Saturday, July 19, 2014

The High Road to the Moon

BIS Moonship 1939 lander on the Moon© David A. Hardy

Neil Armstrong’s one small step for [a] man was the culmination of the greatest scientific, technological and cultural advance in human history. It was indeed a giant leap for mankind. It proved, beyond any question of doubt that humankind had taken the first evolutionary stride in becoming a multi-planetary species. While history will bear witness that July 20th, 1969 marked a technological and political victory for the United States, in its Cold War race to beat the Soviet Union to the moon, in point of fact it was also an international triumph. The tireless effort of numerous scientists, engineers and visionaries from many lands had finally come to fruition. Thirty years before this pivotal event, a group of far-sighted Brits known as the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) set forth the guidelines for such a lunar voyage.

The British Interplanetary Society (BIS) was founded in 1933 by Mr. P.E. Cleator in the city of Liverpool. As noted by writer David H. Szondy it “was blessed with a fortuitous mixture of circumstances. On the one hand it boasted a membership of highly intelligent individuals with active imaginations. And on the other, English law prohibited civilian rocket experiments, which probably saved several bank accounts and quite a few limbs.” In 1937 it was decided to begin a study of a Lunar landing mission, in order to prove that such missions were possible. The results of that study were subsequently published in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society of January and July 1939.

Moonship Solid rockets cellular honeycombs

It used as its baseline, the most advanced rocket technology known in Britain at the time - powdered rockets. Later in 1947 the Moonship was redesigned when German advances with liquid fuelled rockets, during the Second World War, came to light. Never the less, the original 1939 study pushed the technological envelope of what could possibly be envisaged with solid propellant. There lies the innovative beauty of this study. The rocket they designed was unprecedented in its size. It was the solid fueled equivalent of the mighty Saturn V. Their design called for a rocket which was 100 feet tall by 20 feet in diameter and weighed more than 1,000 tonnes. Its propulsion system was comprised of six booster stages consisting of 2,490 solid fuelled rockets arranged in cellular honeycombs.

This enormous rocket was to be launched from a floating platform with the rocket itself place inside a partially submerged caisson on a high-altitude lake near the equator. Two locations considered were Lake Titicaca and Lake Victoria. The one tonne spacecraft crowning it consisted of a pressurised cabin reminiscent of the Apollo command module. Its mission was to deliver a crew of three to the lunar surface. The landing gear was very similar to that eventually used in the Apollo Lunar Module thirty years later. And, because the effects of weightlessness were unknown at the time, the BIS lunar ship was to be rotated around its major axis to create artificial gravity.


In order to compensate for the ships rotation they designed an optical instrument for navigational purposes known as the Coelostat. Its function was to provide a stationary view of the heavens from within the ship.

Moonship Cutaway View

When the mission was completed the spaceship was to re-enter the earth's atmosphere and use a parachute for final descent.

One of the greatest what ifs of history is, whether or not the mission as originally conceived, could have been completed successfully. Could Great Britain have been the first to the moon? British science fiction writers Stephen Baxter and Simon Bradshaw have written such a story titled “First to the Moon” and is one of series of stories being conceived about a possible British space program if history had only unfolded differently. The other story written by the duo is “Prospero One”.

The remarkable story behind this mission is told in wonderful book entitled “The High Road to the Moon”. It contains the collected pictures of R.A. Smith with text by Bob Parkinson. Originally published in 1979, it is now available from the British Interplanetary Society on CD.

Yet, Britain never became an active participant in the space race. It wasn't because of a major lack of technical know how but, a major lack of political will as outlined in the book "A Vertical Empire: The History of the UK Rocket and Space Programme, 1950-1971" by C.N. Hill.


Many of the pictures used in this article are to be credited to Mark Wade, and his very informative website Encyclopedia Astronautica and the late R.A. Smith of the British Interplanetary Society.

Finally, I would like to dedicate this article to the original BIS Moonship design team led by J Happian Edwards and which included: H Bramhill (draftsman), Arthur C Clarke (astronomer), A V Cleaver (aircraft engineer), M K Hanson (mathematician), Arthur Hanser (chemist), S Klemantski (biologist), HE Ross (electrical engineer), and R A Smith (turbine engineer). Their pioneering work eventually paved the way for the voyages of Apollo.

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