A Tribute to a Pioneer Spaceman

It was with great sadness that we heard of the passing, on Saturday 22 August 2015, of Peter Conchie, a true pioneer and visionary of the UK Space industry. In the words of Roy Gibson, Director General of ESRO, first Director General of ESA (1975–80) and first Director General of the British National Space Centre (1985-87), “I can’t let this sad occasion go by without saying how much I appreciated Peter during my time at ESRO and ESA. He always looked for solutions to problems and remained unflappable under fire. A great guy.”

Born in September 1928, Peter joined GEC Research Laboratories in Wembley straight from school to work on valves and Cathode Ray Tubes. He was called up for National Service in the RAF in 1946 where he repaired radar equipment and he returned to GEC Wembley in 1949. While there he began an external degree at London University.

In 1953 Peter joined de Havilland Propellers in Hatfield as a Flight Observer and Electronic Engineer. Using strain gauges for in-flight testing of propellers, he flew in many types of aircraft from the Britannia, single Pioneer, Beverley, Airspeed Ambassador and the Provost to the Princess flying boat and the Vanguard. He also completed vibration measurement on a Sea Vixen and noise assessments on the French Caravelle jet airliner before moving on to set up vibration and vacuum tests on the Blue Streak Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. This took him up to Spadeadam for several of the test firings.

Peter’s knowledge and experience of vacuum testing came to the fore when in the mid 60’s Hawker Siddeley Dynamics (HSD), as it had become, at Stevenage won the contract to design and build the ESRO II spacecraft to study solar astronomy and cosmic rays and he was called on to obtain and install several vacuum chambers of varying sizes. He was also invited to be the Assembly Integration and Test Manager for ESRO II, but even more significant was that when preparing the paperwork for the justification and installation of the largest 8 x 8 foot chamber he met Anne. They later married, on 31 May 1967, but were only able to ‘listen’ to the ESRO IIA launch on 29 May, via a live telex link with the US Western Test Range launch site. Sadly the Scout rocket failed but it meant that Peter and Anne were both able to attend the successful launch of ESRO IIB a year later.

Lessons learned from ESRO II were to prove invaluable later as it was discovered, during flight readiness reviews in the USA, that the solar/thermal vacuum testing of ESRO II was far more advanced than anything being carried out in the USA. In 1968, as Bid Manager, Peter started work with colleagues Ron Young, Dave MacLauren and Jim Heaton on the feasibility study for ESRO IV. However, ESRO, now ESA’s Technical Centre, ESTEC, wanted to fly all three experiments from their recently cancelled TD2 (Thor Delta 2) satellite. Peter’s team came up with novel solutions, won the contract and Peter became Project Manager. This wasn’t without its headaches as for the first time ESTEC called for ‘juste retour’ which required the training up of teams in Italy and Denmark. ESRO IV was launched in 1972, unfortunately into an incorrect low Earth orbit, but it worked.

By now Peter was very much a family man too. His daughter Ruth was born in 1970 and his son Ian in 1972 and soon the whole family were into sailing, keeping their boat on the Orwell at Woolverstone (Royal Harwich Yacht Club) and later on the Deben at Waldringfield.

At about this time Peter was promoted to Manager Applications Satellites and was put in charge of the Meteosat programme while Matra led the MESH Consortium (Matra, ERNO, Fiat, Saab and HSD with TRW) in the Orbital Test Satellite (OTS), ESA’s first geostationary three-axis stabilised spacecraft. However this all changed when the UK Ministry of Defence indicated that they would only consider HSD for their Skynet military communications satellite if HSD led on OTS. Fortunately Matra agreed the swap and Peter became Local Project Manager for Meteosat until he was asked to take over the OTS bid.

This proved to be quite a task. In competing with the STAR Consortium of BAC, RCA, Thomson CSF, Dornier, Fiat, Montedel, Ericcson, and RCA Ltd with Hughes, they had to find a way of reducing costs and winning the technical evaluation. Both were achieved after Peter led a ‘road show’ around Europe visiting all the Countries represented on the ESA Council and, with experience of 23 satellite prime contracts behind MESH, OTS was won. This led on almost naturally to a bid for a maritime communications satellite based on OTS called MAROTS, with a Marconi ship to shore and shore to ship communications payload.

The European communications satellite was born, but to justify the investment, the MESH Consortium had to be seen selling this capability round the world. So Peter set off with Air Cdre Bertie Wooten to evaluate the market. Their first port of call was the Arab League Telecoms Committee in Beirut accompanied by a team from Cable and Wireless who set up meetings around the Middle East and North Africa and later, the Far East too. This led to Peter instituting an OTS improvement programme to increase its performance to make it truly competitive on the world market. The family of five European Communications Satellites (ECS) for Eutelsat was the result and HSD Stevenage was firmly established as the European leader in communications satellites.

Unfortunately things weren’t going quite so well on the MAROTS programme with payload delays and a lack of power. So Peter persuaded ESA to swap to the ECS platform and MAROTS became MARECS. All three satellites were leased to the new Inmarsat organisation for maritime communications.

With this job done, Peter was conveniently offered the chance to return to Hatfield in 1978 to run the Infra-Red Division. He enjoyed the move and with a keen young team and using his experience in the MoD, had soon won some new research contracts and was pressing the MoD to look at fresh new ideas. In his own words Peter says: “The whole point of management is, assuming you have a keen, co-operative team, to guide, encourage and look after their interests. You will have to exploit or extend them a bit, but if they are young, that’s what they want. Basically you have to have a view on what is practical, ie, what you can secure funding for, or what is likely to win customers' approval.”

Peter’s enthusiasm was infectious and, having turned around the Division and built a good team, he was given responsibility for the design and build of the guidance head for the new Advanced Short Range Air to Air Missile (ASRAAM). But, recognising that to replace the US Sidewinder, it had to be that much better, he and his design group set about finding a way of acquiring a target before launch. When he visited Hatfield, the US Secretary of Defense was very impressed.

Soon promoted to Executive Director Aircraft Equipments, Peter took over the propeller Division too, with two main products, Cold Air Units (CAUs) and Windpower Generators. The CAUs were amazing devices that, cooled cabin air by expanding it rapidly, but the ones for the Tornado were costing more to produce than the contract price. Initiating a cost exercise with his design and production teams, they were able to introduce considerable cost savings and spread some of these ideas into other areas of the business. The Wind Energy Group, contracted by Scottish Hydroelectric to provide a back-up generator on the Orkneys, was struggling to agree fixed price contracts with both its partners and the customer until Peter stepped in. Unfortunately, though it was eventually installed and ran, it was not economic and so was soon taken down.

By this time Peter had become Director ASRAAM and HSD, by now the Air Weapons Division of the British Aerospace Dynamics Group, had won the Tornado ASRAAM contract with an advanced Linescan target acquisition head which now had an observer monitoring and tape recording facility. This was much appreciated later, in the Gulf War. Peter and his team were also heavily involved in setting up a second production line in Uberlingen when the German Air Force also ordered ASRAAM.

In 1982/3 Peter became Director Air-to-Air Missiles at Hatfield just as there was talk of the site being shut down and the Division moved to Stevenage Site A. Fortunately he was offered what was effectively his old job back at Stevenage Site B and he became Business Development Director for what was now British Aerospace Space and Communications. He arrived back in time to see the new BAe/Matra Eurostar satellite platform complete its qualification while also being bid for the Inmarsat 2 contract. With some advice from Peter and the support of Roy Gibson, the bid was won and Inmarsat procured its first spacecraft. The four Inmarsat 2 satellites proved to be extremely reliable and long-lived.

Then four very different programmes came along, like buses, all at once - ESA’s Earth Observation Columbus Polar Platform, the HOTOL launch vehicle, the Personal Communications Network Licence and the Orion transatlantic telecommunications satellite. Peter was responsible for getting them all started, or at least for getting British Aerospace to take them on.

Peter, as a long standing Fellow and Council member of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS), had taken on the task of chairing its Technical Committee to find new ways of exploring space. It was here that he first heard of an idea for a launch vehicle that would use atmospheric oxygen in its climb to altitude proposed by BIS Fellows and Committee Members Bob Parkinson and Alan Bond. When Peter returned to Stevenage, Bob Parkinson, who had just moved up from Westcott, came to him with his concept for a winged launch vehicle with air-breathing engines that he and Alan Bond had been working on. At a meeting a short while later Peter asked for a name for it that was awkward and memorable, but would stick. It is thought that Larry Blonstein came up with the name HOTOL (the HOrizontal Take-Off and Landing launcher) and Peter took it on up to the British Aerospace Main Board. Despite the programme being cancelled in 1989, the name stuck and the concept lives on in Alan Bond’s Reaction Engines Ltd Skylon.

The Polar Platform was originally the free-flyer of the Columbus programme, the European contribution to the International Space Station, which had grown out of the European Spacelab for which BAe designed and built the pallets to carry the lab in the Shuttle payload bay. The Platform, passed on to Bob Parkinson by MBB, was recognised by Peter as being relevant to the UK’s Earth observation interests and he, now representing BAe on the Spacelab Board, insisted on the UK leading the Polar Platform as Government funding of the Columbus programme depended on it. BAe Space and Communications, backed by Roy Gibson, now the UK Government’s Space Director, was awarded the contract and the platform, now better known as Envisat, was moved over to the Bristol site.

Recognising that the long term return on investment, hence profit, was far greater in owning and operating satellites than in building them, Peter suggested to John Holt, Managing Director BAe Space Systems, that BAe should bid for one of the PCN (Personal Communications Network) Licences to be let by the Government. A short note to Sir Raymond Lygo, CEO of British Aerospace, and the first Satellite Distribution Licence was won. BAe Communications was set up to provide services, such as the live distribution of sports matches to pubs and clubs and data communications for the National Lottery. Much was learnt, but very little return was made on this venture. The second licence, for mobile communications proved much more profitable, for BAe and its shareholders in particular, when the mobile phone company Microtel was sold to Hutchison Wampoa in Hong Kong who renamed it Orange.

Finally, the biggest feather in Peter’s cap must be the Orion Satellite system. Almost single-handedly he set about winning the regulatory battle to operate a satellite to provide direct business to business services across the Atlantic. With the commercial telecommunications expertise and contacts of Chris Vizas, Orion CEO, in Washington supported by BAe’s technical expert, Richard Barnet, the US Government was persuaded to allow companies to by-pass the national Post and Telecommunications authorities to provide alternative satellite services. However, all operating frequencies and orbit locations still had to be co-ordinated through Intelsat and the ITU. With the backing of the UK Government, the battle was won and Orion bought a Eurostar satellite from BAe which was successfully launched in November 1994, initially being controlled from Stevenage. BAe and its other shareholders and investors saw a good return on their investment a few years later when, in March 1998, Orion Network Services was sold to Loral for $479m.

Peter was recognised for his outstanding contribution to the UK Space industry, being elected a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society in 1985 and awarded an OBE in the 1988 Birthday Honours. He retired in 1990 and continued to pursue his hobbies with his usual energy and enthusiasm, supporting the Nene Valley Railway and making violins and cellos.

Peter’s forward-thinking and his ability to ‘move mountains’ helped to lay the foundations for today’s expanding Space sector, which contributes £11.3bn to the UK economy each year. He will be sorely missed.

17 September 2015