TO anyone British and not exactly youthful, Reginald Turnill was the voice of the space age in its heroic era. It would be easy to use his death at a great age to crank up a metaphor about how US astronauts now have to hitch a ride into space with the Russians. (In fact it is not hitching – the fare is colossal). But let’s not do
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that even though his death, so soon after that of Patrick Moore, does invite nostalgia.
Instead, let’s celebrate all that he did. In his book The Moonlandings (the
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link is to my review in the Times Higher), he made it clear that he regarded his life as a blessed one. He said that the most exciting thing he ever read (in a USAF plane over the North Pole, inevitably), was a US government
report on the impending era of space exploration. He saw his future in that plane. He made sure that he
saw it all in the space race, and knew everyone.
Having started his professional life as a boy reporter in local papers, he always felt that his BBC bosses never paid him the respect that they would have given to a university graduate. But maybe he would not have been happy climbing the BBC hierarchy, and his viewers and listeners would certainly have lost out. He
did have one big win over them. He attended the Apollo 11 and 12 launches, but by the time humankind got to its third Moon landing mission, they had got sated and decided to save money by not sending him. After Apollo 13, he was there for all the four remaining flights.
His role as aerospace correspondent meant that he also got to observe a less than heroic era for UK aviation – he penned a book on Concorde alongside his many space books. Of these the classic is the Observer’s Spaceflight Directory, still available 35 years after publication at a noted online bookstore.
From my limited and long-ago discussions with him, I’d say he would have got excited about the current era of machine exploration of the solar system. But as a journalist he would have appreciated that even the most amazing findings by a robot don’t have the news value of a crewed mission.
And I’ll always bore people with one line from the Spaceflight Directory, surely the classic case of metric madness. Writing about one failed launch, it says simply that the rocket rose “2.54cm” from the launch pad before exploding.