One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind and another major step in the history of Air Products UK.
Exactly 50 years ago today, on 20th July 1969, an estimated 650 million people all over the world were glued to the televised image of Neil Armstrong placing his left foot on the Moon – a transmission which wouldn’t have been possible without helium supplied by Air Products UK.
Back in July 1969, Air Products supplied liquid helium to the Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall, UK, which played a pivotal role in broadcasting the Moon landing.
Once the largest satellite dish in the world, Goonhilly’s Antenna 1 named ‘Arthur’ signalled the dawn of the space age when it beamed images of the 1969 Moon landing to millions of homes around the world.
Air Products’ liquid helium was required to cool the Travelling Wave Maser Amplifier located within Arthur.
Peter Ward, retired helium product manager of Air Products UK and former director of Helison Marketing, recalls to gasworld his memories of Apollo 11 and the role Air Products UK played.
Ward joined Air Products UK from the University of Southampton on 1st May 1969 and was tasked to assist with the installation of a new tonnage air separation plant at Bracknell, Berkshire, which was nearing completion and production.
Air Products’ first UK helium plant was being installed in the vacated premises of an aerosol perfume factory within the boundary of the air separation plant.
“I joined Air Products at Oxford Cryogenics, which Air Products had purchased earlier that year and were in the process of moving location from Abbey Place, Oxford to Bracknell,” he explained.
“The installation of the new plant took place over a matter of months and also required the move of one of two Collins ADL liquefiers from Abbey Place to Bracknell.”
“My task was to assist with the installation at Bracknell and commission and operate the liquefier whilst Abbey Place ran in parallel until the move was completed in the August/September of that year.”
In 1969 helium was imported into the UK in cylinder form from the US and Canada in air shipments of 1000 gallon tanks.
“Air Products in the US were developing and building their first containerised 4,000 gallon tanks that made the first trip to the UK in December of that year across the Atlantic on a Dart Containers line vessel MV Rubens,” Ward said.
“The significance was that liquid helium requirements were essentially supplied from the liquefiers.”
Air Products first major additional contract for liquid helium supply was with the Post Office Goonhilly Earth Station in Cornwall.
The contract required that a total of 16x17 litre dewars be sent on a weekly basis to Cornwall.
Ward continued, “British Rails Red Star service was used and requirement dewars split into three deliveries per week delivered to Reading station for dispatch to Redruth in Cornwall where they would be collected by Goonhilly Down personnel.”
“The movement of helium liquefiers can often make them unstable. The Bracknell liquefier was no exception.”
“The liquefier installation was complete at the beginning of July followed by a commissioning period, which consisted cooling down the 200 litre dewar that received the liquid directly from the liquefier, purging and restarting until acceptable delivery was achieved.”
“The plated capacity of a new liquefier was 8 litres/hr and this liquefier was a few years old and at least its second move.”
“The liquefier at Abbey Place was running and supplying the Air Products inherited other liquid customers.”
“It was therefore vital the Bracknell liquefier performed sufficiently to supply the demand of Goonhilly.”
“The liquefiers are installed to run continuously and unattended other than ensuring sufficient supply gas and transferring liquid from mother dewar to transportable dewars.”
“However, this was not to be the case at this moment in time. The liquefier had a mind of its own and needed constant attention 24 hours a day.”
“We were able to keep up with demand with the help of the occasional air freighted 1000 gallon tank, but timing was all important and airfreighting was unreliable. The liquefier had to be nursed manually and continuously.”
Ward said in the week leading up to the Moon landing, they were entirely dependent on the Bracknell liquefier fulfilling the Goonhilly demand that unsurprisingly had increased for that week.
“Goonhilly were also facing a critical period in their history. They were to receive signals from the US relay to London via a microwave link where the signal would be converted and sent to TV stations across Europe,” he explained.
“Having only joined Air Products in May, my home was still in Southampton. Returning at the weekend was difficult, so on this particular occasion my wife joined me at the Bracknell plant and provided us all with much needed refreshments during the day. She even learnt how to transfer liquid helium!”
“Along with colleagues Don Gilbert, UK Helium Manager, and Ken Gamlen, Technical Manager, we worked shifts nursing the liquefier, transferring into transport dewars delivering to Reading station.”
“Ken would always deliver to the station, Don would provide the admin cover and general day time support, and I filled the dewars and covered the night shift.”
“The liquefier produced enough product over that period of time to fulfil the Goonhilly demand.”
“The final batch of six dewars were delivered to Reading Station on the Sunday afternoon in order to catch the evening train to Redruth, arriving just a few hours before the Moon landing.”
“My wife and I returned to our home in Southampton in time to settle down and join the millions of people to watch the Moon landing knowing we had played a very small but vital part in enabling viewers in the UK and Europe to enjoy the moment.”