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 4 of 5)
The BIS membership set out to convince skeptics that their mission was possible. “We must explain that we are not peculiar people who desire to go to the moon like children who cry for a new toy,” wrote President A.M. Low, who had helped develop radio-controlled guided missiles in World War I.
Society members gave frequent lectures and demonstrations, even showing off the coelostat at a science museum in Kensington. Clarke did his part to spread the faith, even though he was often rebuked by someone in the audience “for talking utter nonsense.” After the war, he and fellow member Val Cleaver spent an evening in an Oxford pub trying to convince C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien of the rightness of their cause. Neither writer joined the society, though eventually George Bernard Shaw did, at the age of 91.
The BIS moonship design generated a small flurry of publicity for the society in 1939, with articles appearing in Time magazine and publications from as far away as India. An editorial in the journal boasted that “once we stole half the photo-news page of a national Sunday newspaper from Herr Hitler.”
But Hitler had the last laugh. In September 1939 he invaded Poland, Britain declared war on Germany, and the society disbanded virtually overnight, as those members who hadn’t already enlisted were called up to service. When the BIS reconvened after the war (R.A. Smith was instrumental in rounding up former members), its ranks were older, more seasoned, and more numerous. Wernher von Braun’s V-2 had proven that rockets were no longer schoolboy fantasies, and now no one smiled at the idea of space travel.
The post-war BIS turned to more practical near-term tasks, including holding a landmark conference in 1951 to plan the world’s first orbiting satellite. The society became, and remains today, an important incubator for advanced thinking about space technology, and its journal is one of the most respected in the field.
A few members of the original Technical Committee, mainly Smith and Ross, continued tinkering with the old moonship, publishing articles into the 1950s that refined the design. The postwar concepts were more sophisticated, at times coming close to what NASA actually launched a decade later.
Clarke went on to a celebrated career as a science fiction writer, and in July 1969 he sat at the right hand of Walter Cronkite as a commentator on the first moon landing. His friend Val Cleaver became chief engineer of Rolls-Royce’s rocket division. Burgess also became a successful writer and NASA consultant. Only Edwards seems to have peaked with his work on the BIS moonship. He drifted into alcoholism, moved to Ireland, and ended up choking to death on his false teeth.
R.A. Smith continued to collaborate with Clarke as an artist on several books and magazine articles, which earned him a small measure of fame. He painted, invented, played Chopin on the piano, and dreamed constantly of space travel. Several years before he died in 1959 at the age of 54, Smith quit the factory where he had been happily designing rocket powerplants and took a less rewarding job with a company that made pressure control devices. He didn’t want to work on missiles, so out of principle he resigned.