H.M.S. Moon Rocket

In the 1930s, Arthur C. Clarke and friends designed their own lunar mission.

Arthur C. Clarke (far right) and other members of the British Interplanetary Society had a visit from rocket pioneer Robert Truax (holding the rocket model) in 1938. (National Air and Space Museum)
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“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.”

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. 

Meanwhile, in Huntsville, Alabama, Wernher von Braun, a dreamer of a more pragmatic bent, was already hatching his own plans for a mission to the moon and a giant rocket that could take men there.

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