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Out of this World: The Pathé Space Archive

British Pathé has an extensive Space Exploration collection which often goes unmined. In this post, as part of our promotion of “Alternative Pathé“, we briefly summarise the contents of the collection and provide some links that might help you to begin your journey into the depths of the space-related archive.

Man long dreamed of setting foot on the moon. It formed the basis of a great deal of science fiction, such as in the work of H. G. Wells. But in the 1940s and 1950s, the possibility that space could be conquered increased, and with the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union, the “Space Race” began.

Some early thinkers appear in the British Pathé archive. One film, “First Moon Men” sees Pathé meet with two scientists who have designed their own rocket and space suits in the hope that they might get to land on the moon themselves one day. The film dates from 1947. But more serious testing and design throughout the 1950s is also documented.

Dreaming of the moon.

Project Mercury was designed to achieve manned American orbits of the Earth. Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and L Gordon Cooper were the lucky pioneers of this programme. But they were beaten by Yuri Gagarin, who became the first human in space in April 1961 aboard the Soviet space craft Vostok 1. In response, the Americans upped their game and President Kennedy announced that NASA “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth”.

Yuri Gagarin. Click the still to view our “Hall of Fame” episode about the heroic cosmonaut.

John Glenn’s Mercury rocket.

Project Gemini was the next step – testing the technology and gaining the skills required to get man to the moon. This included the first American spacewalk by astronaut Ed White. The excellent footage can be seen here.

Gemini 11 mission.

The Apollo missions which led on from these were the final stage in the Space Race – landing a man on the moon. It was not an auspicious start. The crew of Apollo 1, during a routine test on the launch pad, perished when a fire started and the trapped crew could not escape. A newsreel announces the loss of the crew. But their deaths were not in vain and NASA continued its efforts to send mankind into space. There were some unmanned tests before Apollo 7 became the first manned flight of the Apollo rocket and Pathé covered the launch, the mission itself, and the recovery of the crew from the ocean. Apollo 10 also features.

The crew of Apollo 1

Inside Apollo 10. Click the still to view the film.

Neil Armstrong (1930 – 2012). Click the still to view our dedicated Neil Armstrong collection.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin explore the moon.

There’s a wealth of Apollo 11 footage within the archive, both in colour and black and white. It covers the preparations, the lift off, the journey to the moon, the landing, moon exploration, and the return to Earth. The celebrations around the world also get a great deal of coverage. For instance, in one film, the three astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, arrive in the United Kingdom for a tour and to meet the Queen: Astronauts Visit London (1969)

There were a further six Apollo missions. Apollos 15 and 16 do not seems to feature in any of the footage within the archive, but Apollo 12 does, and there is some silent Apollo 13 material.

Apollo 12 blasts off.

The world hears that the Apollo 13 crew have returned safely.

There also appears to be a film from 1972  of an Apollo rocket on the launch pad. If this date is correct, then the footage is presumably of Apollo 16 or Apollo 17, the final manned mission to the moon.

This is where Pathé’s coverage of space exploration ceases. There is, sadly, nothing of Skylab, Hubble, or the International Space Station. There is, however, an episode of A Day That Shook The World, a BBC/British Pathé co-production, which documents the Challenger disaster, meaning that the British Pathé website does at least contain some brief material on the Space Shuttle programme.

But there is other material in the archive of interest not related to manned space flight. Some coverage of the interplanatary probes launched by both sides during the Space Race offers some early, pioneering views of our nearest neighbours. Unmanned missions are also documented, including, for example, the launch of Britain’s first satellite. The trips of other species into space also feature, including NASA’s “space monkeys” and the Soviet “space dogs”.

“Space Monkeys” meet the press.

Mars, as seen from an American probe.

These space exploration clips are a real forgotten gem of the British Pathé archive. They provide a window into one of mankind’s greatest (and most expensive) achievements – a reminder of what we can accomplish when we really put our minds to it and set our hearts on it. What will be the next such effort?

A selection of British Pathé’s material on space exploration can be found by clicking here.