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 3 of 5)
By January 1939 the committee was ready to show off its design in the more sober pages of the society’s journal. The six-stage moon rocket weighed in at 1,000 tons and could deliver a one-ton payload, including three astronauts, to the lunar surface. Each stage, or “step,” was a honeycomb of hundreds of tubular solid rocket motors—2,250 altogether—bundled together like sticks of dynamite. The sixth and final step would lift the vehicle off the lunar surface for the return to Earth. This “cellular” design—Edwards’ idea—allowed the motors to be mass produced, which dramatically reduced the cost of the mission.
It was all very elegant. And totally impractical.
“Where we went wrong was in assuming we could use solids,” says Clarke. The committee was well aware of liquid fuels, which even then were favored by most rocketeers. In fact, an affiliated astronautical society in Manchester, led by 18-year-old Eric Burgess, was designing its own moon rocket using “petrol and liquid oxygen.” But, recalls Clarke, “we worked out that [the main vehicle] would have to burn X tons of [liquid] fuel per second, and no one could imagine pumps that could handle that.” The BIS designers never suspected that over on the continent, a well-funded German team led by Wernher von Braun was on the verge of solving that very problem.
Working out the details of the vehicle’s payload, which fell to committee member Maurice Hanson, presaged the hard decisions NASA engineers would face 30 years later. Every item had to be chosen for compactness and minimum weight. Air and water would be extracted from a single tank of liquid hydrogen peroxide. The lunar explorers would carry, among other things, charts and books printed on “specially light rice-paper,” indelible balsa wood pencils, two large handkerchiefs for each crew member, spacesuits made of “thin but tough” rubber or leather, flat shoes, dark goggles and sunburn lotion for working on the lunar surface, geological hammers, spades, a “fairly powerful” telescope and microscope for mineralogy, and a canvas tent to place over the ship to reduce heat loss.
Foods would be selected for high energy content: bread and butter, cheese, porridge, raisins, ham, honey, and salmon. Water would be the basis of all beverages, “chief amongst which will be cocoa, though a small amount of coffee might be necessary as a stimulant for navigators falling asleep over their interminable calculations.”
The astronauts would communicate with Earth via “flashes of light.” By modulating the intensity of the beam, wrote Hanson, “a running commentary by one of the astronauts on the exploration of the Moon, broadcast by the BBC, is not beyond the bounds of possibility.”
Some of this was a little farfetched for even the other committee members, who had their hands full figuring out how to soften the spacecraft’s impact on the moon, or just getting the damn coelostat to work properly. Time, money, and lack of manpower were chronic problems. A few members began to wonder whether the original prediction—that a mission could be launched in 15 years (always pending the timely arrival of £ 200,000, of course)—might have been a trifle too bold.
If the members were beginning to have doubts, outsiders already thought they were crazy. Leonard Carter, who joined the society in 1937 and still works in its London office, says that talking about moon travel before World War II “was regarded as a form of lunacy, and not a mild one at that. People would cross the road to avoid us.”