Queen reveals fascination with space exploits as she marks science week

Tony Jones, PA Court Correspondent
·4-min read

The Queen has highlighted probably the most essential fact when planning a trip into outer space – the importance of returning home.

Experts and schoolchildren joined the Queen in a virtual event to mark British Science Week, showcasing the latest pictures from Nasa’s mission to Mars and classroom rockets made by the pupils.

An image of the Winchcombe meteorite that recently fell to earth in the Gloucestershire town of the same name was shown to the Queen, who said: “I’m glad it didn’t hit anyone.”

The video call symposium was held on Wednesday, just a few days after the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s bombshell interview in which they accused the royal family of racism and a lack of support.

The Queen met the first man in space – Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin – in 1961 soon after his historic mission, and when she was asked during the video call what he was like, she made everyone laugh by replying: “Russian.”

She explained he did not speak English, and added: “It was very interesting to meet him, and I suppose being the first one, it was particularly fascinating.”

Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, a scientist and co-presenter on the BBC’s The Sky At Night programme, said of Gagarin: “It must have been very terrifying to be the first one, and not really knowing what was going to happen.”

Yuri Gagarin and Harold Macmillan
A waving Yuri Gagarin with then prime minister Harold Macmillan, right, in April 1961 (PA)

The Queen quipped: “Well, yes – and if you could come back again. That’s very important.”

Gagarin went on a world tour soon after his space mission in April 1961 and was invited to lunch at Buckingham Palace by the Queen, and he also met then prime minister Harold Macmillan.

Dr Aderin-Pocock, said after the video call with the Queen: “When I mentioned Yuri Gagarin to her I couldn’t believe her answer. It was not what I expected, she made us all laugh.

“She has a wonderful sense of humour and it makes you realise, given the fact that he died in 1968, how long she has been our monarch. She is living history, in fact.”

Later in the call, the Queen was briefed on the latest updates from Nasa’s Mars Perseverance rover mission by Professor Caroline Smith, who is part of the space agency’s team looking for life on the red planet.

The Queen appeared fascinated during the event (Buckingham Palace/PA)
The Queen appeared fascinated during the event (Buckingham Palace/PA)

Professor Smith, head of earth sciences collections and principal curator of meteorites at the Natural History Museum, showed the Queen pictures taken by the rover which landed on Mars last month.

When the Queen was shown an image of the Jezero Crater region where the rover landed, she said: “It’s very rock-strewn, isn’t it.”

She said later in the video call: “It’s fascinating to see the pictures of Mars – it’s unbelievable really to think one can actually see its surface.”

Children from Thomas Jones Primary School in Notting Hill, west London, demonstrated their plastic bottle “rocket mice” experiment, where toy mice acted as astronauts.

The Year 4 pupils had taken part in a session for British Science Week with the Science Museum’s learning team ahead of the call with the Queen.

Queen Elzabeth II visits Science Museum
The Queen published her first Instagram post during a visit to the Science Museum in 2019 (Jody Kingzett/Buckingham Palace/PA)

After a countdown, the group fired the mice into the air and the Queen said “splendid” as she laughed.

She added: “Well that’s been very interesting to hear and I hope the children have enjoyed it too. They might learn something from it as well.

“Well it’s been a very interesting morning, thank-you very much indeed. And it’s wonderful work you’re all doing. It’s a great pleasure to see you all.”

The Queen has encountered a rapidly-changing world of technology during her reign, from the advent of the colour television to the mobile phone and the internet.

When email technology was in its infancy, the Queen sent one in 1976 during a visit to an Army base.

Other technological milestones for the Queen include posting her first tweet under her own name in 2014, to declare the opening of the Science Museum’s Information Age Galleries.

Five years later she posted for the first time an image on Instagram, as she announced a Science Museum exhibition celebrating top secret technology.