The Mullard Space Science Laboratory
By Nicholas J Booth, on 17 December 2013
One of the things I enjoy most about my job is that I get to work with many different departments from across UCL. I meet people from a wide range of backgrounds and get to do some pretty interesting stuff with them. And of course being a curator I get to work with collections as well, which is in my opinion the best thing about working in museums.
In the last few months I have had the good fortune to visit the Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL). A part of UCL that very few people get to see, staffed by people who are extremely passionate about their jobs, and housing a whole new collection of objects that I didn’t know existed.
The MSSL was opened in 1967, and is the largest university space research group in the UK. Not only that but its early date marks it as one of the earliest such centres in the world, and makes it an important part of the early history of the British Space Programme, now known as the UK Space Agency (yes we really do have one of those). The lab is located near Dorking in Surrey, based in a 19th century country house that once belonged to a member of the Guinness family and surrounded by beautiful country side. The view from the front offices must be one of the best at UCL.
At the MSSL they design and build experiments and parts of satellites that go into space. The lab includes design spaces, workshops, labs and clean rooms which are used to build and test equipment, and has staff of about 170 people.
At present there are pieces of equipment designed and built by UCL scientists orbiting the Sun, Venus, Saturn and Mars.
So what ‘collections’ do they have? Well none from a strictly museum sense. The Mullard isn’t a museum, it’s a science lab, and they don’t think in terms of collection, its equipment. In my first meeting I was introduced to the director, Prof Alan Smith, who was very clear that he did not want the lab turned into a museum. I could not agree more. The Mullard is a working lab. However the work they do there does involve the creation of amazing objects with huge potential for display, teaching and research.
For instance in the stairwell of the building there is a sub-orbital sounding rocket – a Skylark to be exact. The Skylark was first launched in 1957, and continued in use until 2005. A timespan of 48 years.
The MSSL also has a wide variety of material including engineering doubles of equipment that is currently in space; technical drawings and schematics; a satellite that crashed on launch and had to be retrieved from a swap in French Guiana; and equipment that has been to space and back in one of the shuttle missions. So some pretty interesting stuff!
In the future I hope to work with the MSSL, its staff and wonderful collections of equipment and involve them in more of the work UCL Museums does across UCL and beyond. This includes exhibitions on and off campus, teaching with the collections at UCL and making the material available for research. Excitingly the MSSL has already agreed to loan us a piece of equipment for display at the UCL Academy School in Chalk Farm. Hopefully this is the first of many future collaborations.
Nick Booth is the Science and Engineering Collections Curator at UCL.