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Book illustrations
Two books from the 1950s offered very different visions of what the exploration of the Moon would be like. (credit: courtesy of K. Murphy)

The Exploration of, and Conquest of, the Moon!

In the 1950s, people were beginning to realize, as rockets penetrated further and further past the threshold of space, that perhaps Goddard had been on to something, and perhaps a trip to our Moon was possible. To help popularize this idea in the freest bastions of the free world, the US and UK, two teams of authors and illustrators set out to create books that would be accessible to everyone and explained the most basic principles of what would be involved. The results couldn’t be more different, perhaps reflecting the deeper cultural lessons, but also differing in the scope of their ambitions.


The Exploration of the Moon, illustrated by R.A. Smith with text by Arthur Clarke, takes a step-by-step 100-year look at how such a feat could be accomplished through 45 well-drawn illustrations. Divided into four parts, the book takes us from “On the Frontier of Space”, “To the Moon”, showing us “The Pioneers” and “The Colonists”. It starts out very matter-of-factly, summarizing what little was then known about the science of astronautics. The first priority is an instrument-carrying rocket, in orbit to measure cosmic ray intensity, magnetic field strength, temperature, and solar radiation.

Once the environment has been characterized, they can begin testing a winged rocket, first suborbitally, then with those lessons learned, finally achieving orbit. Astronauts would occupy themselves with such tasks as assembling and testing radio beacons for astral navigation. Next, a farm of tanker vehicles would cluster around such a beacon, providing a refueling point for the spaceplanes or robot vehicles to be sent to characterize the Lunar environment.

The results of the two books couldn’t be more different, perhaps reflecting the deeper cultural lessons, but also differing in the scope of their ambitions.

Eventually, a Lunar spaceship will be created for the jump to the Moon. This vehicle would not return to the Earth proper, but would shuttle back and forth between the Moon and LEO, refueling there for its next round trip at one of the depots. The first Pioneers will land in Mare Imbrium a few miles west of Piton. There they would begin the difficult task of establishing a beachhead on the Moon. Inflatable domes are first, followed by solar generators for power. Supplies from Earth are dropped nearby, and as capabilities progress the intrepid pioneers can start prospecting for air in the hidden crevasses and caves of the Moon.

While inflatable igloos are fine for the first stages, eventually a real base will need to be built. This doesn’t mean that science will stop, and explorers will have a number of areas of interest, such as the Lunar mists spotted in crater Plato (51.6°N, 9.4°W), in Mare Crusium, and the vast canyon of Herodotus Valley. Still, the march of progress goes on, and increasing amounts of infrastructure are added, such as an algae-based air-purification plants and an observatory offering a ten-fold increase in capability over Earth-based equipment.

In the last section we meet the colonists. Back on Earth, research has advanced the state of the art in nuclear energy, and scientists work on ion rockets and atomic ramjets. One of these would carry a reactor to the Moon as part of the creation of a domed habitat. As the power availability increases, larger infrastructure elements can be considered, such as a system of cable cars. The one-sixth gravity of the Moon would allow for a much greater span between support towers, and the Lunar base would serve as transport central. Adjacent to the domes would be hydroponics greenhouses, providing not only food but also support for air and water purification. While the greenhouses would be enriched in CO2 to promote plant growth, the author suggests that certain cacti might be supported on the Lunar surface.

Part of supporting the human lives of the staff involves exercise. Dr. Clarke notes that the Moon has been suggested as ideal for those of weak hearts or musculature, with potentially an even longer life span for the less-strained heart. Making the Moon the ultimate geriatric ward and colonizable offer few more potent arguments. A gymnasium would be de rigeur, and there would be performed many amazing gymnastic feats, such as a five-level human diamond and prodigious leaps. A spinning table would act as a centrifuge to get reacquainted with Earth-level gravity. In the domed city, architecture would find new heights of achievement, and trees could grow to amazing heights. Steep ramps might replace stairs, easy to negotiate in the lesser gravity. As we near the end of our 100-year vision of the Moon’s future, a large spaceport has sprung up to handle the many arrivals and departures. The long investment of an electromagnetic launcher has been made, and Lunar goods are quickly finding their way back into cislunar space.

Those visiting the Moon would enjoy such pleasures as an eclipse as seen from the Moon. Between the Earth and the Moon would be any number of small space stations in different orbits serving different duties, from Earth observation to fuelling and servicing. Probes would even be sent to Mars, though the ability of low-strength radio signals to travel through space and be resolved from the background noise remained unresolved.

In our last panel, we pause and reflect on the price that will have to be paid to achieve these goals, the same price that is extracted from all fields of human endeavor, as a new crater is gouged on the Moon from a rocket gone awry.

The development is slow, but ambitious. Even in 1954, Arthur C. Clarke had to search through a variety of rationales to find a truly compelling reason to actually explore the Moon, including many still proffered to this day:

  • The absence of an atmosphere presents tremendous opportunities to astronomers and physicists
  • The Moon’s most outstanding advantage is its low gravity
  • If… we can eventually locate sources of rocket propellant on our satellite, it will become the key to the Solar System
  • “The total cost of the first lunar expedition…would be about a thousandth of the wealth squandered in the Second World War… Yes, humanity can afford space travel, if it really wants it”

Later, Dr. Clarke touches on probably the most rational reason for going to space, one well worth repeating now, over 50 years later:

There will always be plenty of people who will stay at home and do the jobs their fathers did; without them, civilisation would not survive. Yet there must also be those who are never content with things as they are, who will not rest while any new horizons remain uncrossed. It is not safe to keep them at home; in their frustration, they will cause mischief. But let them go, and they will become the great explorers and discoverers, opening up new worlds of mind and matter for those who come after them.

They are the ones who, in the ages now opening before us, will lead the human race out of the nursery in which it has played for long enough. For no healthy society can stand still; a civilisation which has no problems, no challenge to try its strength, must eventually stagnate. It may be pleasant for the individual to dream of stability and the end of striving, but when a race seeks such things, its doom is already upon it.

Beyond the atmosphere that challenge waits. In the closing years of this century, men will go out to meet it, and in so doing will change the history of more planets than their own.

While this is the kind of thinking that enables empire, Dr. Clarke also seems to be recognizing that the age of terrestrial empires is at an end. We’re just too dangerous to each other to risk contaminating the nest. Beyond the atmosphere is where we need to be sending our young and restless. Let them do the dirty work of opening up the great beyond for everyone else.


A year earlier, a far larger team, comprising editor Cornelius Ryan, technical writers Dr. Wernher von Braun, Dr. Fred L. Whipple, and Willy Ley, as well as illustrators Chesley Bonestell, Fred Freeman, and Rolf Klep, had tackled the far more daunting task of the conquest of the Moon. This was meant as a follow on to an earlier book, Across the Space Frontier, about the establishment of a space station 1,075 miles above the Earth. It was certain that such a station would be established, “if for no other reason than its military usefulness”. Using such an orbital platform, a small fleet of huge Moon ships could be constructed over an eight-month period.

Clarke: “For no healthy society can stand still; a civilisation which has no problems, no challenge to try its strength, must eventually stagnate. It may be pleasant for the individual to dream of stability and the end of striving, but when a race seeks such things, its doom is already upon it.”

The authors called for no less than 360 flights of 36 tons each to supply the materiel necessary for the undertaking. The craft are enormous: nearly 50 meters (160 feet) long, 33 meters (110 feet) wide, and with a weight of 4,370 tons. Two types of craft are envisioned, cargo and passenger, with the main difference being that the cargo craft are one-way, while the passenger craft will be returning to LEO for refueling and restocking before returning to the Moon. The layout and construction of the vehicles are described in excruciating detail, befitting the scientific and engineering backgrounds of the authors.

They do, however, bow to useful professionals, and so while the crew of the expedition is described as:

  • 1 Expedition leader
  • 15 Crewmen
  • 8 Electronics/comms experts
  • 6 Mechanical engineers
  • 1 Astronomer
  • 1 Surveyor
  • 7+person Mineralogical team
  • 3-person Geophysical team
  • 5-person Physics team

there is also room for three professional photographers in the crew. Two passenger ships (20 crew each) and one cargo ship (10 crew) will then depart for the Moon. Each ship has a five-story Personnel Sphere on it that houses the crew to and from the Moon. The accompanying illustration is loaded with little details, like the leg straps on the dinner table or the cutaway views of the airlock. The journey to the Moon is described at length, addressing all of the likely risks that would be faced by the crew, and how they would be mitigated.

The first views of the Moon would be from 55 meters up (the landing legs having been extended), “the scene magnificent in its desolation”. Sinus Roris would stretch to the south, with towering mountains on the other three sides. First offloaded would be one of the vehicles, a steam-driven, caterpillar-treaded, tank-like tractor/rover that would immediately begin searching for a suitable crevasse in which to locate the base. Two more would then be offloaded, with trailers. These will be used to carry the pieces of the base, scavenged from the cargo lander. These have been pre-fitted with much of the necessary equipment, and so would be hustled to the crevice for which the scout was sent to look.

The point of locating in a crevice is to avoid the danger of cosmic rays and micrometeorites. Two buildings would be constructed, one strictly for living quarters, the other the laboratory for research. The buildings would not be connected, to isolate the smells of the lab from those who don’t care for that sort of thing. The accompanying illustration is again rich in detail, and thoroughly described in the text. Interestingly, the airlocks require the astronauts to lie down and crawl into them; a design factor that would have to be seriously reconsidered in light of later evidence.

Once established, the trailblazing would begin. The initial target is the crater Harpalus and the eastern rim of Sinus Roris. A key question is whether the craters were formed by volcanic or meteoritic action, and what created the maria? Raw materials are something to look for, to increase the self-sustainability of a Lunar base. It’s an ideal platform for astronomy and research requiring vacuum conditions. The manufacturing of fuel on the Moon would represent a significant increase in capabilities. But for the first round science is at the top of the agenda. How did the Moon form? Are there trace gases? Are there magnetic fields? Is the interior molten? Did the Earth and Moon at any time share a magnetic field? What temperature is the Moon? What minerals will the geologists be able to catalogue?

The authors admit that water is unlikely to be found on the Moon’s surface, even in crevices or caves. There’s always the possibility of buried caches, but they’re unlikely. Back to the science, we want to do some seismic studies to get a better sense of the internal structure of the Moon. Gravitometers will study surface features for clues in their formation. The many cracks and seams of the Moon’s surface need explanation. What is the intensity of the cosmic ray flux at the surface? What is the frequency of meteorite hits? Scientists on both the Earth and Moon will be kept busy, and collaborating by radiophonic, tele-photo (fax), and tele-vision means. This will help ensure that the maximum of scientific results can be obtained by the team on the Moon.

Eventually, though, the team will start getting restless to wander farther afield. Crater Harpalus (52.6°N, 43.4°W) awaits! Forty kilometeres across, its rim rises 945 meters above the surrounding terrain (hmm… lunarain?), while the interior sinks over 3,300 meters from peak to bottom. One objective is to study the straight “rays” that radiate from craters, which will be accomplished en route. Given the uncertain nature of the glacis surrounding the rim, the rovers would be parked, and the astronauts would hike in to study the crater, using grappling hooks if necessary to negotiate steep walls. Only a few days can be spared there, so the scientists would have to work fast. Other craters would be studied on the way back to the base, including ‘drowned’ craters that are filled with lava.

It’s a little bittersweet to reflect on the scale of the Apollo program in comparison with those envisioned a decade earlier.

After a month and a half, the team would be ready to return to Earth with a treasure trove of data that will change our understanding of our place in the universe. Robotic instruments would be left behind to continue some limited data gathering, transmitting through the antenna from the cargo ship that the base used. The two passenger ships will depart to rendezvous with the space station, and await any potential future use. As the authors note, “We shall be back at our starting point, and man’s first exploration of the moon will have ended.”

The Appendix gives a slew of data pertinent to the mission, from accelerations to wet and dry masses. It also shows the true nature of the book, which is to present the engineering exercise undertaken by the authors. Endless details are covered, to illustrate that people have really thought a lot about a project to go to the Moon, and it is an achievable goal with the technologies unlocked during World War 2.

Comparing conquest with exploration

The two books couldn’t be more different, and their differences offer opportunities for insight. The Exploration of the Moon, with its much more benign title, comes to us from a culture long experienced in Empire and the establishment of outposts, exploration for material resources, and so on. Its presentation represents a long timeframe and a slow development of capabilities that build one upon another, and over the course of time lead to an off-world settlement. Permanent, because the Sun never sets on what was once the British Empire. By contrast, The Conquest of the Moon team was led by the charismatic Dr. Wernher von Braun, from a culture that never really had an Empire, and meant for an American audience, a culture that has never particularly desired Empire—just a bit more space to do our thing. The vast project proposed is a project of Empire, but more along the lines of a Pyramids or a Parthenon: showy, but of limited utility. While the base is left on the Moon, the authors make little assumption of future use, perhaps reflecting a bit of realpolitik. Or perhaps the realization that the quickest way to get it done was to lump everything in the beginning, and hope for the best after that.

Many of the fundamental motivations are the same even today, and of course many remain unfulfilled to this day. The initial rush of data from Apollo answered many of the initial scientific questions posed, but they also unearthed many new questions that we couldn’t have known to ask 50 years ago. For example, there is the historical record of the impact flux for near-Earth space, the effects of which, which while constantly effaced here on Earth, are well preserved on the Moon. The same is true for the cosmic ray flux and solar wind flux. The ever-dark craters at the poles may preserve the components of rocket propellants, from the mundane LOX and LH to more exotic stuff like silane. The lava fields of the mare explain most, but not all, of the results of mascon effects on orbits. There are still some unusual areas. These may be the resource-rich areas hoped for to provide nickel, iron, and things like platinum group metals, emulating the effects seen at Sudbury crater in Canada.

It’s a little bittersweet to reflect on the scale of the Apollo program in comparison with those envisioned a decade earlier. Tranquility Base was considerably smaller than the giant modules foreseen in The Conquest of the Moon, or even the inflatable Quonset huts of the first base in The Exploration of the Moon. The only permanent effects of Apollo on the Moon are the detritus of each mission. This is not to degrade the Apollo program, which was a tremendous accomplishment for humanity, but to merely contrast what we did achieve versus what we could have achieved had we greater ambitions.

Thus, the challenge remains: establish a permanent presence on the Moon. Not just to study its history. Not just to watch near-Earth space. Not just to make rocket fuel. Not just to do radio and IR and UV and other wavelength astronomy. Not just to serve as a nexus for prospecting efforts. Not just as a tourist destination. Not just as a source for solar cells and SPS structural elements. Not just as a vacuum-rich materials research and production environment. Not just as a place to grow plants in regolith-rich soil. Not just as a benign retirement environment for geriatrics. Not just as a place to fly.

But all of the above, and more than we could ever possibly imagine. Part of the spirit of the Vision for Space Exploration was that we were at a unique juncture where we could create a sustainable presence in space, and one that could promote scientific, security, and commercial ends. In the same way that previous infrastructure investments have promoted commercial and other development. The Eisenhower Interstate Highway System’s initial purpose was to provide a means to rapidly deploy troops and weapons in the event of invasion. Its commercial side-benefit has been a huge plus for the American economy. Same with the railroads. Same with the canals and waterways. Same with the Post Roads.

In effect, the government is tasked with building the Post Roads to space, upon which backbone American industry and commerce can build tomorrow’s technologies, security applications, and even things like energy provision to the planet. I do not believe that this is the path that the government is currently taking, but the reality that a new administration will be taking office in 2009 offers us a chance to pause and reflect in the anticipation of change.

Thus, the challenge remains: establish a permanent presence on the Moon.

A debate by the American people of what this country should be doing in space, and how its opportunity should be made available to our industries and commerce, would be a very nice thing to have, but culturally we lack two key components: a citizenry educated in what is possible in space, and a media culture sophisticated enough to shepherd and communicate the debate. Barring these two things, any kind of real coherence in our space efforts will be difficult, and we’ll continue to stumble along.

The overall strategy of the Vision is sound. The difficulty is finding the right tactics, and building the right kind of architecture, to effectively promote those ends. Ends which likely hold the key to the future prosperity of the United States, and the world.