The Story of the Kettering Radio Group
How a Midlands grammar school revealed a secret Soviet launch site during the height of the Space Race.
At the dawn of the Space Race, two science teachers launched an extracurricular group to demonstrate the uses of radio equipment to their pupils. Little did they know that their educational experiment would eventually lead to them revealing to the world a secret Soviet launch site – beating the CIA and NASA to the punch.
In 1960 Geoff Perry and Derek Slater, both science teachers at Kettering Grammar School in Northamptonshire, started to piece together radio equipment to see if they could hear signals from any of the new orbiting satellites.
Success came quickly – within the first two years they managed to track signals from two Soviet missions: Sputnik 4 and Cosmos 4.
Thinking that it would be fun for their school children to learn about radio signals and space from a practical side, Perry and Slater invited some students to the project in 1964.
Over the next few years Perry and his students routinely listened in on Russian communications and tracked signals from many different Soviet space missions.
But in 1966 when the group tracked the launch of Cosmos 112, it became apparent that something was very different about this launch. Not only was the launch angle different from the others, but the duration of the signal they picked up was also much shorter, meaning that the signal’s origin was much further north.
The staff and students at Kettering Grammar School had accidentally discovered a secret Soviet launch site near the Arctic Circle.
Perry wrote a letter stating his evidence and his theory of a new launch site to Flight International magazine but the announcement was met with little or no response. It wasn’t until six months later when Cosmos 129 was launched from the same site that Kettering got the international recognition that it deserved. Using data from both the launch of Cosmos 112 and Cosmos 129, Perry showed that the exact location of the new launch site was over 2000 kilometres northwest of any known Soviet launch site.
The coordinates and details of the launch site were announced by Perry at the British Interplanetary Society in London and on 10 November 1966, Flight magazine published a new letter from Perry.
Initially there was no reaction until a small detail about the launch site was to be included in a report from Dr Charles Sheldon from the US Library of Congress. His manuscript was quickly returned to him before he could publish it; the relevant section was marked as ‘Classified’ by the CIA.
Dr Sheldon reacted by notifying the press what had been written in Flight, and The Times quickly ran a full story about it.
Now the whole world paid attention to the Kettering Grammar School. More and more newspapers reported on the site, which was named ‘Plesetsk’. This name was most likely leaked by Western intelligence.
It wasn’t until 1983 that the Soviet Union formally acknowledged that there was indeed a launch site at that location, and that it indeed was named Plesetsk.
After they had gained international fame, the Kettering radio project expanded worldwide, with many academics from around the world joining in. They went on to successfully identify the test launch of an unmanned Soyuz spacecraft and the development of Chinese space missions, while continuing to track Soviet missions for decades.
As the group grew they received donations of more modern equipment and funding for expansion. It expanded to such an extent that the group was renamed simply as the ‘Kettering Group’ because with all of the different contributions; Kettering Grammar School was now only a very small part.
It wasn’t until 1984 that the group officially disbanded after 24 successful years of achievements. Three years later in 1987 Channel 4 broadcast a dramatisation about the whole saga, titled ‘Sputnik, Bleeps and Mr Perry’. This program is still available to watch on YouTube.
As of March 2016, it has been 50 years since Cosmos 112 launched from the secret launch site, an event which cemented this small Midlands grammar school into the history of spaceflight forever.
In 2016 the National Space Centre opened a new exhibit commemorating the Kettering Group. Here you can see the radio equipment that was used to track satellites and learn more about their story.
About the Author: Scott Davis is a current physics student and president of the Physics Society at the University of Leicester. He also works as a Science Interpreter at the National Space Centre.