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Flights of fancy - Part III

The birth of the British Interplanetary Society

Martin Griffiths 30 September 2007

Trailblazing: detail from the cover of Donald A. Wollheim's space novel

The idea of civilian spaceflight within the UK remained the insight of a few dedicated yet marginalised amateurs, many of whom were motivated by fiction

Editor’s note: Although science and scientists can be useful elements of stories, whether science fiction or ‘lab lit’, the reverse can also be true. Here, in the last of three installments, astronomer Martin Griffiths explores how fictional inspiration facilitated the concepts of space travel in the UK.

Ironically, British military forces and rocketry have enjoyed a common history since the middle of the 18th century when British forces were decimated in battle in India. It was not until the following century, however, that William Congreve designed a rocket system which transformed larger, more sophisticated black powder rockets used by the Navy as a signalling method into effective weapons (Lethbridge 2000:24).

The British and Rocketry: missing the target

“Congreve rockets”, simple cylinders with tapered ends with a long guidestick to give stability during flight, were used during the battle of Waterloo. These weapons found their way into history in more than one way. At the battle of Fort McHenry in 1814, Francis Scott Key saw the “red glare” of Congreve rockets, which he later described in his patriotic song still sung as America’s national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner”. England and other countries used Congreve rockets until the mid-19th century, although they were often unpredictable in flight and seldom hit their intended targets.

Congreve rockets were eventually replaced by a new design by William Hale in the1840s. Hale eliminated the cumbersome wooden guidesticks and designed his rockets to rotate in flight which improved their stability and performance. This method, rotational stabilization, is often used by satellites today, a noteworthy example of which was the Giotto spacecraft which visited Halley’s comet in 1986. The British began to use Hale’s rockets during the Crimean War and the method was later utilized by both Union and Confederate troops during the American Civil War. More powerful and accurate rifled artillery ultimately forced the Hale rocket into retirement in the late 19th century, but the use of rockets as an auxiliary weapon complementing artillery continued to be deployed by British forces.

Further development of more accurate rockets began in the early 20th century. British guided missile studies began in 1914 under the direction of professor A.M. Low. The British guided missile project was called AT for “Aerial Target” so that enemy spies would believe the vehicles were simply drones flown to test the effectiveness of anti-aircraft weapons. Although they were never used offensively during the first World War, this conflict spurred the demonstration of what are considered to be the first guided missiles, the British AT and the US Kettering Bug (Lethbridge 2000:59). However, A.T. concept vehicles were really intended to determine the feasibility of using radio signals to guide a flying bomb to its target, a method that was later considered by German scientists at Peenemunde.

Radio guidance equipment was developed, tested and installed on small mono-planes, but proved cumbersome and unreliable. However, two AT test flights were conducted in March 1917 at the Royal Flying Corps training school field at Upavon. Although both vehicles crashed due to engine failure, it was determined that radio guidance was ultimately feasible. Nevertheless, the AT program was scrapped due to its perceived limited wartime value, a typical decision within British forces who were entrenched in traditionalism, endured a paucity of funds and suffered from a singular lack of scientific insight. This unfortunate attitude was to infiltrate the decision-makers up to cabinet level throughout the ensuing decades of the century and was eventually responsible for the cancellation of the British rocketry programme at the peak of its accomplishments, strangling its future development after such noteworthy successes as Black Knight, Blue Streak and Black Arrow (Hill 2001:226).

In the meantime, the British struggled on, concentrating upon the “flying bomb” concept rather than rockets per se. In 1927, British engineers at the Royal Aircraft Establishment introduced a missile called the Larynx. Larynx was a radio guided mono-plane flight tested from HMS Stronghold at sea and from a testing ground in Egypt. It could carry a 250-pound bomb to a target up to 100 miles away at a maximum speed of 200 m.p.h. This was an impressive display that had long-term consequences. The British failed to develop the weapon for wartime deployment, but the Germans re-discovered the concept and turned it into the V1 or “doodlebug” pilotless missile. The tale of lost opportunities continued with the introduction of the Queen Bee in 1930, which was followed by the Queen Wasp. Both were radio-guided bi-planes launched by catapult from naval vessels or ground installations. Considered an advanced concept in their day, these missiles were able to drop an explosive weapons payload then return to the launch site for a pontoon landing, but were never deployed during WWII.

Despite British interest and their long history of rocket use, the armed forces concentrated on the guided missile concept rather than a true ballistic missile. Although Britain may have had its spaceflight adherents, the nation could not point to an equivalent individual of standing such as Tsiolkovsky, Goddard or Oberth. Therefore, the idea of civilian spaceflight within the UK remained the insight of a few dedicated yet marginalised amateurs, who nevertheless were about to make their presence felt. Many of these characters were motivated by the fiction of Verne, Wells and others as we shall now explore.

Dedication and The British Interplanetary Society

A reflection of British disinterest in the civilian uses of space can be gauged from the prosecution of any “rocket men” under the Explosives Act of 1875. The act, meant of course to protect the interests of the armed forces and apparently safeguard civilians, had severely restricted rocketry research in Great Britain. One such unfortunate, Eric Burgess, was charged under this act after launching a solid-fuelled rocket from his home in a Manchester suburb in 1936. Burgess was one of an enthusiastic group of rocket men who had founded the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) in 1933 as a forum for pooling their resources, publishing results or discussing concepts with an eye to future design and testing. Burgess in fact was the first signatory and the first post-war Chairman, in 1946. He was joined in his endeavours by other alumni such as future BIS president Arthur C Clarke and Sir Alwyn Crow, one of the RAF’s top missile men. Undoubtedly there were other members who were impelled by SF, though it is these two early presidents who undoubtedly moulded the direction of the BIS. It is therefore appropriate to examine, through their life and work, the interplay of fiction, fact and future.

Under their initial leadership, the BIS became the world’s longest established organisation devoted to promoting the exploration of space. The BIS today reflects the enthusiasm of the early pioneers, and is now the world’s leading medium encouraging the civilian use of space, whilst producing thoughtful futuristic projects for interstellar research, the most famous of which is Daedalus. Clarke’s name has since become synonymous with science fiction, and the interchange of information within the BIS has led to some remarkably far-sighted ideas (AAS/Burgess 1984:73). Members of the British Interplanetary Society, whilst exploiting the technology of the day, were skeptical of the long-term promise of chemical propellants, and from the outset were proponents of nuclear propulsion. They were partly encouraged in this view by the science fiction writer Olaf Stapledo, who, in an address to the BIS in 1948, told them: “Man would probably tamper with the atom until he destroyed himself. But, if he lived long enough, man would have ...a new freedom...the freedom to travel beyond the terrestrial atmosphere and explore the whole solar system” (Moskowitz 1977:168). Burgess added to this insight in his 1954 book Rocket Propulsion (as recounted in Burgess 1954:57):

Any chemically-fuelled spaceships will be unwieldy, fabulously expensive beasts with fuel consumptions measured by the thousands of tons for a single voyage. The giant chemically powered spaceship may never be developed just as the steam-driven aeroplane was never built. Atomic power is hardly likely to advance the conquest of space by more than ten years, but it may make it a really practical proposition almost from the beginning, which otherwise would certainly not have been the case. The “cheapest” journey to Mars, as far as fuel is concerned, lasts 258 days. With an atomic ship, travelling by a more direct route at quite a moderate speed, it need take only two or three weeks.

Burgess concluded, perhaps because of Stapledon’s suggestion, that nuclear propulsion would be essential for interplanetary travel, and produced a surprisingly modern looking design for such a vehicle. Despite this foresight, modern programmes planning to go to Mars are still using tried and tested chemical rockets.

Although none of these nuclear concepts were discussed in the science fiction of the 19th century, the fertile minds of Tsiolkovsky and Tsander realised, just like Burgess, that chemical propellants would be slow and limited. Atomic power for use in spaceflight can in fact be traced back to Garrett P Serviss’ 1909 novel A Columbus of Space, with its atomic-powered spaceship blasting across the solar system, living proof of Einstein’s recent energy equation E=MC2 (Clute & Nicholls 1979:432). Although the novel was not particularly popular, once again science fiction, extrapolating the science of the time, did provide an idea that would come to fruition when engineering caught up with imagination. Tsiolkovsky and Tsander therefore looked at alternative designs such as their 1923 “solar sail”, which would use the radiation and solar wind pressure of the sun to tow a spacecraft equipped with a large lightweight sail around the planets, or on missions to explore visiting comets. Later, Tsiolkovsky employed his knowledge of physics to invent the forerunner of the ion drive in 1929, even going as far as to build a model of the proposed engine. Correspondence and collected papers on these points between rocket pioneers of the day must have found fruitful ground in Britain, prompting Burgess and others to think along similar alternative lines, which is why nuclear propulsion became so popular, not only within the BIS, but in several pulp magazines of the post war period such as Rocket Stories (Carter1972:48).

Burgess himself was as much a visionary as any science fiction author. Following the 1945 publication of Arthur C Clarke’s idea of a geosynchronous satellites, Burgess suggested in 1946 the use of solar-powered, automatic satellites for orbiting telecommunications. The fertile imagination of Burgess is further illustrated by NASA’s recognition for co-inventing in 1952, with Charles A Cross, the term “interplanetary probe”. Furthermore it was Burgess who, over dinner in November 1971, first suggested to Carl Sagan that NASA should put a plaque, from all humanity, on Pioneer 10, the first interplanetary probe to leave the solar system. Burgess became a US resident in the late 50s, and continued to contribute articles to the journals of the BIS and the American Astronautical Society (AAS) right up to his death in 1995. His interest in spaceflight, like that of Oberth, crossed over into art when in 1978 he became a technical advisor to Cubby Broccoli on the James Bond movie Moonraker.

Burgess’s BIS colleague, Arthur C Clarke, is generally regarded to be the first to suggest the feasibility of communications satellites, in an article entitled “Extra-Terrestrial Relays” in Wireless World magazine in October 1945. The justifiably famous first draft of this article entitled “Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?” is now in the Smithsonian. Clarke is a visionary par excellance and his professional application within the BIS has always crossed over into the realms of his science fiction writing. Clarke is very similar to Tsiolkovsky and Verne, both of whom extrapolated science and technology, vividly demonstrating future worlds and possible achievements whilst maintaining a hard SF tradition. Comparable also is his philosophical attitude to leaving the Earth and exploring new realms. Clarke has often admitted to the influence of the British SF writer Olaf Stapledon when he describes the scope and magnitude of his work in attempting to portray the feeble efforts of man in the face of the immensity of the universe. Confessing the relationship between Stapledon, spaceflight, spirituality and his own writing, both secular and fantastic, Clarke declared: “No book before or since Stapledon’s Last and First Men has ever had such an impact on my imagination” (Clarke 1978:24).

Clarke’s imagination is prodigious, and the welding of religious, secular and technical themes in a Stapledonian fashion ensures that his SF provides philosophical stimulus over and above its entertainment value. His first forays into fiction were Prelude to Space and The Sands of Mars, both published in 1951, but were preceded by short stories such as Loophole and Rescue Party in Astounding Science Fiction in April and May 1946 (Clute & Nicholls 1979:121). His tenure as president in the BIS during two terms has inspired the BIS Journal readership whilst his SF stories, mostly covering spaceflight themes, have an underlying optimism, probably as a direct consequence of his professional motivation and his hope that technology and alien contact would humble mankind. A classic tale dealing with such a philosophy is his 1953 novel Childhood’s End, a contact tale that draws upon much of the spiritual wisdom of Stapledon in such books as Star Maker.

In the age of the satellite, Clarke was honoured by having the 22,300 mile-high geo-synchronous orbit utilized by today's satellites named after him, although the “Clarke Orbit”, or “Clarke belt”, is usually limited to use by SF fans. A glance back through older SF periodical reveals that both Hugo Gernsback and George O. Smith proposed similar ideas years and even decades earlier, as did Tsiolkovsky, but Clarke was the first to propose three separate satellites spaced 120 degrees apart in an equatorial orbit which would help them maintain a position over the same point on Earth, thus enabling them to cover the majority of the Earth's surface for instantaneous communications relay, a point missed by these earlier pioneers (Baker 1984:145).

Considered to be a modern prophet, Clarke has often said: “As far as the future is concerned, any political or sociological prediction is impossible. The only area where there is any possibility of success is the technological future” (Clarke 1962:4). This is something that he has continued to excel at, being held responsible for the invention of the videophone, the fax machine and many other modern gimmicks, which were foreseen by other writers but incorporated into his world view and given substance and solidity. Due to his “hard SF” approach and fact-based science fiction, Clarke is widely believed to be the scientist's favourite SF writer and technological guru. His novels and journal articles for the BIS for almost 50 years have influenced people of all ages and professions, though he is generally self-effacing about his impact. In a speech to the US Congress he once said: “I’m sure we would not have had men on the Moon if it had not been for Wells and Verne and the people who write about this and made people think about it, though I’m rather proud of the fact that I know several astronauts who became astronauts through reading my books” (Clarke 1977:46). If this is not justification for the primary stimulus of SF in mankind’s endeavours to explore space, it would be difficult if not impossible to suggest another form of influential literature.


Only readers or writers of science fiction are really competent to discuss the possibilities of the future. Over the last half-century, tens of thousands of stories have explored all the conceivable, and most of the inconceivable, possibilities of the future. The facts of the future can hardly be imagined ab initio by those who are unfamiliar with the fantasies of the past.

These words from Clarke’s 1983 reprint of Profiles of the Future (Clarke 1983:3) underline the visionary and historical aspects of SF and the direct consequences of such fiction as played out through the world’s space programmes. The theory, engineering, technology and the expertise may not have been there during the 19th century and the early 20th, but the spirit and disposition certainly were. SF novelists kept the reader dreaming of the day when man would expand his empire toward the stars, and as our universe enlarged as astronomers discovered more about its immensity, fantastic literature was there to soothe the primitive fears of man and assure him of a place in the cosmos, a promise made more certain by the revelations of science fiction, its protagonists, practitioners and professionals who infused a whole generation with the enthusiasm to take man from his earthly cradle into the realms beyond.

References for all three parts of this series

Aldiss, B & Harrison, H: Farewell Fantastic Venus!, Panther, London: 1971.

Bainbridge, WS: The Spaceflight Revolution: A Sociological Study, Wiley InterScience, New York:1976.

Baker, D: Conquest: A History of Space Achievements from Science Fiction to the Shuttle. Windward, England: 1984.

Burgess, E: Rocket Propulsion, Chapman & Hall, London: 1954.

Burgess, E: Satellites & Space Flight, Scientific Book Club, London: 1959.

Burrows, W: This New Ocean – A History of the First Space Age, Random House, New York: 1998.

Carter, PA: The Creation of Tomorrow – Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction, Columbia University Press, New York: 1972.

Clarke, AC: The View From Serendip, Fontana, London: 1978.

Clarke, AC: Profiles of the Future, Granada, London: 1983.

Clute, J & Nicholls, P: The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, Granada, London: 1979.

Franklin, BH: Future Perfect – American Science Fiction of the 19th Century, Rutgers University Press, New Jersey: 1966.

Goddard, RH: The Papers of Robert Hutchins Goddard, McGraw-Hill, New York: 1970. Hill, CN: A Vertical Empire – The History of the UK Rocket and Space Programme 1950-1971, Imperial College Press, London: 2001.

Lasswitz, K: Two Planets; published in German under the original title Auf Zwei Planeten Verlag B Elischer Nachfolger, Leipzig: 1897.

Lethbridge, C: History of Rocketry, Spaceline Inc., Cape Canaveral: 2000.

Lottman, H: Jules Verne, St, Martins Press, New York: 1996.

Moskowitz, S: Olaf Stapledon – The Man Behind the Works, Random House, New York: 1977.

Rabkin, E: Science Fiction – An Historical Anthology, Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1983.

Rauschenbach, BV: Hermann Oberth: The Father of Space Flight 189-1989, West Art Publishing, New York: 1994.

Stapledon, O: Last & First Men ,Methuen, London: 1931.

Tsiolkovsky, K: The Science Fiction of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, University of the Pacific Press, Seattle: 1979.

American Astronautical Society History Series History of Rocketry and Astronautics, Conference proceedings, Lausanne, Switzerland:1984.

Mikhailov, VP, The Contributions of K. E. Tsiolkovsky and Other Native Scientists to the Technology of Rocket Launching, p.67.

Burgess, E: The Smaller British Societies Devoted to Astronautics and Interplanetary Flight , p. 73.