Chris Rapley: differences between British and American space engineering

Chris Rapley considers differences between space science engineering in Britain and the US in the 1970s.

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From the social point of view, you know, California was still quite a melting pot and fabulous, but from the point of view of the science, you know, Lockheed was a pretty slick well organised place. I mean, a massive company. The research lab was where they put their – their – to some extent their bright misfits who they couldn’t employ, or didn’t want to employ, or didn’t want to be employed, in the missile plant down in Sunnyvale, the missile plant. And so they were a bright, interesting, energetic crowd of people to work with, you know. What you got working with them was a tremendous 'can do' buzz. You know, there was never any doubt that you would succeed. And if things – if technical problems or other problems arose, the issue was to just solve it, you know, by whatever means. You know, try this means, if that doesn’t work, you know, try this means. It was terrific. There was quite a contrast with the UK, where things were much more subtle, much more complex, much more rich, but tended to operate at a bit of a slower pace. That kind of original pioneering spirit, which, when I look back, you know, was – compared with now, was still very, very free. Nevertheless it didn’t compare with the energy that was going into the American programme. On the other hand, the American programme often seemed quite crude and unsophisticated. I think it was a product of a kind of pioneering mindset. And I suppose you would say that what they were trying to do with their engineering was provide something that was sufficient to the need but didn’t have – necessarily have much – didn’t always have much elegance, whereas in British engineering there was still this kind of feel for beauty and elegance and a sort of simplicity. I guess elegance is the word that I’m looking for. Was that difference, then, visible in the instruments that the different groups put onto the spacecraft? In the end the strictures that are necessary in order to get an instrument that will withstand the vibration and shock and acceleration of launch, and then can withstand the incredibly harsh environment of space: the vacuum, the particle fluxes, the radiation fluxes, the temperature variations and so on, force you to very similar conclusions actually. And so the – the Lockheed group agreed to produce the ten arc second mechanic multigrade collimator for the flat crystal spectrometer, so you could identify just tiny spots on the sun and work on those. And nobody had ever produced something like that before. And that was a beautifully elegant design, I have to say. But that was because it had to be. On their rocket experiments, where you didn’t always need something quite so sophisticated, it was much more – well, I won’t say it was a kind of garage job, but, you know, there was just that feeling that they – where they didn’t have to spend money, they didn’t spend it. And although it was very logical, it just jarred slightly against the sort of beauty and elegance of British engineering.
  • Interviewee Chris Rapley
  • Duration 00:03:23
  • Copyright British Library Board
  • Interviewer Paul Merchant
  • Date of interview 6/22/2011
  • Shelfmark C1379/40

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