HC Deb 12 May 1959 vol 605 cc1047-50
52. Mr. de Freitas

asked the Prime Minister which Minister is responsible for co-ordinating the work of the Air Ministry, the Ministry of Supply and civilian scientists and civilian engineers concerned with the project for using for research in space missiles developed for the Royal Air Force.

53. Mr. Fort

asked the Prime Minister if he is yet in a position to make a statement about space research.

The Prime Minister

There are two problems to be considered in relation to a British contribution to space research; the nature and design of the instruments to be carried into space: and the means by which the containers for these instruments are launched.

With regard to the first, with the assistance of Fellows of the Royal Society and with the endorsement of the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy, a programme for the design and construction of instruments to be carried in earth satellites has been approved. Work will begin at once.

With regard to the second, there may well be scope for joint action with the United States, with the Commonwealth or with other countries. We therefore plan to send to Washington a team of experts, including Professor H. S. W. Massey, to discuss possible Anglo-American cooperation; and we are also opening consultations with other Commonwealth countries.

Meanwhile, however, design studies are also being put in hand for the adaptation of the British military rockets which are now under development. This will put us in a position, should we decide to do so, to make an all-British effort.

I have asked my noble Friend, the Lord President of the Council, in consultation with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply and other Ministers concerned, to exercise general supervision of these new developments.

Mr. de Freitas

Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether the cost is about the figure which is being widely discussed, between £10 million and £20 million spread over five years? Can he give us some idea of this, and, if there is to be a project, the nature of the project which the Government have in mind?

The Prime Minister

No, I cannot give any figure of the cost of using the British rocket should it be decided to do so. What we are doing now is to spend a substantial but modest sum, more in hundreds of thousands than in millions, first for the design of the instruments, which is the first element, and secondly, for making the necessary designs for modifications of the British military rocket should it be decided when the time comes to use it for this purpose.

Mr. Fort

Now that the project for a satellite is being taken over by the Government, and in view of the lead which the Royal Society has given in this idea in the past, can my right hon. Friend undertake that the Royal Society will be considered on all scientific developments in this field in the future and also that it will be consulted with a view to initiating purely scientific as well as defence work?

The Prime Minister

Yes, the instruments programme will be supervised by the British National Committee on Space Research set up by the Royal Society and under the chairmanship of Professor Massey.

Mr. Chetwynd

Is the Prime Minister satisfied that there is intrinsic value in this scientific work or is it just an attempt to keep up with the Joneses?

The Prime Minister

I am not by nature or, I am afraid, by education very favourably inclined to swallow all that the scientists tell me, because, alas, I do not understand it, but I am impressed by the universal opinion of these very distinguished people whom we have consulted, and I feel certain that in this scientific instrument work it is clear that Britain ought to play her part in this advancing scientific effort. As to the method of launching these instruments, what I felt right to do, and what, I think, the House will think sensible, is to make preliminary work at not very large expense which will put us in a position to use our own rocket Should, when the time comes, we decide to do so.

Mr. A. Henderson

In view of the great importance of this research work in outer space not only for the benefit of this country but the whole of mankind, would the Prime Minister be prepared to discuss with Mr. Khrushchev the desirability of entering into a system of co-ordination and pooling of information with the Soviet Government?

The Prime Minister

Yes. I think I would probably at any summit meeting use the appropriate moment to open up this particular line.

Mr. Grimond

As the development of space rockets and military rockets is intimately connected, will the team of experts which is going to America also be involved in the development of military rockets?

The Prime Minister

What they are going to America for—and we have discussed this with the Commonwealth and with COSPAR, of Which we are members—is to discuss whether it would be a good idea to have some joint organisation for the actual launching of the container. The instruments we can make on our own. We are quite capable of doing that. That is what we should like to do. We shall also make the adjustments necessary in our own military rocket to use our own propellant to push the container into the upper atmosphere should we decide to do so.

Mr. Beswick

While I am sure that on emotional grounds we would all like to see a Commonwealth satellite, may I ask whether the Prime Minister is aware that probably the greatest tragedy since the war was when the Soviet Union turned down out of hand the proposals of Bernard Baruch on behalf of the United States for an international atomic energy commission, and does it not appear that we are here missing another great opportunity to have an international effort in cosmic space work?

The Prime Minister

No. I think that there is a great deal of truth in what the hon. Member said, and that is why I was anxious to keep these possibilities at the moment open—the launching of our own instruments in co-operation with America, or co-operation with the Commonwealth, or through this organisation which is known as COSPAR, which is at any rate of a larger international character.

Mr. Gaitskell

Has not Mr. Khrushchev already made a proposal for joint action in this field?

The Prime Minister

I think a good deal of time has elapsed since the moment the right hon. Gentleman refers to. I am asked in this Question what is to be our immediate policy. It seems to be a wise one, to prepare our own instruments and. should we decide to do so, place ourselves in a position to use our own rockets.

Mr. Gaitskell

While I am not dissenting from the broad approach of the Government in this matter, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he would not consider it desirable to follow up Mr. Khrushchev's suggestion so that we can in this field at least obtain a little international co-operative action?

The Prime Minister

I will certainly study that, though in that as in everything else it all depends on how we progress. If we make good progress we may get into a good working arrangement with much wider possibilities than seemed possible a few months ago.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker

Will the right hon. Gentleman study what Mr. Khrushchev said about this in his speech to the Twenty-first Communist Congress in January this year, in which he proposed the total abolition of all nuclear weapons, of all missiles, and international co-operation for the purposes about which my right hon. Friend has just spoken?

The Prime Minister

Yes, but it is very easy to make these general proposals. What we have been trying for weeks and months to do is to get one, single specific proposal agreed—abolition of the tests under a workable scheme.

Commander Noble

Would it not be a very good thing in this matter if the Soviet Union agreed to take part in the deliberations of the Committee on Outer Space set up by the United Nations?

The Prime Minister

Yes. That, of course, is very relevant, because although the Soviet Union is a member of the United Nations it is not at present represented on the United Nations Committee on Outer Space. It would be very easy to get this co-operation if it would join the United Nations body set up for the purpose.