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The Kettering Group

Tyneside, UK
2024 Jun 15
Saturday, Day 167

Curated by:

Kettering Group on the Web:

Book published on closure of the School

Kettering results, history, exploits and accounts

Contemporary Article

Geoff Perry item

Soyuz & Salyut - article by Geoff Perry

BBC News Feature

What Was It?

The Kettering Group was a disparate group of people, consisting originally of staff and pupils at the Kettering Grammar School (KGS) for Boys, Windmill Avenue, Kettering in Northamptonshire, England. It was originally styled "The Kettering Grammar School Satellite Tracking Group".

Kettering Grammar SchoolFrom small beginnings it grew to a network of people around the globe, some tracking satellites, some undertaking analysis and some providing those all too useful snippets of information or introductions to 'the man who knows'. Eventually, the name evolved simply to "The Kettering Group".

At the centre of it all was Geoff Perry, one time senior science master then, in the latter years, space consultant to everyone from ITN HQ in London to the Pentagon in Washington DC. Where Geoff provided the space-driven enthusiasm, the technical know-how came from another of the science teachers - Derek Slater, head of Chemistry . Derek was a keen amateur radio enthusiast with a deep knowledge of electronics. They came together as a pairing just at the right time.

The following paragraphs highlight the main events in the history of the group. A more-detailed Kettering Group Chronology can be found from the menu at the left hand side of this page.

1960 - First Satellite Signals at the School

Kettering Grammar School science teachers Geoff Perry and Derek Slater put together a set of radio equipment, some belonging to Derek and some borrowed. They succeeded in detecting signals from the Soviet Union's Korabl 1 (Spaceship 1), known then in the West as Sputnik 4. The satellite was the first test mission for the spacecraft that was to become Vostok and carry the first human into orbit.

They missed the opportunity of a 'scoop' when they noticed that signals came later than expected a few days after launch. Geoff noted that "it must have moved to a higher orbit". He was right - it was the result of a navigational error causing the retro-rocket to fire in the wrong direction, raising the orbit rather than precipitating re-entry.

1964 - The Group Comes Into Being

Satellite tracking was building up at the school and it got to a point where Geoff Perry and Derek Slater could no longer shoulder the workload. They asked some of the pupils to monitor the radio receivers during their free periods, and during the school lunchtime break - the Kettering Grammar School Satellite Tracking Group was born. The name belied the fact that some of the earliest Group members were pupils of the Kettering High School for Girls who were undertaking their 'A Level' science courses at the newly-bult Grammar School science block.

1966 - International Recognition

Tracking data for Cosmos 112 indicated the use of a new Soviet launch site. The launch of Cosmos 129 provided Geoff Perry with enough data to conclude that the site was to the south of Archangel. He publicised the fact in two letters to the UK magazine Flight International (April 21 - announcing use of the new site, and November 10 - pinpointing it). The first public revelation of the location had been in a talk he gave to the British Interplanetary Society in London early-November.

Coincidentally, Dr Charles Sheldon of the US Library of Congress was preparing a report to the Senate on the Soviet space programme. When it was vetted by the CIA, they requested removal of a section referring to a new launch site at Plesetsk on the grounds that information pointing to its existence was classified as "Secret". Sheldon's solution was to tip off the Washington press about Geoff's November letter to Flight International, and its existence then became public information.

The story was picked up the British press mid-December, and the Group's reputation was cemented when the Pentagon acknowledged that Kettering Grammar School had "beaten it" to announcing the news.

1984 - Tracking Operations at the School Cease

Geoff Perry took the opportunity to retire from the, now renamed and reclassified, Kettering Boys School, and also from the teaching profession this year.

With his retirement, tracking activities at the Windmill Avenue site came to an end. Geoff carried on tracking for his own purposes from his home, and the non-school Group members carried on as before. The analysis work also continued.

Derek Slater followed Geoff into retirement two years later and in 1993 the school itself closed. The site was taken over by the Tresham Institute. The actual buildings were demolished in 2007 to make way for a brand new educational complex. They had served less than fifty years.

2000 - All Good Things....

Over the years, the Group had expanded and become international, embracing satellite trackers from other countries, technical experts, journalists and data analysts. They had produced a wealth of material that led to a detailed understanding of the Soviet space programme.

Geoff Perry was always at the heart of the group, co-ordinating activities and acting as a conduit to the outside world. When he died in January 2000, the group ceased to be.

It was timely in that the Soviet Union was gone, Russia had scaled down its space effort and was starting to be open about its activities, and the public no longer had a taste for the Kettering-type space 'scoops'. Forty years had passed since Geoff Perry and Derek Slater noted Korabl Sputnik 1's orbit change and the Group's work was now done.

2002 - Reunion

In commemoration, a number of former Group members assembled at Kettering - partly as a tribute to Geoff Perry and partly to get people together. As well as former members of the tracking team and associates of the Group, the event was attended by Geoff's widow Jean and his daughter Isabel.

2009 - Commemoration in the Kettering Timeline

Timeline SlabDuring the summer of 2009, the Group was honoured by the town of Kettering with a granite paving slab in the refurbished Market Place to mark the story that broke in 1966 about discovering Plesetsk.

The Kettering Timeline (or Kettering's Timeline) - including a 'howler' in the design of 'our' marker with the chosen phrase ".....Grammar School Beats NASA" - is a line of stones marking significant events in the Town's history.

The reference to NASA is unfortunate. The December 1966 Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph front page headline "Pentagon Signals a Hit" (see left hand menu) tells the correct version of the story.

Kettering Borough Council's explanation is that the erroneous words used in the Kettering Timeline were produced by a "group of local historians". Unfortunately, it seems they read neither the Evening Telegraph story nor their own publication "Cytringanian Farewell" where Geoff Perry himself gives a very succinct account of the events of 1966. You can read the latter for yourself at Sven Grahn's web site.

2015 - The Book Closes

March 29 of this year saw the passing away of Derek Slater. Although not active in tracking activities for many years (he set himself up to provide chemistry expertise to local companies and industries around Kettering), Derek was a constant source of information about the Group for anyone who cared to ask.

2016 - Appendix

In 2011 Derek Slater had donated several items of equipment, including the Group's original CR-100 radio receiver, to the National Space Centre in Leicester, England. After being in storage for several years, some of the significant items went on permanent display.

On March 16 there occurred the largest get-together of the Group since 2002. It included members of the Slater and Perry families and several 'generations' of former pupils, some of them meeting each other for the first time. They met at the National Space Centre to witness the formal opening of the exhibit. The date also happened to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first orbital launch from Plesetsk.

The day was crowned by a congratulatory Facebook message from Tim Peake, resident onboard the ISS at the time. It Read: "Kettering Grammar School Satellite Tracking Group monitored space and satellites for nearly half a century. Celebrating 50 years of pioneering space research as an aid to teaching, enjoy your day at the National Space Centre, Leicester!"

The Group Today....

.... does not exist but some people are still tracking or analysing space events, and others can still be contacted and are prepared to talk about their experiences. Follow the "Members and Reminiscences" link in the left hand menu.

Keeping It Fresh

KGS badgeA talk/lecture on the history of the Kettering group can be provided to interested organisations. For schools, astronomical societies, and local clubs, the only cost will be transport to/from the north-east of England, usually the cost of running a car. For more formal groups, a fee may be involved but we can discuss it. Distance is no particular bar because public transport is available.

Use the 'Mail' button near the top of the page for further information or to discuss anything

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