Writer and visionary Arthur C. Clarke, who died this week at the age of 90, was one of the guiding spirits of the Space Age. For a bit of background on his early years, we offer this feature story from our archive:
From This Story
In the summer of 1939, the members of the British Interplanetary Society may have been the only optimists left in Europe. Nazi Germany was steadily building up its military machine, and the continent appeared to be slipping inexorably toward another devastating conflict.
But the small band of English eccentrics that made up the BIS had their attention elsewhere. Their gaze was fixed on the coming age of space travel, and more specifically on the problem of sending a rocket to the moon. They had formed their organization in 1933—at about the time rocket societies were blooming in Germany, Russia, and the United States—dedicating themselves to “the stimulation of public interest in the possibility of interplanetary travel…and the conducting of practical research in connection with such problems.”
In fact science fiction writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.G. Wells had already stimulated the British interest in space. But even though the BIS members were almost all science fiction fans, they cringed at the way space travel was portrayed in movies and popular books. Writing in the February 1937 issue of the society’s journal, D.W.F. Mayer, an associate member from Leeds, panned the film version of Wells’ Things to Come for having depicted astronauts being launched by a space gun. After calculating that the resulting force on a 120-pound person would equal 435 tons, he chided, “If the Man in the Street is to be introduced to the possibility of space travel via the medium of films—especially films with as much publicity as was given to Things to Come—it is up to the writers of them to make sure their facts are reasonably accurate…. Play the game, Mr. Wells!”
From 1937 to 1939, about a dozen armchair astronauts on the BIS “Technical Committee” played the game by carrying out the first detailed study of a manned lunar mission, from propulsion to payload to pressure suits. Rather than dream up an anti-gravity drive or some other staple of science fiction, they used only physical principles and technologies already in hand. Some of the ideas, like a propulsion system based on 2,000 solid rocket motors, would certainly not have worked, while others—aerobraking and a parachute descent to Earth, a three-man crew, and a focus on geological prospecting once the moon had been attained—proved amazingly prescient.
The BIS was not the first to consider the technical requirements of a lunar voyage. Rocket pioneers like Russian school teacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and German engineer Hermann Oberth had already done some thinking on the subject. The American rocket scientist Robert Goddard had been ridiculed in 1919 for suggesting that a rocket could be sent to the far side of the moon. But BIS members were the first to analyze a lunar trip in a systematic way and spell out possible technical, logistical, and physical challenges.
In 1937, having just moved its operations from Liverpool to London, the four-year-old society was looking for a project that would popularize the notion of interplanetary travel and at the same time “prove that we are a body which may be entrusted with a scientific task,” in the words of one BIS officer. They bypassed more conservative ideas, like building a rocket car or firing mail across the Atlantic, electing instead to design a two-week round trip to the lunar surface.
The choice of such an ambitious goal wasn’t entirely high-minded. Unlike their counterparts in the United States and Germany, BIS members were forbidden by Britain’s Explosives Act of 1875 from shooting off real rockets. Hands-on experimentation with live propellants was out.
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.