It’s only rocket science – a 1960’s graduate reflects on the past

“Both I and my wife to be were the first children of our families ever to have considered the possibility of a University education, The fact it was free made it a practical proposition, but what happened afterwards had not been given much thought.”

David Gayler, Physics, 1963

In this article we take a trip down memory lane with 1963 Physics graduate David Gayler. Taking us from campus life in the 60s, to his experience of graduate employment, and the world of rockets and early computers, David’s entertaining story covers mizzen huts, potential explosions and the Official Secrets Act.

David Gayler at his Panel at Spadeadam

“Engine Control was equally mind numbing. It stayed blank until minus 10 seconds when a series of lights came up, one after the other until zero when, in a launch, either the vehicle would leave the ground or there would be a crater. The Americans were big on craters, De Havillands less so.”


In all good conscience in 1960 Hull was a city still recovering from the ravages of WWII, whose less attractive physical features were countered by the good humour and friendliness of the nice people that lived there. The memories of the blitz still ran deep, so that by 9:00 pm on Sunday (for example) the streets were deserted because there might be an air raid. The absolute need to educate young people to the highest level that they could manage was of great importance to the nation, so the University had more students than the City could reasonably accommodate. This meant that some of us, my friends and I included, lived in what were little better than slums.

The attrition rate amongst students was grim and too many departed without degrees at all. I was bumped down from a joints honours course to pass physics and, had it not been for the introduction of a tutor system in the third year, I too would have been out. However, my tutor, an excellent lecturer called Roberts, made every effort to mount a rescue on all those in his tutorial group, as a result of which I got a room in Ferens and things looked up no end.

Come the end of the 3rd year job hunting filled the horizon. Both I and my wife to be were the first children of our families ever to have considered the possibility of a University education, The fact it was free made it a practical proposition, but what happened afterwards had not been given much thought. I toyed with flying for the RAF and BOAC, but my goal was a secure job from which I could afford to marry and have a family. “Brand Manager” did nothing for me, Thus when Dr Roberts suggested applying for an interview with De Havilland Propellors Ltd and another tutor offered me a lift I jumped at the opportunity. 

I arrived at the site, which was on Spadeadam Waste in Cumberland where the workers were housed – and lived – in a set of wooden huts on a peat bog. No hardship there, for they had a Rolls Royce subsidised bar.  A development version of the Blue Streak vehicle, an ex intercontinental ballistic missile, called D3/6 was in the stand. 10 feet in diameter, 67 feet long it weighed about 93 tonnes at launch of which about 85 tonnes was liquid oxygen and kerosene, The RR engines delivered 137,000 pounds of static thrust, each, and there were two.

Charlie Cannon interviewed me. Because I had a degree (or soon would have) I was something of an odd ball, and whilst I was well aware that their qualifications, typically AMIEE or AMIMechE, was the equivalent of an honours degree with 5 years relevant experience – way out of my league – they seemed to think I was something special and I was not about to disabuse them. Mr Cannon wanted to know two things: how much did I want (I asked for £780pa, or £15 a week which seemed quite good) and when could I start?

His secretary had the papers ready as I left his office. It seemed a bit unusual to be required to sign the Official Secrets Act as the first paper but, what the hell, I needed a job. It was then I discovered I was now employed as a Trials Engineer aka Rocket Scientist.

Nobody was more surprised than I.

At this point, to a modern reader my tale might become surreal.

I very soon moved into the wooden hut which served as a hostel, and whilst University regulations said students should not depart the campus until after graduation, nobody seemed to care a great deal and, anyway there was an imperative here – I had no money. Pretty soon I discovered that many of the young men working on the site were trying to qualify as members of a Professional Engineering body via an HNC examination and direct experience, including, wonder of wonders, grappling with the solution of second order differential equations. That was one of the topics I’d had to cover in Ancillary Maths, so I rapidly qualified as “clever blighter” and the quality of my degree – or lack of quality – got lost in the rush to seek my aid.

I did not pretend I compared to some of the giants in engineering with which I was surrounded, I reasoned that the best trick was to say nothing and merge with the team. Any conclusions the management might leap to were not of my boasting. As a member of the team and weekly paid I was eligible for overtime and if you liked and respected the Unions you got as much overtime as any other member of the team. 

If you worked after 02:00 hrs there was no way home – even to the hut in which I lived some 4 miles away from the stand  – so you were paid for the rest of the night and got the following day off. They were called “ghosters”. If we carried out a static firing of the vehicle we tended to work much of the night before, the night after and, if you were a member of the data reduction team. the night after that.

My future wife was insisting that we had a sum of money in the bank before she would marry me. As I remember she was suggesting something like £100 which, to a chap on £15 a week, she considered was sum which was going to demand serious commitment on my part in its achievement. So when, in September 1963 I strolled into her place and waved a weekly payslip for £108 (after tax but including overtime) under her nose she felt she had to name the day. Since, as I write this in 2020 she’s reading it over my shoulder it seems to have taken! 

One of the jobs which got allocated to unsuspecting fools was to operate a panel in the control room. That meant that during a static firing trial you sat looking at a number of coloured lights for about 24 hours or more wearing a headset, waiting for an instruction to come up with your name against it in the Range Users Standard Procedure (a document whose weight was measured in tonnes) at which point you were supposed to wake up and do something. I was allocated to the P & P4 panel and the Engine Control panel

P & P4 was really boring since the only gauge on it displayed the pressure in the small Liquid Nitrogen tank on the vehicle, which was filled some time before the trial started and stayed pressurised throughout.

Engine Control was equally mind numbing. It stayed blank until minus 10 seconds when a series of lights came up, one after the other until zero when, in a launch, either the vehicle would leave the ground or there would be a crater. The Americans were big on craters, De Havillands less so. I did have a big red button with which I could bring the sequencer to a shuddering halt, but by the time I had decided that this was the moment to press the button, sure that I wouldn’t be cursed to all hell for getting it wrong, the moment had passed and I would be invited to assist with picking through the debris. Sitting on one’s hands was held to be wise.

Control Room during Firing – an atmosphere of intense boredom?

You can imagine in the atmosphere of tense boredom in the control room inter personal relationships became the stuff of legend. On one occasion the vehicle fired for the allotted 150 seconds and then went into “make safe”. At this moment someone pressed the “Cut Off” button (Trevor in one of the Observation Posts, I betcha). The vehicle went into some sort of limbo state since this situation had never been anticipated, and the main tank vents on the vehicle closed , which meant the pressure in the Lox tank began to rise, uncontrollably.

The task was to go out of the control bunker and walk the 400metres to the stand where there was a wide selection of cable racks all full of thousands of tiny coloured cables. Some of these cables were bright red. That was the cut off loop which had to be broken, at which point the vehicle would return to “making safe”. Cut the red line anywhere, it’s continuous.

So Cliff, Electrics Section Leader, left our bunker with its comforting 16 foot thick reinforced concrete walls and trotted off up to the stand, into the rooms under the vehicle, hoping the tanks didn’t burst before he did the deed. That would be unfortunate. The standards required him to be accompanied by Bill, a Range Safety officer, ex Commander RN, whose job when we were all locked in was to make sure nobody went out. Bring a good book, you might say.

A portly chap, pleasant enough but knew little of launch vehicles or rockets in general

Anyway, Cliff and Bill set off on their short walk, Cliff carrying a small pair of wire cutters. I think Bill would have been a bit happier if Cliff had carried a small toolbox if only for appearances sake. When they got to the first rack Cliff threw open the door looked at the myriad of cables, of which a number were red, turns to Bill and says “Well, that’s no use!” slammed the steel door, opened the next and, without more ado, plunged his wire cutters into this morass of cables and cut one. Any red one will do. The vehicle goes into make safe, the main tank valves vent and in the chamber beneath there is an enormous roar of gas escaping.

I’m not sure Bill was ever the same man again. It did take a considerable time for the spirit of forgiveness to enter his soul and he blamed us all for his discomfort, both jointly and severally. I exaggerate. A couple of hours reading his book ensuring his door stayed closed and a few cups of coffee even he began to see the humour that was giving the rest of us hysterics. I suppose, looking back on it, it was all a very masculine world. 

Meanwhile. all of the vehicle transducers were analogue, but more and more their output signals were being digitised before transmission. Furthermore, there was an issue growing in importance which we had no way of solving at that time. Forgive me if I explain:

We knew the weight of the vehicle but we had no way of measuring the thrust of the engines and hence could not calculate the lift off acceleration. We could put strain gauges on the main engine beams but basically our problem was that there was no computer fast enough to calculate the forces on the beams, even if the strain gauges were sufficiently accurate and reliable. Ferranti were bringing out the Argos computer range, intended for use on the side looking radar on the TSR2 which might have proved fast enough but the future of that entire project was uncertain. 

So in !966 I was sent on an IBM1401 programming course. Not exactly the sort of on-line, real time computer that was needed on site, but a decent introduction to the computing world. And it was held right in the middle of London! What did come as a complete surprise was that there were a number of people with us who had been told by their employer not to came back if they didn’t pass the exam at the end of the course.

That was the first my colleague Roy and I had heard of an exam. And, what’s more, being only there for the beer it didn’t seem to matter much to us either way. 

Come results day the lecturer started bottom up. As she climbed further up the results tree Roy and I were fast coming to the conclusion that we had made such a mess of the whole thing they had thrown our papers away. When Dawn (the lecturer) announced Roy had scored an “A” I nearly fell off my chair. The blighter had cribbed most of his answers from me, anyway, and I felt wronged.  Then she announces that I’ve got an A+ and the next thing I know is I’m an Analyst/Programmer working in the Hawker Siddeley Dynamics Computer Centre in Stevenage with an ICT 1909 on which to play in order to do the job I did at Spadeadam but using a computer.

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