Then and Now

by Kelvin Long

Physicist and aerospace engineer Kelvin Long is the co-founder of Project Icarus, the interstellar design study that is a successor to Project Daedalus. Here he gives us a look at the history of the British Interplanetary Society, whose accomplishments and continuing efforts in the area of interstellar propulsion have energized the entire field. As well as being an active Tau Zero practitioner, Long is a fellow of the BIS and a member of the recently reconstituted BIS Technical Committee, and the Assistant Editor of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. More about the history of the BIS can be read in the BIS publication ‘Interplanetary’ written by the current President Bob Parkinson, which is now available from the society’s Web site.

The British Interplanetary Society (BIS) is a name synonymous with interstellar travel throughout its history. First formed by Philip E. Cleator in Liverpool in 1933, the organization’s headquarters were subsequently moved to London. The BIS is the oldest space organisation in the world still in its original form. In an age of competition, market forces and short term thinking, that’s a tradition to treasure. In 2013, the BIS will be eighty years old, conceivably the length of time it would take a future interstellar probe to reach the nearest star system. In that time, a World War has been fought, the Berlin Wall has fallen, man has walked upon the surface of the Moon and as these words are being written an interstellar precursor probe, New Horizons, is on its way to the furthest reaches of our solar system: The dwarf planet Pluto and beyond.

Although the BIS includes the word ‘British’ in its name, for much of its history roughly half of the membership has been international, with a strong contingent based in the United States. The Society has faced pressure over the years to change its name to ‘The British Interstellar Society’ or ‘The British Rocket Society’ or even ‘The International Rocket Society.’ The debate over the name throughout the years has really been a distraction from the society’s work and to its credit, the BIS has resisted this pressure, keeping to its principles and remaining focused on its goals of promoting and facilitating advancements in the field of astronautics – all geared towards a human presence in space. It has also continued to maintain a careful balance, addressing an audience that spans science fiction fans, popular science readers and professional physicists, all interacting and sharing ideas with each other, all space cadets at heart.

Many famous BIS members will be familiar to the readers of Centauri Dreams. Sir Arthur C Clarke played a fundamental role in the early days of the BIS and served as chairman on two separate occasions between 1946-1947 and again between 1951-1953. Arguably, the BIS gave him an important platform to share his ideas with like-minded people, not afraid to speculate outside of conventional thinking, but in a rigorous and scientific way. The American physicist Robert Forward was also a devoted member of the society and contributed many first rate papers to society publications. Physicists and writers who are members today include Greg Matloff, Eric Davies, Marc Millis, Claudio Maccone and our own Paul Gilster.

Those who live within commuting distance of the BIS HQ refer to it as “their spiritual home.” Perhaps it’s the Clarke connection, or perhaps nostalgia for the rapid developments in rocketry after the Second World War. The philosopher and science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon, famous for his twin accomplishments ‘Last & First Men’ and ‘Starmaker’, addressed the society in 1948, giving a lecture titled ‘Interplanetary Man’. One of the current long-time members is the science and science fiction writer Stephen Baxter, famous for his collaborations with Clarke as well as his own books, such as ‘Titan’ and ‘The Time Ships’, an authorised sequel to the H G Wells classic ‘The Time Machine’. Writers seem drawn to what the BIS has to offer.

An Early British Lunar Project

In 1938, the BIS Technical Committee, led by H. E. Ross and R. A. Smith, decided to undertake a pioneering scientific study – perhaps the first of its kind – to produce a conceptual design of a spacecraft that would carry a crew of three safely to the Moon. The mission would permit the crew to land for a stay of fourteen days, and provide for a safe return to the Earth with a final payload of half a ton. The object of the exercise was to demonstrate that, within the capabilities of propellants that could be specified (at least theoretically) at the time, such a mission was not merely possible but would be economically viable – insofar as the vehicle lift-off mass from the Earth would be no more than one thousand tons. The resulting conceptual design came to be known as the BIS Lunar Spaceship, and for all its flaws it is a classic, ground-breaking study, one that occupies a pioneering place in the history of astronautics.

Image: The BIS Lunar Spaceship landing on the Moon. Credit and copyright: R.A. Smith/JBIS. Smith and Bob Parkinson were responsible for a volume recounting the story of the BIS lunar design called The High Road to the Moon, now available on CD-ROM from the Society.

In 1919 the American physicist Robert Goddard, in his classic paper “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes,” went a stage further than the step-rocket principle in suggesting a firing procedure that amounted to the continuous discarding of materials that are no longer required. In principle, this could result in a significant improvement in payload ratio. The BIS, in its design concept, adopted a cellular construction that conformed to Goddard’s suggestion. The spacecraft was divided into six layers of equal hexagonal cross-section; the six sections were made up of an array of tubes each consisting of a separate rocket motor. Each of the lowest 5 layers was made up of 168 motors, intended to impart sufficient velocity to achieve escape from the Earth’s gravitational field.

The remaining stage consisted of 45 medium motors and 1200 smaller tubes intended to land the remainder of the vessel on the surface of the Moon, allow for subsequent escape, and for reduction in velocity prior to entering Earth’s atmosphere. Perhaps the most important and lasting achievement of the Lunar Spaceship study came from its conclusions regarding landing and lift-off from the lunar surface. R.A. Smith developed the concept after the Second World War in an article entitled “Landing on an Airless World.” This article accurately depicted the procedure that would later be adopted with the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module.

The BIS Lunar Spaceship project at least proved the engineering feasibility of landing on the moon and by that act made the idea more credible. When the proposal came about in the early 1960s to actually make an attempt at the moon, it is quite possible that the work done by the BIS in the late 1930s and later had some role to play in the minds of those scientists advising the political leaders of the time, such as the German-born rocket engineer Wernher von Braun.

And On to the Stars

But moon rockets were not to be the only significant technical achievement from members of the BIS. Their achievements also include the 1970s Project Daedalus starship study. This volunteer engineering design study was conducted between 1973 and 1978 to demonstrate that interstellar travel is feasible in theory. The project addressed the Fermi Paradox, which was first postulated by the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi in the 1940s. This supposes that there has been plenty of time for intelligent civilizations to interact within our galaxy when one examines the age and number of stars, as well as the distances between them. Yet the fact that extra-terrestrial intelligence has never been observed leads to a logical paradox where our observations are inconsistent with our theoretical expectation. This paradox also seemed to reinforce the prevailing paradigm at the time that interstellar travel was impossible.

Project Daedalus was a bold way to examine the Fermi Paradox head on, using current or near-future technology, and gave a partial answer – interstellar travel is feasible. The basis of this belief was the demonstration of a credible engineering design just at the outset of the Space Age that could, in theory, cross interstellar distances. In the future, scientific advancement would lead to a refined and more efficient design.

Image: Project Daedalus, the massive starship conceived by members of the British Interplanetary Society, marked the first complete design study for an interstellar craft. Credit and copyright: Adrian Mann.

Project Daedalus had three goals. First, the spacecraft was to be designed using current or near-future technology. Second, the spacecraft must reach its destination within a working human lifetime and third, the spacecraft was to be be designed to allow for a variety of target stars. The final design solution was published in a special supplement of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in 1978. The two-stage engine configuration was powered by inertial confinement fusion using deuterium and helium-3 pellets. Electron beam diodes positioned around the base of the engine exhaust would impinge on the pellets and ignite them to produce large energy gain, at a rate of 250 detonations per second. This would continue for a boost phase lasting over 3.8 years, followed by a cruise phase lasting 46 years, travelling at over 12% of the speed of light until the 450-ton science probe would finally reach its destination, the Barnard’s Star system 5.9 light years away. This it would transit in a matter of days, for Daedalus was a flyby probe.

The Project Daedalus study was primarily led by Alan Bond, Tony Martin and Bob Parkinson. Even today the study distinguishes itself from all other similar projects as the most complete engineering study ever undertaken for an interstellar probe. Even if Daedalus is not the template for how our robotic ambassadors will someday reach the distant stars, at the very least it will be a crucial part of the journey for getting to that first launch. Rigorous engineering assessments are the only way to provide reliable information on what is possible today or in the near-future.

Both the BIS Lunar Spaceship and Project Daedalus starship study appeared in the 1980 television series Cosmos, produced by the astronomer Carl Sagan. Sagan had himself addressed the BIS in 1974 on the topic of ‘extraterrestrial intelligence’ at a packed meeting at the Royal Society of Arts. Project Daedalus has inspired many around the world, and this includes the recent successor design study Project Icarus, which is a joint initiative between the BIS and the Tau Zero Foundation, possibly a first for this type of collaboration. And although it is not interstellar in implication, I should also mention that the BIS has recently undertaken a study for a crewed station at the Martian geographic North Pole. Project Boreas was led by Charles Cockell and may yet be the basic template for a future science station on Mars.

The Growth of International Astronautics

The BIS played a fundamental role in the formation of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), which helps to co-ordinate global space activity and astronautics. The IAF was formed in September 1951 at a conference of several European and American delegates in London. The IAF organizes the annual conference known as the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) to provide a forum for the exchange of experiences and ideas around astronautics, with the long-term goal of opening up space to all humankind. It promotes awareness of international space activities and fosters information exchange between different space programs.

The BIS is perhaps best known for its popular magazine Spaceflight and its technical publication Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (JBIS). First published in 1934, JBIS may be the oldest astronautical journal in the world. Its history has seen the publication of many groundbreaking papers, such as the first paper on interstellar travel by Les Shepherd in 1952 or the paper on a programme for achieving interstellar flight by Val Cleaver in 1954. A collection of seminal papers on atomic rockets was also published by Shepherd and Cleaver with others in 1948 and 1949. Even today JBIS is pushing the boundaries of visionary thinking, with a warp drive symposium organised in 2007 and the papers appearing in the journal in 2008. The BIS is always looking to that distant horizon for what’s next in astronautics and the future of man in space. JBIS is the forum for the publication of those ideas. It is open to submissions from anyone, provided the paper is scientifically accurate, well presented and contains a novel insight or discussion of a problem relating to the field of astronautics.

Like many organisations in difficult financial times, the BIS has been struggling in the last few years and only a handful of members are rallying around to maintain the continued legacy of an astronautical pillar. One of the ways that people can help the society is to join it. So why should people join? It’s an open and inclusive society for everyone from science fiction fans, students, industry professionals, academics and space enthusiasts. The BIS provides thought leadership on spaceflight and astronautics through its publications, innovative technical projects, symposia and events. It promotes and stimulates the latest research. The society also fosters debate and provides a global home for people interested in space to connect with each other. Its global membership includes some of the world’s leading thinkers on spaceflight. This unique heritage of the society is an amazing foundation of pioneering ideas which continues to push the boundaries of possibility, from both a technological, sociological and philosophical perspective.

With its rich history of ideas and creative thinkers, it is amazing to think that the BIS has never had government backing and indeed has not played a major role in informing British government policy throughout most of its history, despite the fact that members of the BIS possibly know more about astronautics than many other organisations in Europe. The BIS has not traditionally been a strong lobbyist organisation, although in recent times the society was involved in discussions to form the United Kingdom Space Agency and to get a British astronaut assigned to the European Space Agency team. But what really matters is the intellectual value in the ideas that the BIS facilitates and is bold enough to promote widespread thinking on. These ideas literally ‘make’ the future, by laying the seeds for what is feasible on that next horizon.

In 1932, Robert Goddard said: “How many more years I shall be able to work on the problem I do not know; I hope, as long as I live. There can be no thought of finishing, for ‘aiming at the stars’ both literally and figuratively, is a problem to occupy generations, so that no matter how much progress one makes, there is always the thrill of just beginning.” It is organisations like the BIS that enable the promise of solving this problem through successive generations of inspired pioneers, by facilitating the emergence of measured speculation with scientific objectivity, of real world engineering and thought provoking theories of physics. In order to continue, the society needs members to sustain the vision and keep the promise of a future for our species in space alive today. Join the society, and contribute towards that worthwhile goal. The society would welcome all people interested in the field of astronautics. The BIS needs members to sustain it if it is to continue to provide the service that this interstellar forum wants. This is your rallying cry – join the British Interplanetary Society today and help us to work towards the dream of a peaceful human presence in interplanetary and interstellar space in the decades ahead – ad astra.

A Short Bibliography

A.Bond & A.R.Martin et al., Project Daedalus Final Report, Special Supplement of JBIS, 1978.

A.C.Clarke, The Challenge of the Spaceship (Astronautics and its Impact Upon Human Society), JBIS 6, pp. 66-78, 1946.

A.V.Cleaver, A Programme for Achieving Interplanetary Flight, JBIS 13, pp.1-27, 1954.

C.S.Cockell (Ed), Project Boreas, A Station for the Martian Geographic North Pole, BIS Publication, 2006.

K.F.Long & R.Obousy et al., Project Icarus: Son of Daedalus – Flying Closer to Another Star, JBIS 62, pp.403-414, 2009.

H.E.Ross, The BIS Space-Ship, JBIS 5, pp.4-9, 1939.

L.R.Shepherd, Interstellar Flight, JBIS 11, pp.149-167, 1952.


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