The schoolboy passion that led to a 50-year career in astronomy

The schoolboy passion that led to a 50-year career in astronomy

As a boy, Graham Appleby was a keen amateur astronomer. He loved it so much that at 18 he wrote to the Royal Greenwich Observatory to ask for a job.

As a boy, Graham Appleby was a keen amateur astronomer, a hobby he pursued at home and at school in Salisbury. He loved it so much that at 18, on the advice of a careers adviser, he wrote to the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) to ask for a job.

To begin with the answer was no, but three months later he got a letter asking him to attend an interview at Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex. This was not the normal interview you might expect as an 18-year-old – with a junior manager or member of human resources – instead, he was interviewed by the Astronomer Royal himself, Sir Richard Woolley, and other senior figures.

“It was a bit daunting at first,” Graham says. “What does a boy straight out of school say to the Astronomer Royal that will prove he’s good enough to work for him?”

Graham needn’t have worried. His passion for the subject and willingness to undertake further study clearly shone through and he soon joined the RGO as an assistant scientific officer.

He was part of the Solar Department observing sunspots and measuring their position and frequency.

It was at this time, more than 50 years ago, that Graham joined one of Prospect’s predecessor unions, the Institution of Professional Civil Servants. His boss was the chair of the local Whitley Council covering the 250 people who worked at the observatory and he advised Graham to join.

He became an active member and sometime rep, section secretary and chair in that union, and its successors.

The union has played an important part in Graham’s career – and the careers of those he worked with.

Over the past 50 years the RGO has been through a number of moves, closures, changes in oversight, staff transfers and restructures and the union was always heavily involved in looking after its members’ interests.

Graham played his part as a union rep – helping colleagues to secure moves to different locations where appropriate, or minimising disruption where redundancy was the only option.

“Ever since I started I’ve enjoyed being an active member of the union,” said Graham. “The only time I wasn’t was when I was doing my PhD – I challenge anyone to work, do a PhD and still have time to be an effective rep.”

Graham was fortunate throughout the various restructurings in always managing to retain a role he loved.

Over the course of his employment he was encouraged to study and gained a maths degree from Brighton Polytechnic and a PhD from Aston University.

By the time he took on his PhD he was working in the satellite tracking section, using lasers to monitor the movement of satellites around the earth.

He is now a team leader on that section, splitting his time between Cambridge and the British Geological Survey’s Space Geodesy Facility back in Herstmonceux.

This unit does some fantastic work, measuring the orbits of satellites with lasers and thus enabling the data they collect to evaluate things like: how sea levels change, ice-sheet regression and tectonic drift. It’s also the basis of the technology that gives us satnav.

Graham said: “Looking back I still can’t really believe that an 18-year-old school leaver was given the opportunity I had. Nowadays we only take graduates and the competition is tough, but I have tried to keep that element of study to keep us ahead of the game.

“I think you need that to get the best people and to make the job about more than just recording data. It’s the analysis I love and I want to share that with those who come after me.”

At the age of 69 Graham is now retiring, but is grateful that he has colleagues trained up to replace him who will continue his research work. So grateful in fact, that he is going back to work with them part-time for free.

“When you’ve been in a job you love for 50 years, why would you give it up completely?”