University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Using Oral Sources: Recovering the history of the Skylark rocket

Daniel Millard, a second year History student at the University of Portsmouth, wrote the following blog entry on how historians can use oral history testimony to reflect on Britain’s attempts to enter the ‘space race’ in the late-1950s for the Introduction to Historical Research Unit.  The unit is co-ordinated by Dr Maria Cannon, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Portsmouth.

In 1957 Britain entered the space race with the launch of the Skylark sounding rocket. Conceived at a time when the nation was seeking to develop ballistic missile capabilities Skylark quickly positioned itself as a valuable research tool with which to help scientists unlock secrets from above the Earth’s upper atmosphere. [1] So successful was it in this civilian role that it went on to be flown for nearly fifty years making it one of the longest and most successful rocket programmes of all time. [2] Yet few in Britain have ever heard of Skylark and its presence within the documentary record remains sporadic. For this reason, space historian Matthew Godwin has openly acknowledged that, for Skylark, ‘the importance of oral history is clear’. [3]

The launch of Skylark

In 2001 Godwin helped organise a Skylark witness seminar held at London’s Science Museum. [4] Ten years later the Museum’s former Director, Professor Chris Rapley, was interviewed as part of the British Library’s An Oral History of British Science project. [5] Within his testimony Rapley describes the development of Skylark’s on-board experiments whilst working as a young PhD researcher at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Surrey. The interview, whilst offering insight in to the challenges faced by researchers working at the vanguard of British space science in the 1970s, also highlights several important issues that have dominated the oral history debate since it emerged as ‘an international movement from the end of that decade’. [6]

Donald A Ritchie tells us that ‘the ultimate value of oral history lies in the substance of the interviewee’s story,’ and what Rapley offers up is first-hand reporting of the instrumentation developed to investigate the presence and origins of x-ray sources in deep space. [7] What immediately strikes is the challenge oral history finds in adequately representing ‘the role of visuality in the construction of scientific knowledge’. [8] It is a problem Tom Lean, an interviewer on the Oral History of British Science project, has acknowledged. Humans, he tells us, express meaning as much through bodily action as spoken language and this is never more evident than when talking about complex technical subjects where ‘hand movements and gestures reinforce words, conveying speed, scale, movement’. [9] Whilst Rapley proudly recalls SL1203 being the first rocket to ‘align itself on the earth’s magnetic field and use moon sensors to orient its roll’ it would be valuable, as historians, to know whether his arms were gesticulating at the same time to help illustrate the achieved motion. [10]

Skylark was ‘cutting-edge science’ and Rapley hints as much when he states ‘we were really pushing the limits, they didn’t always work’. [11] What surprises is the matter-of-factness of his oral response. There seems no evidence here of A. J. P. Taylor’s ‘old m[a]n drooling about [his] youth’. [12] This may be explained by the fact that Rapley is a scientist of long-standing, a person who has spent his distinguished career actively seeking to be ‘objective’ not ‘subjective’ – a man highly trained to steer away from Alessandro Portelli’s acknowledged journey into ‘imagination, symbolism, desire’. [13] His answers equally support Thompson’s theory that oral responses differ depending on where the recording is made – whether that be at home, in the workplace or down the pub. Rapley’s interview was recorded at the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling at University College London where, as historians, we must assume ‘the influence of work conventions and attitudes’ prevail. [14]

For John Tosh it is important for any user of oral recordings to remember that they are ‘as full of pitfalls and difficulties as any other sort of historical material’. [15] Neal R. Norrick agrees, reminding us that ‘forgetfulness often occur[s] in oral history interviews’. [16] Rapley shows that even scientists conversant in dealing with hard facts can fall victim to faulty memory. His testimony is full of forgotten information, dates and names, with his acknowledged warning ‘it’s a long time since I’ve thought of this, I’m struggling now’. [17] This is not, in itself, unusual for ‘narrators often experience difficulties in recovering names and details during stories’. [18] Whilst historians once believed the fallibility of recall justified steering clear of ‘individual memory’, many now agree with Lynn Abrams’ interpretation that while ‘some details might fade […] the broad contours of the memory remain throughout life’. [19]

Perhaps most frustrating in Rapley’s narrative is the presence of reticence ­– conscious forgetfulness on the part of the interviewee ‘to limit dialogue on particular matters’. [20] Take his refusal to be drawn further on the link between his co-workers and communal living where he tantalisingly hints at the educated origins of 1970s commune life as outlined by social psychologist, Michael Argyle. [21] Yet Rapley is not alone in his refusal to answer the interviewer’s question in full for, as Lenore Layman reveals, ‘oral histories are peppered with examples of reticence presenting historians with both a methodological and interpretive challenge’. [22] Reticence, she goes on to explain, occurs most often where ‘the conventional bounds of social discourse’ are breached, with interviewees reluctant to divulge personal detail about others. [23] Rapley substantiates her claim when he declares that ‘many of them are still alive I think I’d better not’. [24] His reticence is understandable when one appreciates that ‘part of what is communicated in the oral history interview is a view of […] one’s place in the group [or] community.’ [25]

Rapley’s ‘family’ at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, we learn, consisted of some of the most high-profile names working in British space research today – from Peter Wilmore to John Zarnecki. This was Skylark’s over-riding legacy for it helped train a generation of space scientists who went on to work on larger orbital programmes including Ariel 1 the world’s first international satellite. [26] Rapley himself moved on to NASA’s solar maximum mission taking his knowledge of bent crystal spectrometry to help investigate solar flares and the Sun’s active atmosphere. Here the offered testimony is again, noticeably brief with the interviewee admitting ‘[I] could tell you a huge amount about it’. [27] In this, Rapley offers the strongest affirmation of Portelli’s widely-acknowledged belief that oral history ‘always has the unfinished nature of a work in progress’. [28] For Skylark, Britain’s little-known rocket, this, for now, is as good as it gets.



[1] Harrie Massey and M.O.Robins, History of British Space Science, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986), 16-17.

[2] Robin Brand, Britain’s First Space Rocket: The Story of Skylark, (Fordingbridge: New Forest Electronics, 2014), viii.

[3] Matthew Godwin, The Skylark Rocket: British Space Science and the European Space Research Organisation 1957-1972, (Paris: Beauchesne, 2007), 36.

[4] Ibid, 7

[5] Professor Chris Rapley, National Life Stories: An Oral History of British Science, interviewed by Dr Paul Merchant, 27.04.11, British Library, London, C1379/40, Track 3, 68-79.

[6] Alistair Thomson, “Four Paradigm Transformations in Oral History”, The Oral History Review, Vol. 34, Issue 1, (2006): 52.

[7] Donald A Ritchie, Doing Oral History, A Practical Guide, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 13.

[8] Martin Hewitt, “Beyond Scientific Spectacle: Image and Word in Nineteenth-Century Popular Lecturing”, in Popular Exhibitions, Science and Showmanship edited by Joe Kember, John Plunket and Jill A Sullivan 79-96, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), 80.

[9] Tom Lean, “But of Course Your Little Box Can’t See What I’m Doing, Can It?”, National Life Stories, (London: British Library, 2010), 13.

[10] Rapley, National Life Stories, 73.

[11] Ibid, 70.

[12] A J P Taylor quoted in Brian Harrison, “Oral History and Recent Political History”, Oral History, 3, (1972):46.

[13] Alessandro Portelli, “The Peculiarities of Oral History”, History Workshop Journal, Volume 12, Issue 1, (1 October 1981): 100.

[14] Paul Thompson and Joanna Bornat, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, 4th Edition, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 213.

[15] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of History, 6th Edition, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015), 254.

[16] Neal R Norrick, “Talking about Remembering and Forgetfulness in Oral History Interviews”, The Oral History Review, Volume 32, Issue 2, (1 January 2005), 2.

[17] Rapley, National Life Stories, 70.

[18] Norrick, Talking about Remembering, 12.

[19] Lynn Abrams, Oral History Theory, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010), 89.

[20] Lenore Layman, “Reticence in Oral History Interviews”, The Oral History Review 36, no. 2 (2009): 207.

[21] Michael Argyle, Cooperation: The basis of sociability, (Hove: Routledge, 2013), 82.

[22] Layman, Reticence, 236.

[23] Ibid, 240.

[24] Rapley, National Life Stories, 78.

[25] Neal R. Norrick, “Humour in Oral History Interviews “, Oral History, Vol. 34, No. 2, War Memory (Autumn, 2006), 86.

[26] Brand, Britain’s First Space Rocket, 601.

[27] Rapley, National Life Stories, 75.

[28] Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History, (Albany: New York State University Press, 1991), 55.

, , , , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply