Reginald Turnill, 1915 – 2013

The BBC’s veteran space reporter, who covered the Apollo programme, dies.

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Turnill stands proudly by his Chroniclers Award. He is the only non-American to have received it.


Reg Turnill, the BBC's aerospace correspondent throughout the Space Age and into the Shuttle era, has died aged 97.

Back in 2007, Sky at Night Magazine spoke to Reg to mark the 50th anniversary of the birth of the Space Age with the launch of the first man-made satellite, Sputnik 1. Surprisingly, we found someone who initially didn’t want the job of aerospace correspondent.

“I was recruited to the BBC as an industrial correspondent,” he explains. “After two years, they asked me to switch and to take on aviation and aerospace. I didn’t want to do it at first; I had very good contacts in industry and felt I was on top of my game. But then Sputnik 1 went up in 1957, which I covered as industrial correspondent, and I realised that the Space Age was just beginning. Now I realise how lucky I was to be given this job.”

One of the first people Turnill interviewed was the first man to go into space, a young Russian cosmonaut called Yuri Gagarin. “Gagarin was a very nice, bright young man, with flashing white teeth, Brylcreemed hair and a brilliant smile,” Turnill remembers. “I’m in no doubt that’s why the Russians picked him: they needed their early cosmonauts to be public relations experts too.”

Turnill only travelled to Russia once more during his career, to interview the second man in space, cosmonaut Gherman Titov. Reporting from Russia was a frustrating experience. “It was a complete waste of time,” he remembers. “The Soviet scientists did their best to state the facts, but they were limited in what they were allowed to say.”

Reporting on American progress in the Space Race was much easier. After the launch of Apollo 11 on 16 July 1969, Turnill’s bosses were particularly anxious for regular progress reports. The first manned lunar landing went without a hitch, much to the veteran reporter’s surprise.

“I think the moment of tension was not when Neil Armstrong stepped on the Moon, but the landing of that spider-like spacecraft, the lunar module. Personally, I never thought they’d land it safely,” Turnill admits. “I expected it to tip over and that it was more than likely that the first crew on the Moon would be lost.”

“When Apollo 11 landed, the television editor at the BBC said to me, ‘Tell us, Reg, in one minute, what it all means’. I said that the Moon had become an American island, that the 1970s would see the Moon race turn into the race to Mars, and that I expected the first man to be on the Red Planet by 1984.

“Of course,” admits Turnill, “that prophecy has turned out to be wrong by about 100 years, but the momentum was there after Apollo 11, and these things seemed the next logical step.”


This excerpt from the full interview with Reg Turnill was taken from Sky at Night Magazine’s special issue Man on the Moon.

 

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