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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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.

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.  

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