Domesticating outer space: Patrick Moore, Spaceflight and the Sky at Night

Part of the emerging popular culture of outer space in post-war Britain was a particular type of discourse that aimed to domesticate space science, making it familiar and practical while eschewing some of the more esoteric aspects of outer space culture. This discourse distanced itself actively from notions such as extra-terrestrial visitations to Earth and the impalpable horrors of deep space, seeking to make outer space knowable and tangible, within reach of human endeavour. A key figure was the astronomer, writer and television presenter Patrick Moore (1923-2012), whose work encapsulated a ‘realistic and optimistic’ approach to space science, and was made famous in Britain by the television programme The Sky at Night, which he presented from 1957 onwards.54 Lacking any formal scientific training, Moore was an accomplished amateur astronomer, his maps of the Moon used by both the Russian and the American space programmes during the 1950s and 1960s.55 Working across a range of media, including his non-fiction guidebooks, his editorship of popular science publications, and on television, Moore’s dedication to amateur astronomy was demonstrated not only through his own observations, but in his exhortation of members of the British public to take up this activity themselves, and he was recognised for this work with a knighthood in 2001. As this section explains, the popularisation of space science in such ways implicated domestic space as the location of valid scientific activity, a theme picked up on in previous chapters but now given centre stage.

Moore was a long-standing member of the British Interplanetary Society, and when in 1955 the BIS decided to publish a popular magazine to help stimulate public interest in space exploration, to counterbalance its more technical BIS Journal, Moore was appointed as its first editor. The new publication, Spaceflight, followed in the tradition of popular science magazines in Britain, and became the only British magazine entirely devoted to space exploration when it was first released in 1956, on the cusp of the dawning era of space exploration. Although a popular publication, the tone of Spaceflight was one of scientific accuracy. Moore’s opening editorial emphasised the need to counteract ‘nonsense [...] misconceptions [...] and other space-borne crockery’.56 Echoing the language of BIS founder Philip Cleator in the 1930s, Moore became an advocate for the spreading of‘correct information' and he appeared on BBC television in 1956, in a ‘two-handed discussion’ in which he argued against the existence of ‘flying saucers’.57 This factual approach was adopted in Spaceflight, and would be justified not simply for its own sake, but also to promote ‘the layman’s education’, bringing about the possibility of armchair science at home for its readers.58

In line with this educational tone, the first issue of Spaceflight included a basic introduction to rocket technology, and reports from the latest American attempts to launch a satellite. Alongside these types of informative article were lighter pieces such as book reviews and cartoons, thus creating a ‘mixed bag’ that would offer a more general appeal.59 Moore solicited and vetted the articles himself with the assistance of an editorial board, and he had overall control over Spaceflight's output until he left the post in July 1959. Within the broader remit of popularisation, Moore’s aims were;

to do two things. First of all, to set up a basic information centre, to get all the information about space flight, and secondly, to set up satellite tracking stations around the world.60

Although the BIS never succeeded in setting up stations around the world, satellite-tracking was to become a prominent theme in Spaceflight once successful launches started to take place in the closing months of 1957. Before this point, readers were introduced to the concept of tracking objects in the sky through a regular series of instructive articles on astronomy under the title ‘Sky Diary’, foreshadowing Moore’s later role in The Sky at Night. Moore noted that there was a large overlap between the astronautics and astronomy communities at this time, reflecting his belief that eventually ‘rocketry and astronomy must merge into one science’, and indicating the co-reliance of these two areas of space science, both of which could become the subject of amateur observation.61

Once artificial satellites did begin to appear in Earth orbit, readers were encouraged to observe the sky in order to track them. Even before the launch of Sputnik in October 1957, Spaceflight reported that the Yorkshire branch of the BIS was establishing a small observatory at Harrogate in anticipation of an American satellite launch as part of a world-wide amateur scheme for the International Geophysical Year (1957-8) called 'Moonwatch’.62 Following the successful Soviet launch, press photographs were published in Spaceflight showing Sputnik leaving a trail across the night sky. These photographs would have suggested to the reader that observation of artificial satellites was possible from the ground, with equipment as simple as a camera. Indeed, the television aerial seen in one of the photographs is a recognisable element that would familiarise this perspective for the reader as a domestic gaze. Alongside the photographs, instructions were set out in the accompanying Spaceflight article, noting that the best chance of spotting the satellite would be when its passage over Britain came within one hour of sunrise or sunset, with the use of a pair of binoculars or a low-magnification telescope.63 Apart from visual images representing Sputnik, the better-known moniker of this satellite was its iconic 'beep-beep' sound that was emitted by a radio transmitter, and there were efforts to track Sputnik by ham radio enthusiasts, both in the United States and in the Soviet Union.64 However, these efforts are said to have been not nearly as effective as the visual observing programme, which by its nature was a simpler and more widely accessible method of participation.65 This mode of public engagement, incorporating both spaceflight and astronomy, indicates an everyday, accessible means of amateur outer-space visualisation, in a manner which contrasts with the more passive 'Apollonian gaze’ associated with picturing the Earth from space, that came to dominate outer-space imagery in the subsequent era of human spaceflight.66

Moore realised the potential of audience engagement to generate popular interest in outer space, and a key characteristic of his editorship of Spaceflight was encouraging readers to use information from the magazine in their own observational performances. This format was to be used to even greater effect in the medium through which a large proportion of the British public has come to know Patrick Moore, the BBC television programme The Sky at Night. Following his initial TV appearance in 1956, Moore contacted BBC producer Paul Johnstone with a suggestion for a new programme:

The other scheme I did mean to suggest was a series devoted to practical astronomy, giving people ideas as to how they themselves can take up astronomy as a hobby and do observational work.67

It has been noted that the BBC from 1955 onwards sought to move away from traditional ‘talks’ delivered in the manner of a lecture, towards ‘a mode that prominently featured scientists and technologists as television performers’, and The Sky at Night took this development one stage further by enrolling the spirit of amateur astronomy and encouraging audience participation.68

The new series was broadcast into peoples’ homes in a monthly fifteen-minute slot, usually after 10 pm on a week-night. This time-slot would

Outer space and popular culture in post-war Britain 75 correlate with the darkness of the night sky, while the programme’s launch in 1957, like Quatermass four years earlier, took advantage of the upsurge in television ownership in Britain that followed the 1953 Coronation of Elizabeth II. Although the launch of The Sky at Night was not publicised heavily in the national press, the opening programme was estimated to have reached ten per cent of the UK adult population (or approximately 3.7 million viewers).69 Once the format had been established, with Moore’s person-ally-written scripts dictated live on air, it hardly changed during Moore’s lifetime. The introductory music ‘At The Castle Gate' by the late-Romantic Finnish composer Sibelius was followed by the title information, before cutting to the presenter, facing the viewer:

What I want to do in these talks of mine is to tell you about some of the interesting things you can see in the night sky each month. Astronomy’s not just a hobby for old men with white beards, as so many people think: everyone can take an interest in it - you don't need a vast telescope.70

A key part of this appeal was the promise that viewers could experience astronomy from their own homes and gardens, contrary to the assumption that astronomy was an activity that only took place in large professional observatories. Indeed, an audience survey carried out by the BBC noted that Moore’s account of the Arend-Roland comet on the programme’s first episode ‘sent many viewers out-of-doors after the talk to do their own “spotting”’.71 At the same time, Moore wanted to modernise the view of astronomy, away from ‘white beard’ associations towards a more widespread appeal that aimed ‘to hit a middle course’ between scientific lucidity and amateur interest, much akin to the tone of Spaceflight?1 Moore himself was 34 years old when the first broadcast went out, an engaging figure, and he certainly didn’t have a white beard.

Once the programme had been introduced, Moore used a variety of techniques to demonstrate and explain the phenomena that could be seen in the night sky (Fig.4.2). Studio graphics, or ‘Wurmsers’, were used to illustrate some of the key constellations, and direct viewers to other objects of interest:

Saturn is certainly worth looking at [...] remember, take a line from the Great Bear’s tail, and you’ll come to it.73

In this way, the Great Bear became known as ‘a sort of sky signpost’, as was the other recognisable constellation Orion.74 A further characteristic of The Sky at Night was the range of experts who were invited on to the programme to explain various phenomena in an authoritative and informed manner. Early on, Moore suggested this idea to Johnstone:

You may consider that it is worthwhile to get a biologist to show that the idea of human beings on Venus or Mars is quite untenable.75

Patrick Moore pointing out the position of Capella on The Sky at Night, 1960

Figure 4.2 Patrick Moore pointing out the position of Capella on The Sky at Night, 1960

Source Credit: BBC Photo Library

In a recurrent theme, Moore wanted to promote a realistic view of the Solar System, and humanity’s likely role in its exploration. Having invited the American astronomer Harlow Shapley on to the programme in September 1958, the possibility of life on other planets was discussed amid some modest, domestic props including a bookshelf, a curtain and some informal seats, which once again would have emphasised the suggestion that interplanetary science was something that could be engaged in from the comfort of one’s home. In this way, the use of domestic spaces of outer-space enthusiasm continued the tradition of amateur engagement that was found in the activities of the pre-war BIS, which held meetings, demonstrations and talks in a variety of home and public spaces (see Chapter 3). On the programme, Shapley spoke of ‘a high probability that there is abundant life scattered about the universe’, while Moore concluded the discussion by stating that ‘where life can appear, life will appear’.76

It was generally down to Moore himself to invite guests on to the programme, and the range of guests included BIS members such as Philip Cleator, Arthur C Clarke and Vai Cleaver.77 Emphasising this connection, Clarke appeared in 1963 to talk about the work of the BIS in the 1930s, communication satellites,

Outer space and popular culture in post-war Britain 77 and the possibilities for manned lunar bases.78 Through this range of guests and subject-matter, along with the encouragement of audience participation, The Sky at Night promoted all aspects of space science, including human space travel, conditions on other planets and the tracking of artificial satellites. That audiences responded to this format is evident through the ‘vast amounts of letters’ that Moore received from viewers, while on one occasion 10,000 viewers wrote in to request ‘star maps’.79 It is also clear that what held all these elements together was the performance of Patrick Moore in front of the camera, and it quickly became apparent to producers of the programme that 'The Sky at Night is really the Patrick Moore show’.80

Patrick Moore played a key role in the popularisation of space science in Britain during the early post-war period, through these two popular cultural outlets. Common themes included the encouragement of audience and reader participation in observing objects in space from domestic settings, particularly after the first satellites were launched, and the combination of astronomy and astronautics, with the space hardware of rockets and satellites being given roughly the same level of attention as the stars and planets in the night sky. While these activities undoubtedly popularised space science, they also assumed a certain middle-class privilege in their anticipated participants, who would have the time and space in which to engage with such emerging cultures of leisure in post-war Britain. While Moore, on the face of it, promoted factual and rational understandings of outer space through these media, he was also involved in a number of more whimsical projects, including the Irish alien B-movie Them and the Thing (1956) and UFO book Flying Saucer from Mars (1954). Researchers have claimed that the supposed author of this text, Cedric Allingham, was in fact Moore himself, playing out an elaborate hoax.81 Curiously, when he appeared on the BBC debate programme First Hand in 1956, Moore cited the story by ‘the late Cedric Allingham', as an example of easily-identifiable hoaxes that whipped up public interest in UFOs, as he maintained that there was no evidence to support the existence of extra-terrestrial UFOs.82 It appears that, while Moore strongly advocated a factual understanding of the Universe, he also indulged in fantasy narratives of alien visitations and space adventures, either to prove a point about their falsifiability or perhaps to satisfy a yearning for transcendence himself. This postscript to Moore’s engagement with outer-space cultures indicates how the lines between fantasy and reality, science and fiction, were not so easily drawn after all, a notion that can be addressed more directly through examining the works of one of the best-known British science-fiction writers of the twentieth century.

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