I've just listened to the short BBC News audio podcast clip How British academics spied on the superpowers:

Tim O’Brien from the Jodrell Bank radio telescope discusses 50 year old recordings which show how Britain monitored Soviet space missions - and shared the findings with the Soviet Union.

He does indeed describe something more like assistance than spying (my attempt at transcription):

The Russians used to send Jodrell all the coordinates and the frequencies they were using, so that we could track these spacecraft, and of course we would then announce this to the world.

And I suppose in part, maybe, verify that they were really doing what they claimed to be doing, because when people would claim that they weren’t really technologically capable of doing this… because there was obviously a big political battle between these two superpowers.

So it had this sort-of role, even to the extent that Jodrell would track the spacecraft, and record the signals on to tape, and a Russian would fly into Ringway airport in Manchester as it was then, and someone from here would drive up… get off the plane and hand them a tape, and they’d head off to Moscow with that recording.

Was this purely scientific camaraderie (pardon the pun), or inter-government cooperation or something else? Clearly the Soviet Union's space program benefited from both data and PR; did the UK benefit as well?

  • 4
    It was not just co-operation. Jodrell Bank recorded the image transmission and produced the first image from the surface of the moon using a facsimile machine borrowed from the regional office of the Daily Express. The Daily Express then printed the picture in their next edition, scooping the Soviet official announcement. See proftimobrien.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/…
    – Henry
    Mar 3, 2019 at 0:54
  • @Henry I think that's quite notable; a bit of "co-opertition". I like this visual especially; Earth, Moon, Luna 9, Daily Express i.stack.imgur.com/TNlDC.png
    – uhoh
    Mar 3, 2019 at 1:11
  • @Henry Luna 9 is briefly mentioned in one answer to Hijacked space data, notable instances of recovering images or other goodies from someone else's space mission? but I think the full story deserves its own answer. In certain cases like these multiple answers are welcome in Space SE as long as they offer something of value, and I think this story would be a fun read for the space community. Consider posting something there? Thanks!
    – uhoh
    Mar 3, 2019 at 1:15

4 Answers 4



Jodrell Bank's first 'coup', tracking Sputnik 1 in 1957 (without Soviet assistance), put it in the news and helped secure funding. It also led to a congratulatory telegram from the Soviets.

After doubts were expressed about Luna 1 (Jan 1959) being real, the Soviets sent the coordinates for Luna 2 (Sept 1959) to Jodrell Bank head Bernard Lovell to verify. This put Jodrell Bank in the news again.

Lovell, apparently both returning a favour and in expectation of future information to which would again boost the prestige and importance of Jodrell Bank (as well as lead to continued cooperation which would increase Britain's international profile in astronomy), sent the data recordings to the Soviets. Jodrell Bank subsequently received coordinates for Lunar 3 (which sent the first ever pictures of the far side of the moon) in Oct 1959 and again sent recorded data to Moscow.

After Luna 3, direct requests from the Soviets seem to have ended. Instead, transmission frequencies were published by TASS, but there was continued cooperation which also included the US, despite Cold War tensions. Lovell also visited the Soviet Union in 1963. However, relations between Jodrell Bank and the Soviet Academy of Sciences took something of a knock upon the publication of the Luna 9 photographs in January 1966.

Looking at the broader picture, these exchanges between Jodrell Bank and the Soviets occurred during the Khrushchev Thaw, when the Soviet premier turned to the idea of peaceful coexistence with the West.


The tracking of Sputnik (1957) put Jodrell Bank in the news and secured funding. This from the University of Manchester History Department blog:

The Jodrell Bank Observatory was catapulted to a position of global prominence, Lovell’s critics were silenced, and new funds poured in – not only from the British government, but also from the United States.

Bernard Lovell had

struggled to find the necessary resources to complete the telescope....Government funding for the project proved inadequate and controversial....The project was heavily criticized in Parliament as a boondoggle, and there were even calls to have him arrested on charges of overspending public money, especially since it was still unclear what purpose the telescope served.

Further, there was much conflict between him and the engineers. This provided another reason as:

At Jodrell Bank the satellite was used to show the public harmony of engineers and astronomers, and the successful demonstration of working telescopes.

Source: John Agar, Science and Spectacle: The Work of Jodrell Bank in Post-war British Culture

Agar further notes that:

The Soviet satellite was therefore appropriated differently by British groups....For Jodrell Bank, Sputnik was used to demonstrate the efficacy of their radio telescope. Why was this necessary?...to manage internal divisions and contests of responsibility, and to counter criticism of the construction of the telescope by the constitution of public authority.

The fact that Jodrell Bank could track Sputnik was of huge interest to the US:

Desperate to monitor Soviet rocket launches, and to use Jodrell Bank’s facilities to track their own rapidly expanding efforts, both the US Air Force and NASA were soon paying substantial amounts for access to the telescope.

Further, for a while it was the only telescope able to track an ICBM. Thus,

The Jodrell Bank telescope briefly became an “early warning device” for a Soviet nuclear attack.

As you suggested in a comment, the providing of tapes to the Soviets was quite likely in acknowledgement of the Luna II (September 1959) coordinates received by Jodrell Bank. There was an exchange of information which was mutually beneficial, and perhaps a little professional courtesy also played a part as the Soviets

even sent him [Lovell] a telegram of thanks

following the Sputnik publicity.

This well-sourced Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics (UOM) article notes that Lovell was initially not overly enthusiastic about trying to track Luna II as they had failed to track Luna I (January 1959). However,

The duty controller at Jodrell Bank informed Sir Bernard that the Russians 'had launched a rocket which would reach the moon on Sunday evening'. A reporter phoned and asked what Jodrell Bank 'was going to do about it'? To which Sir Bernard replied 'I am going to play cricket'. Having been unable to track Luna 1 and receiving very little help from the Russians in locating that probe he was not so keen on wasting the observatory's time on another moon probe.

When Lovell returned to his office in the evening, "in his own words"

"And there, with the paper streaming out on the floor, was a message from Moscow giving precise details details of the frequencies of the transmitters in the Lunik and the co-ordinates for the latitude and longitude of Jodrell bank giving the time of lunar impact as 10 p.m. the following evening".

Further data from the Soviets followed the next day, and Jodrell bank was then able to confirm to the world

that an object made by humans had travelled from the earth to another heavenly body!

Jodrell Bank's involvement in confirming this was not without controversy as some saw it as

'aiding and abetting the "Commies'".

Source: September 18 letter cited by John Agar, Science and Spectacle

Lovell's belief, though, was that

large radio telescopes could guarantee Britain a position of influence between the USA and USSR

In short, until Jodrell Bank tracked Sputnik, Britain had declined from being at the forefront of astronomy to no more than a bit player. For Lovell, the facilities at Jodrell Bank were an opportunity to put Britain back in the limelight. Cooperating with both the Americans and the Soviets was an opportunity Lovell intended to exploit.

Source: Agar

Thus, later, on the 1st of November,

a telegram was sent to AN USSR asking for "co-ordinates for the next transmission from Luna 3", and the first batch of tapes of signals from Luna 2 and 3 were sent to Prof. Nesmeyanov of AN USSR on 9 December 1959. In the accompanying letter Prof. Lovell thanked the Academy for the data with pointing information for the Jodrell Bank telescope. The final batch of Luna 3 tapes were sent to Akademi Nauk on 14 January 1960.

No direct communication seems to have taken place between Jodrell Bank and the Soviets for subsequent luna (4 to 14) missions: instead, the Soviets published navigation fixes in TASS. Nonetheless, there was further cooperation as

Two Soviet scientists came to Jodrell Bank in June 1961 to search for signals from the Venus probe.

On the American side, President Eisenhower had been making attempts at cooperating in space with the Soviets since 1957 but the latter were cagey. However, a meeting between the Americans and the Soviets did take place in March 1962. Neither this nor other proposals made any real headway at the time, though.

On the British side, in June and July of 1963, Lovell

was the guest of the Soviet Academy of Sciences on an unprecedented tour, for a Western scientist, of the major optical and radio observatories.

His impressions and details of his discussions were duly passed on to the Americans and from this trip stemmed

a cooperative program arranged between Jodrell Bank and the Deep Space Tracking Center at Yevpatoriya

and there were also communication experiments in early 1964 between Jodrell Bank (working with the US) and and the Soviet Gorky State University facility in Zimenki.

For the Soviets, Jodrell Bank helped them to prove to the world that their claims were true:

The Soviet Union also envisioned an important role for the Jodrell Bank Observatory, which could provide independent verification of its accomplishments. When the Soviet Union launched its Luna-1 rocket into space in January 1959, many believed it had never happened. As a result, when it launched the Luna-2 rocket in September 1959, Soviet authorities sent Jodrell Bank the rocket’s coordinates and frequencies; soon afterward, Jodrell Bank confirmed its existence.

Nonetheless, in late 1950s at least, there were still doubters, even at Jodrell Bank; Lovell, though, was not one of them.

  • 1
    Perhaps the service of providing data recorded on tapes to be taken to Moscow was the price for receiving "all the coordinates and the frequencies they were using"?
    – uhoh
    Mar 2, 2019 at 14:28
  • 1
    @uhoh I've edited, and that would seem to be the case. Mar 2, 2019 at 16:17
  • 3
    what a really interesting bit of history, thank you so much for putting all of this together!
    – uhoh
    Mar 2, 2019 at 16:35
  • I have read in "The radio astronomer", which is a biography of UK/Aussie radio astronomer John G. Bolton, that radio astronomy has its origins in surplus radar equippment and radar operators in search for a new field of work after WW2. So, these PR coups were very important for the young field of radio astronomy.
    – Dohn Joe
    Jul 18, 2019 at 7:53

Why did Jodrell Bank assist the Soviet Union to collect data from their spacecraft in the mid 1960's?....... He (BBC's Tim O’Brien) does indeed describe something more like assistance than spying.....

Was this purely scientific camaraderie (pardon the pun), or inter-government cooperation or something else? Clearly the Soviet Union's space program benefited from both data and PR; did the UK benefit as well?

Rather than documenting the assistance provided by Jodrell Bank Observatory, I wanted to answer the question by explaining and defending their assistance.

An outside observer might mistake the assistance provided by Jodrell Bank Observatory as collaboration with an existential enemy, but that would be to mis characterize what was happening. Nothing so nefarious was occurring from the perspective of Jodrell Bank. Scientific achievement requires collaboration. Jodrell Bank Observatory at the University of Manchester mission statement places science at the heart of their purpose. As such assisting the Soviet Union with their independent observations falls within the parameters of the Jodrell Bank stated purpose. From the Soviet's perspective they were publicizing their own achievements, but certainly they were also pursuing and advancing human achievement in an important way. Scientific achievement worthy of the participation by other interested scientific institutions.

I think asked a different way, why did the often secretive Soviet Union request and facilitate the access of an independent western scientific establishment like Jodrell Bank, at the height of the Cold War?

The answer is that while aspects of the Soviet space program were secretive it was also an important public relations front of the Cold War.

During the Cold War, both super powers were motivated to compete across many fronts, to publicize their achievements and demonstrate their leadership and superiority. In this way they separated themselves as global leaders. Perhaps "the" global leader. Both super powers advertised the benefits of their forms of government by publicly celebrating their achievements. The Cold War had many fronts beyond the military confrontations and proxy wars. These fronts included athletics, diplomatic, cultural, economic, and artistic. Even the strategic board game of chess was for a time the front lines of the cold war. Additionally technological achievements; including what became the space race was from the earliest stages of sputnik, October 4, 1957, used to captured the imaginations of western observers and dramatically demonstrate the superiority of Soviet science. The huge stir Sputnik caused in the west, was in part, a public relations coupe for the Soviet Union. One which the Soviets would repeat many times:

These are just a few of the notable records set by the Soviet Union which motivated the west to develop and commit vast resources pursuing their own space program.

An important component of the space programs in both the Soviet Union as well as the United States were public relations. The Soviet Union required independent scientific organizations to verify and publicize their accomplishments just like the United States did in order to achieve the notoriety from those achievements.

  • This is quite an insightful answer and important perspective, thank you very much! I think this story offers a unique window on these complex times and you've hit the nail on the head. Note that Space Exploration SE has both a history and a Russia tag if you ever feel so inclined.
    – uhoh
    Mar 4, 2019 at 23:22

As can be gathered by the other answers, it's a complex topic. The University of Manchester website gives some extra information.

Firstly, the Soviets were probably annoyed that no-one outside of the the Soviet Union believed that the Luna 1 probe, launched on 2 January 1959 existed. For the next successful launch, the Soviets decided to get Jodrell Bank to verify the existence of Luna 2, by providing pointing and frequency data.

In a sense, the USSR also used the capabilities of Jodrell Bank. In many circles the first Soviet lunar probe, Luna 1, launched on 2 January 1959, was simply not believed to have existed (See (8)). This must have annoyed the Soviet authorities enormously, despite the fact that the transmission frequencies were announced directly after launch. For their second successful launch they decided to try to engage Jodrell Bank as a source of independent verification of any claim of success. Therefore the USSR sent detailed instructions to Jodrell Bank how to find their second lunar probe, Luna 2, that was launched on 12 September 1959 and hit the moon the next day. Jodrell Bank provided scientific proof that Luna 2 actually reached the moon, and the USSR continued to provide pointing and frequency data to Jodrell Bank for a number of years.

The other reason was because the Soviet ground station network was not very capable in those early days and they wanted a back-up in case of a crisis.

Probably the Soviet Union felt uneasy about asking for such help after the US "Deep-Space Collection" programme was underway and Jodrell bank became part of this intelligence network. Despite any such possible misgivings, it seems that Jodrell bank was asked to monitor the Venera-4 landing (4) on Venus in October 1967. The reason for the Soviet interest was probably also that their own ground station network was not very capable in those early days and they wanted some back-up capability in case of a crisis. In effect, this also happened, when the Soviet ground stations lost contact with Venera-1 five days after launch and asked Jodrell Bank to try to detect signals from the probe when it passed near Venus three months later - but, alas, to no avail.


Alla Masevich writes in the memoirs under the name "Stars and Satellites in My Life":

In fact for Lovell such request was an important reason for advertizing of the telescope. For the first time from the USSR asked for the help, and it, but not in the USA.


Alla Genrikhovna Masevich (October 9, 1918 — May 6, 2008) was a Soviet astronomer. Alla Masevich and Lovell

Page 42 Mashine translation:

Stay in Great Britain was for me very interesting. I communicated to the English colleagues, did a bit of traveling over the country, learned a lot of new about life and traditions of British, visited The University of London and radio-astronomical observatory about Manchester with which director – professor Lovell – we have old friendly relations.

Пребывание в Великобритании было для меня очень интересным. Я пообщалась с английскими коллегами, поездила по стране, узнала много нового о жизни и традициях англичан, посетила Лондонский университет и радиоастрономическую обсерваторию около Манчестера, с директором которой – профессором Ловеллом – у нас давние дружеские связи.

Page 44

On observatory where the biggest functioned in the world (for those times) the radio telescope, I happened to arrive once again for longer time. In the 1960th years for the first time in the USSR and in the world the spaceship to Venus was started. Unfortunately, touch with it(him) was lost after an exit to the set orbit. It was possible to catch its(his) weak signals still by means of the big radio telescope, and the decision to address Lovell was made. There was it quite peculiar. I was unexpectedly invited to the minister of electronics and radio engineering, at once carried out to its(his) office where there was already M.V. Keldysh, then Chief theorist of astronautics. I was asked, whether the truth that I well know Lovell whether I can call him by phone and to ask for permission to arrive with the assistant to observatory for search of signals of our Venus on its telescope. To call it was offered from an office now. Phone numbers at me at to itself was not, but, having received my consent, it was got right there, told me data on the alleged assistant and connected with Great Britain. Lovell was on the place, quickly agreed on arrival also promised to assist in the fastest receipt of a visa. As then gossiped, the ministerial administration was shocked by my determination, a manner of a conversation and the received result, and Keldysh praised me later "for maintenance of honor Academies". In fact for Lovell such request was an important reason for advertizing of the telescope. For the first time from the USSR asked for the help, and it, but not in the USA. As a result all were satisfied, and that the most surprising, the next day we already took off for Great Britain. Visas (exit of the USSR and entrance to Great Britain), tickets and currency – everything appeared without any efforts from our party(side) as on wave of a magic wand. Never before I at such speed did not leave.

На обсерваторию, где функционировал самый большой в мире (по тем временам) радиотелескоп, мне довелось еще раз приехать на более длительное время. В 1960-х годах впервые в СССР и в мире был запущен космический корабль к Венере. К сожалению, связь с ним была потеряна после выхода на заданную орбиту. Уловить его слабые сигналы еще можно было с помощью большого радиотелескопа, и было принято решение обратиться к Ловеллу. Происходило это довольно своеобразно. Меня неожиданно пригласили к министру по электронике и радиотехнике, сразу провели в его кабинет, где уже находился М.В. Келдыш, тогда Главный теоретик космонавтики. Меня спросили, правда ли, что я хорошо знаю Ловелла, могу ли позвонить ему по телефону и попросить разрешения приехать с помощником на обсерваторию для поиска сигналов нашей «Венеры» на его телескопе. Звонить предлагалось сейчас же из кабинета. Номера телефона у меня при себе не было, но, получив мое согласие, его тут же раздобыли, сообщили мне данные о предполагаемом помощнике и соединили с Великобританией. Ловелл был на месте, быстро дал согласие на приезд и обещал содействовать в скорейшем получении визы. Как потом сплетничали, министерское начальство было потрясено моей решительностью, манерой разговора и полученным результатом, а Келдыш меня после похвалил «за поддержание чести Академии». В действительности же для Ловелла такая просьба была важным поводом для рекламы своего телескопа. Впервые из СССР обратились за помощью, и именно к нему, а не в США. В результате все остались довольны, и, что самое удивительное, на другой день мы уже вылетели в Великобританию. Визы (выездные из СССР и въездные в Великобританию), билеты и валюта – все появлялось без каких-либо усилий с нашей стороны, как по мановению волшебной палочки. Никогда еще я в таком темпе не выезжала.

Page 45:

Every day called from Moscow, and we reported about signals, which we caught in the next vicinity of the set frequency. Unfortunately, it is every time there was not that. But we, probably spoiled blood the English military, getting on them closed frequencies and calling them in a conversation with Moscow. In some cases, having heard a signal, the next day to find it at this frequency it was not possible any more. Lovell every other day organized press conferences, and to us to pass from journalists was not at all. So proceeded the whole week. Eventually, it became clear that Venera it is irrevocably lost, and on it our mission ended. Having thanked owners, we went home.

Каждый день звонили из Москвы, и мы сообщали о сигналах, которые мы ловили в ближайшей окрестности заданной частоты. К сожалению, это каждый раз оказывалось не то. Но мы, видимо, попортили кровь английским военным, попадая на их закрытые частоты и называя их в разговоре с Москвой. В ряде случаев, услышав сигнал, на другой день обнаружить его на этой частоте уже не удавалось. Ловелл через день устраивал пресс-конференции, а нам проходу от журналистов вовсе не было. Так продолжалось целую неделю. В конце концов, стало ясно, что «Венера» безвозвратно утеряна, и на этом наша миссия закончилась. Поблагодарив хозяев, мы отправились домой.

Page 46:

The second arrival of professor Lovell on Zvenigorod observatory took place after search, joint with us signals of Venera. In acknowledgement of his participation to us allowed to show him the tracking station of a long-distance communication in Eupatoria where then still any foreigner was not. We visited with him on the Crimean observatory also went to Eupatoria by car, sent from the tracking station. It was the interesting trip. At an entrance to the tracking station no guard was visible. On fields lengthways roads lay and young people in undershirts sunbathed then, there and shorts. Gate of the station were open wide open. At the building us employees, all in civilian summer clothes met. All to us showed, treated in Russian, with binge and sent back. Guard again any was not. Lovell was very pleased, but was perplexed how it is possible to leave such important object without any guard. Professor Lovell wrote later very flatter article about me, published in the USA in "Saturday Review" ( September 7, 1963). On its basis then mine appeared the biography in the Current Biography magazine (Volume 25, Number 1, January 1964).

Второй приезд профессора Ловелла на Звенигородскую обсерваторию состоялся уже после совместных с нами поисков сигналов «Венеры». В знак благодарности за его участие нам разрешили показать ему станцию дальней связи в Евпатории, где тогда еще ни одного иностранца не было. Мы побывали с ним на Крымской обсерватории и поехали в Евпаторию на машине, присланной со станции. Это была интересная поездка. При подъезде к станции никакой охраны не было видно. На полях вдоль дороги лежали и загорали то тут, то там молодые люди в майках и шортах. Ворота станции были открыты настежь. У здания нас встретили сотрудники, все в штатской летней одежде. Все нам показали, угостили по-русски, с выпивкой и отправили обратно. Охраны опять никакой не было. Ловелл остался очень доволен, но недоумевал, как можно такой важный объект оставлять безо всякой охраны. Профессор Ловелл написал позднее очень лестную статью обо мне, опубликованную в США в «Сатердей Ревыо» (Saturday Review September 7, 1963)

  • Thank you for the source and translation work!!
    – uhoh
    Aug 29, 2019 at 23:48
  • @uhoh Last quote specifically to the question "In 2009, Lovell claimed he had been the subject of a Cold War assassination attempt during a 1963 visit to the Soviet Deep-Space Communication Centre (Eupatoria). Lovell alleged that his hosts tried to kill him with a lethal radiation dose" telegraph.co.uk/news/science/space/5362829/…
    – A. Rumlin
    Sep 1, 2019 at 11:32
  • That's quite a story, I'd never heard it before.
    – uhoh
    Sep 1, 2019 at 13:26
  • Because nothing was published after his death, this can be considered senile features of human memory.
    – A. Rumlin
    Sep 1, 2019 at 13:43

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