Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first manned space flight by Uri Gagarin, with North-East firms playing an integral part in the ensuing moon race RUSSIAN cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became one of the most famous men on the planet when he orbited the Earth in Vostok 1, on April 12, 1961. Just over a month later, US President John F Kennedy, determined to regain the initiative for his country, told Congress: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth."

Unbeknown at that time, foundations had been laid in the North-East to play a significant role in that adventure.

Some 35 years earlier, a young apprentice, Francis Thomas Bacon, had joined one of the North-East's largest employers, steam turbine builder CA Parsons, in Newcastle.

While at the firm, where he worked from 1925 to 1940, he became interested in the potential of fuel cells, devices using hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, for pollution-free power.

As its commercial value wasn't then recognised, he initially began carrying out experiments at the firm in secret, unaware that his work was to play an integral part in putting Apollo 11 and US astronaut Neil Armstrong on the moon in 1969.

Years later, US President Richard Nixon would put his arm around Bacon's shoulders and tell him: "Without you Tom, we wouldn't have gotten to the Moon."

One of Bacon's first supporters in his research was Charles Merz, the Newcastle-born electrical engineer who developed the forerunner of the National Grid, at Wallsend.

After leaving Parsons, Bacon began full-time research into fuel cells, first at King's College, London, and then Cambridge University.

He finally patented the first practical hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell in 1959, which he demonstrated by powering a welding machine and a fork-lift truck.

At this time, Nasa was seeking a way to power its manned Apollo spacecraft, with batteries considered too heavy and solar panels of the time too inefficient.

The fuel cell came to be seen as an ideal source of on-board electrical power with the additional advantage that astronauts could drink the water the process produced and it could also be used in the humidification of the cabin.

The Bacon cell was licensed by the Pratt and Whitney Division of United Aircraft and used in a successful bid to Nasa for a $100m proposal to build the power source for Apollo.

During the Apollo 8 mission of 1968, Bacon told a BBC reporter how excited he was to see "a real genuine use for a fuel cell".

Bacon, who died in 1992, was to see his technology continue to be developed and used in the space programme, with an updated version also supplying electricity for the space shuttle.

Coincidentally, it was another former CA Parsons worker who would also play a leading role in the early space race.

In 1939, James Hambleton left school in Consett, County Durham, with no qualifications at the age of 14 and got a job labouring at the town's iron company.

Within 30 years he would be technical director of Team Valley-based Joyce Loebl, having been a driving force at the firm which won a Queen's Award for Industry in 1967.

Having gone back to night school to gain his qualifications, Mr Hambleton left his role as a research engineer at Parsons in the early Fifies to join Robert Joyce and Dr Herbert Loebl as chief engineer of their fledgling firm, founded in a lock-up garage under railway arches on Newcastle's Quayside with £200.

At the time the business, specialising in electronics and scientific instruments, took on small contracts and repaired meters for shipyards.

But as it grew it became a major employer, with more than 500 staff and, after being promoted to technical director, Mr Hambleton oversaw the development of world-leading products, including advanced imaging equipment known as a microdensitometer.

It was these devices which caught the attention of Nasa as it looked to accurately map the Moon so that suitable landing sites could be found for the Apollo spacecraft.

Mr Hambleton worked closely with the US space agency during this time, often travelling to meetings in America.

Mr Hambleton's daughter, Linda Biggins, the managing director of plastics firm Fairgrieve Moulding, in Washington, Wearside, said: "My dad had Class A clearance with Nasa and worked closely with them in mapping the Moon ahead of the first Moon landing.

"I was in my early teens and I can remember he was away a lot of the time, often in America.

"There were always visitors coming to our house from abroad, he would bring them back from the Team Valley.

"He did talk about it, but not in any great detail. I think it was very significant to him because he left school with nothing and did all his qualifications at night school while working during the day."

Mr Hambleton died in September 2009 but, like Francis Bacon, his part in the history of space travel is preserved.

Mrs Biggins added: "I am very proud of him, I think if you were looking back on your lifetime of achievement being involved in that must be up there as one of the greatest."