Naturally, mission control in Houston and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida are the places most closely associated with Nasa’s Artemis 1 moon adventure but a lesser-known spot on a remote heath in the far south-west of Britain is also playing a crucial part.
When the mission does blast off, hopefully later this week, scientists at Goonhilly Earth Station on the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall will help Nasa track the rocket using a giant deep space antenna nicknamed Merlin, and then command six small research satellites that are piggy-backing a ride on Artemis.
It will be a big moment for Goonhilly, which was on the brink of being closed for good in 2006 after four decades of service, and a huge boost for Cornwall’s burgeoning space industry.
“We’re very excited,” said 23-year-old Beth Sheppard, a University of Oxford graduate rejoicing in the job title of deep space network mission operations engineer, who is one of those in the hot-seat at Goonhilly control. “We can’t wait to see it go up and it will be quite a moment when we receive signals from it.”
Sheppard is from the Cornish seaside town of Hayle and can’t quite believe she is making a living as a space engineer in the place she grew up. “I feel a great sense of pride. Cornwall’s a unique place and this helps to put us on the map.”
Goonhilly began life as a centre for global and space communication in the 1960s. One of its giant dishes, Arthur, received the first transatlantic television signal – a speech by US president John F Kennedy via the communications satellite Telstar.
In 1969, Arthur beamed Neil Armstrong’s steps on the moon to a global audience and Goonhilly went on to broadcast events including Muhammad Ali fights and the 1985 Live Aid concerts, as well handling bread and butter long-distance phone calls, bank transactions and shipping distress calls.
Goonhilly was chosen because of its unique spot, remote enough for little electromagnetic interference and enjoying clean lines of sight towards the Atlantic and Indian oceans. It also helped that the solid serpentine bedrock of the Lizard was strong enough to support the giant steel and concrete antennas.
At its height, hundreds of people worked at Goonhilly and it supported a cricket ground, tennis courts, football pitch, house band and manicured gardens. But in the mid 2000s, amid changing technology and markets, its owner, BT, mothballed the site with the loss of its well-paid jobs, a hammer blow in one of northern Europe’s poorest areas.
Ian Jones, now CEO of the station, and far-sighted colleagues stepped in to save the site, spotting that, down the line, there might be a need for a privately owned provider of deep space communication services.
“People thought it was a bonkers idea,” he said. “But the world has caught up and Goonhilly is working with space programmes across the globe. Over the last few years it has built 40 or so new antennas and has 45 people working for it full-time, half of them local.
Goonhilly’s role in the Artemis mission is the culmination of a lot of hard work. “Goonhilly has been a very visible sight on the horizon for years and locals love it, we really feel that,” Jones said. He is certain more jobs will be created in Goonhilly in the coming years. “Youngsters will have the opportunity to work in the technology on their doorsteps, which is great.”
And Artemis is not the only space mission with Cornish interest this autumn. In October the first satellite launch from UK soil is due to take place across the peninsula from Newquay airport. “Cornwall used to be known for mining but now we’re becoming known for our space credentials,” said Jones.
Despite the hitech nature of the site, Goonhilly has a homely feel. They serve tea, toast, soup and cakes in the kitchen; a herd of alpacas grazes near Merlin; there is still a lot of 60s and 70s stylings to the site – the Formica lingers amid the brand new technology.
Kevin Wilkes, 57, from Penryn, near Falmouth, began at Goonhilly as an apprentice when he left school aged 16 and left to become a teacher when the place seemed to be heading for closure. He came back in 2016 and is now operations and maintenance manager.
“It’s one of those places that people looks fondly on,” he said. “Everyone knew someone who worked here. It’s an iconic site for Cornwall. It was depressing when we saw the site we loved falling into disrepair. Coming back in has been amazing, the investment has been fantastic for the area. It’s sensational to be part of this again.”
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