In January-July 1939 the British Interplanetary Society concluded a 2-year engineering study of a manned moon landing. Its spaceship was a radically new design, completely different than anything previously suggested. In fact, this was the first time in history a group of engineers and scientists had ever sat down and designed a realistic, scientifically feasible manned spacecraft. Although the Apollo lunar landing program was still nearly a quarter of a century in the future, the BIS scheme turned out to be uncannily similar.

Strangely enough, the BIS decided against using a liquid fuel rocket and opted for solid fuel instead. Calculations showed that a minimum of 1,000 tons of fuel would be required to transport a spacecraft weighing 1 ton to the moon and back. Operating according to the idea that anything that is going to be jettisoned should be jettisoned as soon as possible, the designers hit upon the cellular spaceship concept. The spaceship would be composed of many hundreds of small rockets, each complete with its own fuel and motor. They were attached in such a way that as soon as they finish firing, they drop off. Owing to the large number of small units, thrust and direction would be controlled by the rate at which fresh rockets were fired. Since each rocket is small, they could be burned until their fuel is exhausted; therefore solid-fuel motors could be used. Motors using liquid fuel would still be used where fine control is required, and steam jets were to be used for steering.

The lunar lander was to be a gumdrop-shaped vehicle bearing a strong resemblance to the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module. It is 11 feet tall and 13.5 feet in diameter. The remainder of the 105-foot ship consisted of the solid fuel rocket clusters. There were to be a total of 2,490 individual units grouped into six stages. A survey was made of 80 to 120 different potential fuel combinations. Of the 1,000,000 kg weight of the complete ship, 900,000 kg is fuel.


Dr. Arthur Janser undertook the problem of what materials to use to construct the spaceship and chose synthetic plastics for the most part. The outer hull was to be made of glasslike fused aluminum oxide; the inner hull required for the crew compartment was made of several layers of linen fabric, stretched over a light frame, and bonded with a compound of rubber and resin. The remainder of the cabin interior used mainly balsa wood that had been treated with a hard resin. Windows and optical instruments were made of a transparent acrylic plastic. All of the wiring was coated with a clear polystyrene, and any tubing was made of polyvinylchloride (PVC). Liquids were to be contained in ethyl cellulose, protected by a coating of vinyl acetylene resin.

Each stage was a hexagonal honeycomb cluster of individual rockets. The largest rockets were 15 feet long and nearly 15 inches in diameter. There were 168 of these in each of the first five steps. The sixth stage had 450 medium-sized rockets and two tiers each of 600 small units. The units were all attached together in such a way that as all the rockets in a stage burned out they would drop away. The rockets themselves were bonded asbestos cloth inside metal tubes.


In the corners of the compartment between the sixth stage and the cabin were hydrogen peroxide rockets for steering and fine adjustment of velocity. Under the cabin were six liquid propellant rockets intended to both begin and eventually retard the spinning of the cabin (to provide artificial gravity).

A ceramic dome protected the plastic shell of the cabin during takeoff. The cabin contained three form-fitting couches (made of a phosphorbronze/horsehair fabric, impregnated with rubber), a catwalk around the perimeter (parallel to the rotational axis), as well four windows looking forward, twelve around the circumference and six in the floor, in addition to “coelostats” that provided a steady view of the heavens while the cabin rotated. Arthur C. Clarke, then a young member of the society, contributed to the design of the coelostat. Another major contributor to the design was engineer/artist Ralph A. Smith, who also provided beautiful paintings of the spaceship in flight and on the moon. Smith later was co-creator of one of the first serious space station concepts and eventually collaborated with Clarke on the book The Exploration of the Moon.

It was obviously greatly feared that lack of gravity would have a deleterious effect on the crew of a long-term spaceflight. However, the members of the BIS committee seemed not to realize the strange and no doubt disabling physiological effects of rotating such a small cabin. When standing, with their feet on the “floor”—once the outside wall—the heads of the crew would be within a foot or two of the center of rotation. Sitting, standing and moving would probably have introduced serious disorientation, at best.

Other provisions for the crew’s well-being were better thought out. Food for 20 days would be carried, as well as air and water—obtained by the catalysis of 500 pounds of concentrated hydrogen peroxide, with some oxygen in liquid form for emergencies and for use in the space suits. Cocoa and coffee were the main beverages. A repair kit and a medicine chest would be included—with “a little alcohol which might be raided to celebrate the lunar landing.” To save weight, there would be only one cup, plate, knife, fork and spoon to be shared among the three astronauts. All power for cooking and lighting would be provided by storage batteries. Clothing was to be made of a fabric with a high silk content, including a tight-fitting elastic garment for the purpose of controlling blood pressure. Four space suits were taken—with one being an emergency reserve. (Oddly enough, no attention seemed to have been made to the actual design of a space suit.) Instruments included almanacs, mathematical tables, balsa-encased pencils and rice paper, rangefinder, telescopes, sextant, chronometer, motion picture and still cameras, etc. A deck of playing cards provided the only entertainment.

The launch of the rocket would take place from the deck of a floating platform. Ideally, the location would be a high-altitude lake not far from the equator—Lake Titicaca was one favored suggestion, as was Lake Victoria. The rocket would be inside a partly submerged caisson. High-pressure steam would give the vehicle its initial boost, with 126 of the first-stage rockets firing immediately afterwards. The rockets would be fired in rings, starting from the outermost and progressing toward the center.

For the lunar landing, special shock-absorbing legs would extend from the base of the crew module. For the eventual return to the earth, a parachute would provide the final descent.

The moonship was considerably updated after World War II to take advantage of the new post-war technologies available. The landing craft is virtually unchanged from its 1939 version, the most obvious difference being the conversion to liquid fuel. In place of the column of nearly 2,500 solid-fuel rockets is a single atomic-powered stage. It is a squat cylinder roughly 40 feet tall and 25 feet in diameter. The complete rocket weighs some 700 tons at launch. Upon reaching the moon, the landing craft detaches itself from the atomic booster and makes the descent to the lunar surface. When the exploration is completed, the upper section of the lander takes off, using the lower portion as a launch base. When the manned capsule returns to the earth, it is slowed by aerodynamic braking, making the final descent via parachute.