H.M.S. Moon Rocket
In the 1930s, Arthur C. Clarke and friends designed their own lunar mission.
- By Tony Reichhardt
- Air & Space magazine, March 1997
National Air and Space Museum
(Page 2 of 5)
The society was also broke. Its members were mostly teenagers and young men, and few had money for expensive equipment. “The research fund remains at microscopic proportions,” lamented one author in the society’s journal.
So a careful, detailed, and cheap design study seemed just the ticket. A committee made of the few members who had at least some engineering or science background began meeting one evening a week, usually in someone’s flat, to sketch out plans. Heading the Technical Committee was J. Happian (Jack) Edwards, the director of a small electronics firm. A brilliant but irascible Welshman, Edwards didn’t suffer fools gladly. “There are plenty of mad scientists, but Edwards is the only mad engineer I ever knew,” says science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, who was also a member of the committee.
The 20-year-old Clarke was the group’s astronomer. As a teenager on his family’s farm in Somerset he had filled sketchbooks with drawings of lunar craters seen through a homemade telescope, and by 1938 he claimed to own every science fiction magazine ever published. Even before achieving world fame for co-authoring 2001: A Space Odyssey and predicting the invention of the communications satellite, his friends had nicknamed him Ego.
The team included another electrical engineer, Harold Ross, and Viennese chemist Arthur Janser. Perhaps the most important member after Edwards was his childhood friend R.A. (Ralph) Smith. An artist and self-taught engineer, Smith was, like Edwards, a bit older than the rest of the BIS members, and married. His daytime job was designing the interiors of London hotels and cinemas, but he had drawn his first rocket ship at age 12, and spaceflight was his true passion. A stickler for accuracy, his paintings brought to life many of the society’s most important concepts from its earliest days until his death in the 1950s.
Smith’s son Ashtyn, who later moved to the States and worked on the Apollo program, remembers watching through the banister as a seven-year-old while the Technical Committee discussed “propellants and mass ratios and such” in his parents’ living room. “They were the most unusual bunch of people you could expect to run across,” he says. “Real visionaries.” Clarke recalls that interspersed with the technical conversation was “quite a bit of fun,” and that the group was never averse to sending out for fish and chips or adjourning to a pub.
Cash-strapped as it was, the committee decided nonetheless to try to build whatever few devices its meager experimental fund would allow. “We were in the position of someone who couldn’t afford a car, but had enough for the speedometer and the rear view mirror,” Clarke later wrote.
Edwards designed an inertial guidance system—an aluminum disk with ball bearings, gears, weights, and springs attached—for sensing the spaceship’s speed and position. The committee planned to test the device in the London underground but never got around to it. Another instrument—the coelostat—did get built, and actually worked. Because the spaceship would be spinning at one rotation every three and a half seconds, the astronauts would have difficulty seeing out the portholes to navigate. The solution was the coelostat, a periscope-like gizmo with two fixed mirrors and two spinning ones, which compensated for the ship’s motion so the stars appeared stationary.
During one memorable meeting in Smith’s suburban London home, Edwards orchestrated a demonstration of how the coelostat would work in principle, using, among other things, Smith’s shaving mirror and his wife’s compact. “Soon,” wrote a wry observer in the BIS bulletin, “the room was full of living statuary, standing in graceful and artistic poses, holding mirrors above their heads.” When “fatigue began to overtake the living statues, wobble set in,” and Mrs. Smith had to rescue the “stricken Interplanetarians” with a tray of tea and sandwiches.