Rocket man

Linda North and Patrick Ferry
Monday, 23 May 2022

Richard Gardiner Casey, Baron Casey of Berwick (1890 – 1976) served Australia as an army officer, public servant, parliamentarian, cabinet minister, diplomat and Governor General. Possessing a keen intellect and inquiring mind, Lord Casey was also an engineer, aviator, inventor, author and patron of the sciences. He also had a personal fascination with space.

Service and science

Lord Casey trained in engineering at Melbourne University and Trinity College, Cambridge and became a mining geologist. During the First World War he served as an officer in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).

After the war, Casey initially returned to his engineering and mining interests. He was soon headhunted by Prime Minister Stanley Bruce for the position of Commonwealth Liaison Officer in London. This career change eventually led Casey through a succession of key political, diplomatic and vice-regal roles. Yet, he maintained a life-long interest in the power and possibilities of science and technology and became a passionate patron for their advancement. Indeed, Casey was a vital supporter in Cabinet for the CSIRO's expansion in the 1950s.

Renaissance Man 

Lord Casey’s personal records, preserved in the National Archives in Melbourne, also bear witness to his inquisitive nature. Casey’s files cover an eclectic range of subjects including communism, Esperanto, population pressure, prawns and solar energy. Casey was both well read and well connected and could consult leading experts from around the world on the subjects that he was interested in.   

Casey also had an adventurous spirit, exemplified by his passion for aviation. A qualified pilot, Casey routinely flew himself to Canberra for parliamentary sittings and Cabinet meetings.

Always inclined to explore new ways of doing things, Casey’s experience as an aviator led him to co-invent the ‘Casey – Myers Computer’. This was patented as a ‘new or improved time and distance computer for use in aircraft’. Prince Philip was one of the recipients of Casey’s invention, although it ultimately did not prove to be a commercial success.  

Out of this world

Lord Casey was also keenly interested in space. His interests ranged from radio astronomy to UFOs. He was instrumental in securing funding for the Parkes Radio Telescope. Reported sightings of 'flying saucers' intrigued him and as Minister for External Affairs, he requested Australian ambassadors send him reports. Lord Casey was particularly interested in NASA's space program and conducted what he described as 'monumental correspondence' with Dr Philip Chapman, the first Australian selected for the astronaut program.

In May 1967, Lord Casey visited the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. Reflecting on the five-hour tour in his diary, Lord Casey, who was ordinarily a prolific writer and communicator, wrote:

The whole trip was a most impressive business and has to be seen to be believed. I ran out of adjectives quite soon.

NASA presented Lord Casey with a model Saturn V rocket – an icon of the space race. The rocket had pride of place on Lord Casey's desk at 'Edrington' (his Berwick home) until he died. It is now part of the National Archives' collection.

Two years later, in July 1969, Lord Casey made sure he was home in Melbourne to watch the Moon landing on television. Much of the moonwalk footage, which thrilled people around the world, was received by the Parkes Radio Telescope which Lord Casey had helped to establish. Amusingly, in his diary entry for that day, Casey noted that one of his friends described the lunar surface as looking like the ‘bottom of a bird cage'!