The British Interplanetary Society
by Kelvin F. Long
Since 1957 the era of space exploration has taken off with tremendous beginnings, eventually leading to men walking upon the surface of The Moon and astronauts permanently stationed in Earth orbit. With the sophisticated technology of satellite communications and the Space Shuttle it is very easy to forget that the history of early space exploration efforts start from much humbler beginnings. The development of the theory of rockets as a science can be traced back to the Russian School Teacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who published a paper in 1903 titled ‘The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reactions Devices’. In the United States Robert Goddard, also a teacher, wrote about the principles of rockets in his 1919 paper ‘A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes’. Then in 1930 David Lasser formed the American Interplanetary Society. Lasser had written an exciting book about space exploration titled ‘The conquest of Space’ which inspired many, including the science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke as a young man. In Germany a certain Hermann Oberth had written about rockets including his publication ‘The Rocket into Planetary Space’. He went on to form the German Society for Space Travel in 1927. Oberth would also inspire Werner von Braun to do rocket research leading to the V2 rocket used on London during World War 2 and the first rocket to be launched outside of the sensible atmosphere. In Britain, people such as Arthur Clarke, Val Cleaver, Archibold Low and Phillip Cleator came together in excitement to discuss these rapid developments in rocketry. Then in 1933 Low and Cleator created The British Interplanetary Society (BIS) with Cleator serving as the first President. This was a society set up to explore interests in space exploration around the planets, stars and beyond. The thing that distinguished the BIS was the free flowing ideas which knew no bounds. Speculation on any field within astronautics was considered acceptable and speculative ideas were not drowned out, but debated. Of all the organisations formed at the outset of the space age, the BIS is the only one still in existence in its original form, and recently passed its 75th anniversary. The American Interplanetary Society went on to become the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics, but its main purpose today is to serve the professional career astronautics community, not the amateur. In this respect then, the BIS is unique. Indeed, the BIS went on to play an important role in founding the International Astronautical Federation in 1951. The IAF organises the annual International Astronautical Congress which is probably the biggest space event in the world today. In the 1930′s through to the 1950′s America had the brilliant Chesney Bonestell who created the genre of Space Art. In Britain, Ralph Smith was a Fellow of the BIS and had worked closely with Arthur C Clarke on books such as ‘The Making of a Moon’ and ‘The Exploration of the Moon’. He had been designing spaceships since the age of 12 and after the war worked as a leading draughtsman for Westcott and become BIS Chairman between 1956-1957. Many of his original works still hang in the corridors of the BIS and are a thrill to the eye. Today, accomplished artists such as David Hardy follow on from the style created by Bonestell and Smith. One of Smith’s important early contributions was to produce beautiful drawings of the BIS moonship design in the 1930′s. This was an engineered vehicle which placed in the minds of men the idea that a fantasy once dreamed up by people such as Jules Verne in his stories could actually be a credible engineering project in future decades. The eventual US landings in 1969 showed that this foresight was correct and many of the elements of the Apollo Lunar Lander had a striking resemblance to the original BIS moonship drawings. Arthur C Clarke himself is well known outside of the science fiction community. His discussions of current and future manned space exploration have inspired millions the world over. Clarke was a visionary who spent the latter half of his life living in Sri Lanka, but in his earlier days he was an active and important member of the BIS, serving as Chairman between 1946-1947 and again between 1951-1953. It is for people like Clarke that the BIS exists, to give a forum for those with ideas that may be considered speculative in other circles. It only takes one idea to make a difference. Clarke’s 1945 publication in Wireless World discussing a proposal for geosynchronous orbital satellites demonstrated that. Clarke was also a great admirer of the writer and philosopher Olaf Stapledon who wrote astonishing books like ‘Last & First Men’ and ‘Starmaker’, books which influenced many including the physicist Freeman Dyson who attributed his idea of Dyson Spheres to Stapledon’s works. In 1948 Clarke invited Stapledon to give a talk at the BIS on his paper ‘Interplanetary Man’. Providing a forum for visionary thinking about the future has always been one of the important roles of the BIS. Another person important in the early years of the BIS was Val Cleaver, described by Clarke as the man who should have been the British von Braun. In his early years he worked for de Havilland and later rose to become a Chief Engineer. It was during this period that he began to learn about rocket propulsion. He served as BIS Chairman between 1948-1951 and in 1948 he published a paper with Les Shephard ‘On the Atomic Rocket’ which provided one of the first technical proposals for using nuclear powered engines with hydrogen as a working fluid. He later went on to to work on projects like the Sprite liquid propellant rocket and in 1956 took a job as Chief Engineer with Rolls Royce where he participated in the development of the British Blue Streak missile which never had a failure in its 13 launches. Cleaver went on to mentor people like Alan Bond who in the 1970′s led the BIS Project Daedalus study, a landmark engineering vehicle design for an interstellar probe. Bond worked under the tutelage of Cleaver in the Blue Streak missile program and also worked on other projects such as JET at Culham, an experimental magnetic fusion reactor. Along with Bob Parkinson, the current President of The BIS, Bond worked on the HOTOL spaceplane project in the 1980′s. This has led directly to his current project, the development of the SABRE engine for the Skylon Spaceplane which is being developed under his company Reaction Engines Ltd. This vehicle design has the potential to revolutionise the cost of access to space. Even today the BIS fosters new and exciting ideas for space travel. In 2007 this author organised a one day conference investigating the status of the speculative warp drive proposal, building upon the general relativity foundations which began with a paper by Miguel Alcubierre in 1994. One of the presenters, Richard Obousy, also an Icarus designer, demonstrated for the first time a physical mechanism by which the warping of space could be accomplished, linking the existence of the cosmological constant with the additional dimensions of space that have been hypothesised. The public interest in this event was enormous, illustrating that people are generally interested in the future possibilities of manned space exploration. As we begin the start of a new century the BIS is still playing a vital role in promoting and supporting activities relevant to space exploration. It has an international reputation from its organised symposia to its regular high quality publications like Spaceflight, JBIS and Space Chronicle. In particular, the publication of JBIS special editions on specific themed topics is world renowned. This may be on electric propulsion, planetary terraforming, bases on the Moon or Mars, or the development of a Space Drive. It plays a key role in space exploration from a technical, popular and educational level. History has shown that members of the BIS have been willing to speculate about the future of space exploration, from the highly practical near-term space technologies to the futuristic ones. When such a climate of creativity and free thinking exists, there is no telling what ideas will spring forth, and potentially change the world for the improvement of our species. Project Icarus is also a bold initiative, requiring an open mind, free enquiry and the application of the scientific method. Project Icarus directly challenges the legacy of Greek mythology by demanding ‘we will reach the stars according to our destiny’. It’s highly probable that in 200 or 500 years from now when both interplanetary and interstellar travel are common, that history will record the important role of the BIS in continuing to remind us that if we are to succeed in the exploration of space then going from imagination to reality is a good principle upon which to work. This is precisely what Project Icarus aims to achieve.
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