our place in the universe. And scared the bejesus out of us at the same time.

But Quatermass was no alien-hunting Captain Kirk, or know-it-all Dr Who. The Professor was something entirely new – the first proper scientist hero. He was anti-establishment (a revelation in the stuffy 1950s), politely sceptical as befits a real scientist, a humanist who detested violence (even against aliens), and perhaps the first engineer to serve as a television archetype.

Before Quatermass, scientists in popular culture were either mad or (as per H.G Wells) utopians. In American B-movies scientists usually tried to reason with the alien monsters (read: Soviets) before the Pentagon stepped in and did the decent thing with a nuke.

Kneale invented Quatermass as an antidote to what he considered the misplaced romanticism of the Coronation and the ‘New Elizabethan Age’ that was being trumpeted in the media. Kneale and Quatermass knew that Britain was no longer an Empire and beset with problems. Science and technology might prove an antidote to decline but only if the old, complacent order was swept away.

The first series (1953) saw the British Rocket Group under Quatermass put a man in space, but any euphoria is punctured when the mission returns with a strange alien presence on board. Quatermass eventually saves the day by cornering the alien in Westminster Abbey – where the Coronation had just taken place!

The next series, Quatermass II in 1955, became the forerunner of all later paranoid conspiracy thrillers. In it Whitehall is taken over secretly by aliens – something I still suspect is true.

The third series, Quatermass and the Pit in 1959, was the scariest and still is. An ancient Martian spacecraft is dug up in London and Quatermass again has to confront stupidity on the part of the military – who have nationalised and ruined the old British Rocket Group - to avert disaster.

A full 20 years later came the final series in 1972. By then Kneale’s optimism had given way to pessimism and his vision of Britain is a perpetual ‘Winter of Discontent’.

Nigel Kneale found the name Quatermass by the simple expedient of looking in the London phone directory. But he gave the professor his Christian name in homage to Bernard Lovell of Jodrell Bank radio telescope fame. So what?

Bernard Lovell, who died last year, became something of a television icon during the early space age and Apollo flights because his Cheshire-based 250-foot radio telescope was used for tracking satellites and communicating with the astronauts. For a time, Lovell and his telescope were the only British contribution to the great adventure in space. In true British fashion, Lovell became Sir Bernard in 1961, as a reward.

However, when Nigel Kneale named Professor Quatermass after him, Bernard Lovell was anything but a favourite of the media or the political Establishment. Between 1952 and 1957, Bernard Lovell was engaged in a fight to fund his famous steerable radio telescope. He was attacked in parliament and in the newspapers as the project’s budget mushroomed to an eventual £700,000 (a modest £14 million in today’s money). Lovell was even threatened with fraudulent misuse of public funds.

The controversy ended abruptly in 1957, when Jodrell Bank was able not only to track the first Sputnik launch but also the Russian launch vehicle – a potential nuclear weapon. That made Jodrell Bank and Lovell the West’s only effective early warning against Soviet missiles.

Bernard Lovell, like his fictional alter ego Quatermass, was an exemplar of what British science and technology could achieve. Yet his efforts were denigrated and hindered by a conservative Establishment and shrill, blinkered media. Of course, when Lovell succeeded against the odds, he was immediately embraced by that Establishment.

Sixty years on, Quatermass and what he stood for – enlightened progress and faith in science - has all but disappeared from the popular imagination in Britain. Space, the final frontier, is now somewhere for Indians to explore.