• Aeryn Avilla

God Save the Queen: The British Interplanetary Society's Lunar Landing

From 1937 to 1939, the British Interplanetary Society's Technical Group devised a plan to land men on the moon using a multistage rocket. It bears many similarities to and influenced the American Apollo program of the 1960s and '70s. It is also the oldest detailed study of a manned lunar mission.

Depiction of the moonship on the surface by space artist David A. Hardy

The British Interplanetary Society (BIS) formed in 1933 with the goal of "the stimulation of public interest in the possibility of interplanetary travel...and the conducting of practical research in connection with such problems." Members of the group wanted a project that would popularize the concept of interplanetary travel while at the same time proving the young organization could be entrusted with actual scientific research. They chose space travel over more concrete ideas (one being a rocket-car) for two reasons: First, they were forbidden by Britain's Explosives Act of 1875 from shooting off real rockets for no reason. Second, they were broke; members were teenagers and young adults who did not have money for expensive equipment. As member and future science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke put it, "We were in the position of someone who couldn't afford a car, but had enough for the speedometer and the rear view mirror." Therefore, the London-based group had to stick with a plain yet complex design study that did not cost money or need equipment.

The BIS meets with Midshipman Robert Traux [1] from the American Rocket Society in July 1938 at the home of R.A. Smith (from left: H.E. Ross, J.H. Edwards, H.E. Turner, R. Traux, R.A. Smith, M.K. Hanson, A.C. Clarke)

From 1937 to 1939, the BIS Technical Committee, consisting of a 20-year-old Clarke and about a dozen other members, developed the world's first detailed study of a manned lunar mission. It is important to note they were not the first to consider the technical requirements of flying to the moon— that distinction belongs to pioneers Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Hermann Oberth, and Robert Goddard, who in 1919 first suggested a rocket could be sent to the moon. BIS's proposal was much more extensive and also outlined the various challenges relating to both the vehicle and its crew. Despite being science fiction fans, the committee did not rely on the science fiction concepts and clichés the English population was already exposed to thanks to H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs; they used only principles that had been developed by rocketeers, engineers, and scientists before them. A paper detailing the results of this study was published in the summer of 1939.

The rocket consisted of six stages, which they called "steps". It weighed more than 1,000 tons and could deliver a one-ton payload and three astronauts to the lunar surface. Each step was a honeycomb of hundreds of solid rocket motors bundled together like sticks of dynamite. The lower five steps had 168 motors a piece while the final sixth step had 45 medium motors and 1,200 smaller tubes for a total of 2,085 motors. This design was conceived by J. Happen Edwards, the head of the Technical Committee, and allowed the motors to be mass produced, reducing the cost of the rocket. The sixth step would serve as the lander and lift the vehicle off the surface of the moon for return to Earth. The lander was gumdrop shaped and could carry a crew of three for a fourteen-day stay on the lunar surface. It consisted of a pressurized cabin similar to the Apollo command module and landing gear similar to the Apollo lunar module. Since the physiological effects of weightlessness were unknown at the time, the spacecraft would have rotated around its major axis to create artificial gravity. To compensate for this rotation, Edwards invented the first instrument designed for space travel known as the coelostat. The coelostat is a periscope-like device that uses two mirrors to make stars appear stationary, despite the spacecraft's continuing movement. To get back to Earth, the spacecraft would use aerobraking and a parachute descent to the surface, much like the Apollo spacecraft did decades later. Instead of constructing a launch pad, the moonship would have launched from a floating platform in a body of water near the equator, either Lake Titicaca or Lake Victoria. The rocket itself would be inside a partially submerged caisson (a watertight chamber usually used in construction work under water).

Using solid fuel proved to be the most impractical aspect of the concept. Most rocketeers even back then preferred liquid fuels, like the 18-year-old Eric Burgess [2] who led an affiliated astronautical society in Manchester and was designing his own moon rocket using petrol and liquid oxygen. According to Clarke, no one imagined the development of pumps that could handle the multiple tons of liquid fuel that burned every second during launch. However, less than 1,000 miles away a well-funded German team led by Wernher von Braun was close to solving that very problem.

Equipment for the astronauts during their voyage was different from what the Apollo crews brought to the moon thirty years later. Items included balsa wood pencils, charts and books printed on rice-paper, geological hammers, spades, a telescope, a microscope, sunburn lotion for working in the sun, and a canvas tent to place over the lander to reduce internal temperature. The first BIS spacesuit would not be designed until 1949. All the air and water the crew and spacecraft needed would come from a single tank of liquid hydrogen peroxide. The food chosen had high energy content: bread and butter, cheese, porridge, honey, ham, salmon, and raisins. The drink of choice was cocoa because it was water-based and could be mixed with coffee to keep the crew awake during their long hours. The crew on the surface would communicate with the Earth using flashes of light.

Cutaway of BIS's moonship

Though BIS's lunar mission was never meant to take flight, the biggest problems it faced, as space projects of future decades would face, were lack of time, money, and manpower. The group's original prediction of launch in 15 years was not feasible in an era where the notion space travel itself was considered crazy. According to Leonard Carter, a member of the society, discussion of lunar travel prior to World War II "was regarded as a form of lunacy, and not a mild one at that." In early 1939, the moonship design actually received a bit of publicity from magazines and publications, including Time, that circulated as far away as India. Unfortunately, that September Adolf Hitler invaded Poland and Britain declared war on Germany. Members who had not already enlisted were encourage to take up arms and the society was temporarily dissolved. When the BIS reformed after the war, its members were older and more numerous; Clarke even tried persuading authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien into joining [3]. Their concepts for rockets and space travel were no longer whimsical juvenile ideas as a result of the visibly destructive, and very real, power of the German V-2 rocket. They turned to more practical tasks in the following years and even held a conference in 1951 to plan the world's first artificial satellite— 6 years before the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. A few of the original members continued refining the old lunar ship and incorporated newly developed German technology into it. The end product was much closer to what NASA would launch in the late 1960s. Original Technical Committee member R.A. Smith's article "Landing on an Airless World" was published in August of 1947 and accurately outlined the procedures of landing on the moon the Apollo lunar module would later use.

30 years to the month of BIS publishing their study on a crewed lunar mission, Clarke sat next to Walter Cronkite of CBS and served as a commentator on the first manned moon landing.

Clarke with Neil Armstrong, June 1970 (image source: oocities.org)

In the late 1930s, a group of British Interplanetary Society members developed the world's first detailed plan for landing men on the moon. Many of the concepts introduced in their report were later used by the Apollo Program, such as launching a multistage rocket and using a parachute to slow the spacecraft down during descent to Earth. The proposal was about two decades ahead of its time, though, and the common man did not take rocketry seriously until after World War II. While the BIS's moonship is now remembered as a very minute piece of space history from an era where space travel was purely science fiction, it was forever immortalized on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men on the moon.

Author's note: I could not help but feel a special connection to this post. At 20, Clarke was developing plans to send men to the moon. More than 80 years later, here I am at the same age writing about his team's concept to share with the world. We both even had the same goal— get people interested in spaceflight. As always, thank you for reading and remember to like, share, and check out my other posts!

[1] Robert Traux is the creator of the Sea Dragon, a massive sea-launched two-stage rocket concept from the 1960s (see Hidden Histories: Sea Dragon).

[2] Burgess went on to write for NASA and gave Carl Sagan the idea for the Pioneer plaques. The plaques were placed on Pioneers 10 and 11 and featured pictorial messages in the case intelligent extraterrestrial life came across them.

[3] Neither of them ever joined.


  • The BIS Lunar Spaceship. The British Interplanetary Society. (2020, November 29). https://www.bis-space.com/the-bis-lunar-spaceship/.

  • Bonicci, A. M. (2009, November 26). The High Road to the Moon. http://cosmicvisions.blogspot.com/2009/11/high-road-to-moon.html.

  • Gilster, P. (2013, March 23). The British Interplanetary Society at 80 Years. Centauri Dreams - Imagining and Planning Interstellar Exploration. https://www.centauri-dreams.org/2013/03/22/the-british-interplanetary-society-at-80-years/.

  • History of the BIS. The British Interplanetary Society. (2020, November 2). https://www.bis-space.com/bis-history/.

  • Reichhardt, T. (1997, March). H.M.S. Moon Rocket. Air & Space Magazine. https://www.airspacemag.com/space/hms-moon-rocket-3143/.

All images belong to the British Interplanetary Society unless stated otherwise

32 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All