Sir Harrie Massey

The First ESSC Chair:

Vision and Action Personified


April 06, 2022


Many people have contributed to the fifty-year history of the European Space Sciences Committee.  None more so than the ESSC’s founding Chair, Sir Harrie Massey.

Harrie Massey was born in Melbourne in 1908. A child prodigy with an extraordinary memory, he obtained his state school merit certificate in four years instead of the usual eight. He was an accomplished sportsman, later in life being judged to play cricket at a professional level. As a child in remote Hoddles Creek, he taught himself the game with the help of a collie dog who was ‘a keen retriever of balls’!

Following a stellar performance at the University of Melbourne, gathering numerous prizes and a first-class degree in physics on the way, he proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge. There he joined the Cavendish laboratory, working with legendary figures such as Ernest Rutherford, J.J. Thomson, James Chadwick, and Cockroft and Walton. This was the golden age of nuclear physics, when the electron and neutron were discovered, the structure of the atom was revealed and its core first split, laying the foundations of the understanding of the energy source within stars, nuclear power – and ‘the bomb’. His book ‘The Theory of Atomic Collisions’, written with Neville Mott, remains, an all-time classic.

He went on to be head of Physics at Queen’s University Belfast, then the Head of Maths, and then Physics, at University College London. In 1940 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at the unusually early age of 32.

During World War II he led the scientific and operational effort to counter the German magnetic mining campaign that was devastating UK shipping, and was then released to lead a team at the University of Berkeley working on the Manhattan project.

But it is his role in space science that is arguably most remarkable. He early on recognised the potential of space to revolutionise our understanding of the Earth, the Solar System, and the Universe, as well as the practical benefits for communications, navigation, and defence He was pivotal in establishing the UK and European Space science and launcher programmes, COSPAR – and the ESSC.

Fundamental was his determination that science should provide the foundation and driving force, and that the intellectual power-house of that science should reside in the Universities and research institutes. This was not least to avoid the fate of the US space science community, where, after the formation of NASA with a science workforce, even James Van Allen, the discoverer of the Van Allen Belts, “found himself without funds”.

The rich and multi-faceted story of Sir Harrie’s role in space science can be found within his Royal Society obituary (1), on the UCL website (2), and in historical volumes such as Krige’s ‘Fifty Years of European Cooperation in Space’ (3), Godwin’s ‘The Skylark Rocket’ (4), Brand’s ‘Britain’s First Space Rocket’ (5), and his own (with Robins) ‘History of British Space Science’ (6). Insights will also appear in a history of the ESSC, which is currently in preparation.

Here I would like to focus on his clarity of foresight, and his ability to explain science in a compelling and informative way to the non-scientist – a role which he regarded as an obligation and duty. In May 1958, only months after the launches of the Russian Sputnik 1 and US Explorer 1, and Penguin Books published a popular paperback:  ‘Science News 48 : Rocket and Satellite Research’. Of the eight chapters, Sir Harrie Massey penned the opening and concluding contributions. The following is extracted from the latter:

The Present Position and Future Prospects

“Let us now look to the future. We can expect a continuation, on an expanded scale, of vertical rocket soundings of the atmosphere using an ever-wider variety of measuring instruments. It is likely, also, that satellites will become a regular feature of upper atmosphere research. Some of these will circulate at high levels, never approaching the Earth closer than 1000 miles. Being outside the atmosphere these high-altitude vehicles will remain aloft for years, and will be of great value for navigation, geodesy and studies of the figure of the Earth. They may also carry instruments to make a wide variety of important measurements continuously. The results of these experiments will be returned to Earth in the usual way as coded radio signals. Worries due to short battery lifetime will be eliminated by the substitution of solar batteries powered by sunlight. Additional satellites will circulate closer in, so that air density studies may be undertaken. The nearer satellites will also contain measuring instruments and telemetry.

 The first American launchings will certainly be followed by others and there will doubtless be further Russian satellites. The large weight, nearly half a ton, of the second Russian satellite, with its remarkable cargo, shows that it will certainly be practicable to include television equipment in future satellites so that photographic information may be telemetered to ground. Recovery of satellites should also be feasible, though the development of appropriate techniques may take time.

 Synoptic studies by means of satellites of cloud cover, atmospheric circulation, solar terrestrial and galactic radiation, meteor density, cosmic ray intensity and magnetic field strength will an enormous contribution to our understanding of atmospheric phenomena, the relations between solar and terrestrial effects and the properties of interplanetary space.

 The next step beyond the artificial satellite observing station is that of sending objects containing instruments round or to the Moon. Although this involves considerably higher accuracy in guidance, it is clearly realizable. Among the measurements that could be made are those of the concentration and nature of the neutral and ionised matter in interplanetary space, and the magnetic field of the Moon, about which as yet we know nothing. It will be possible to track the object by providing it with a radio beacon.

 In principle there would be no difficulty in arranging for an object, on hitting the Moon, to cause a violent local heating sufficiently intense to produce evaporation and the emission of light. The nature of this light could be studied from earth, so providing some information about the composition of the surface of the Moon. Again, an object passing round the Moon could study the reflection of different kinds of radiation from the lunar surface. If this information could be telemetered back to earth, it would be possible to derive further knowledge of the nature of the surface. At a later stage it may be possible to take television pictures of the side of the Moon which is forever screened from us on Earth.

 Further than this it is not profitable to speculate. Much more can be done about exploring the Moon and interplanetary spec without using manned space ships. It is therefore not appropriate to discuss the prs and cons of space travel here. The immediate prospects of inanimate flights in space are themselves sufficiently romantic and wonderful.”



  3. ‘Fifty Years of European Cooperation in Space’, John Krige ISBN 978-2-7010-2029-7
  4. ‘The Skylark Rocket’, Matthew Godwin’, ISBN 978-2-7010-1511-8
  5. ‘Britain’s First Space Rocket’, Robin H Brand, ISBN 978-0-9929896-0-6
  6. ‘History of British Space Science’, H S W Massey and M O Robins ISBN 978-0-51189807-5