British lunar lander, 1954

BIS lunar lander

The picture above shows a comparison between an Apollo-style lunar lander, on the right, and the more traditional idea of a “spaceship” on the left. More technically, the comparison is between the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous approach used by Apollo and the competing methods of Direct Ascent (going all the way from the Earth to the Moon with a single vehicle) and Earth Orbit Rendezvous (ditto, but with the vehicle first being constructed or refuelled in Earth orbit). You might guess the picture dates from circa 1962, when NASA surprised the world by selecting LOR over the (previously much more likely) other two options. Actually it comes from a book printed in 1954.

That’s the date on my copy of the book, which is the second edition of one originally published in 1952 (I don’t know if the same picture was in the first edition). It’s called Development of the Guided Missile, by Kenneth W. Gatland – a member of the British Interplanetary Society, which was the source of the lunar landing concept depicted here. In the text the lander is designated “Type B”, while the counterpart of the Apollo CSM is Type A: “The Types A and B operate together as a composite vehicle; the former acts as the propulsion component for the Type B and remains in the terminal orbit of the destination planet whilst the smaller rocket descends to the surface.”

The most famous member of the British Interplanetary Society was Arthur C. Clarke, and he touched on the same subject in his “science-fictional autobiography” Astounding Days:

We discussed many types of rendezvous and space-refuelling techniques, to break down the journey into manageable stages. One of those involved the use of a specialized “ferry” craft to make the actual lunar landing, while the main vehicle remained in orbit. This, of course, is the approach in the Apollo project – and I am a little tired of hearing it described as a new discovery. For that matter, I doubt if we thought of it first; it is more likely that the German or Russian theoreticians had worked it out years before.

Actually the concept in Gatland’s book is a mixture of Earth Orbit Rendezvous and Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, since the Type A spacecraft (which is powered by a nuclear-thermal rocket) is first constructed in Earth orbit, using smaller unmanned rockets (Type C) and a winged shuttle (Type D) to ferry the astronauts to and from Earth orbit. The whole ambitious concept is illustrated in the picture below – it strikes me as extraordinarily sophisticated for a book published in 1954!

British Interplanetary Spacecraft

Shortwave Nostalgia

Lafayette HA-350
Here is one of the most prized possessions of my high-school years – a Lafayette HA-350 amateur band receiver. In the days before home computers, amateur radio was a popular pastime among nerdy teenagers – right up there with reading comic-books (in fact, early issues of Marvel Comics featured occasional appearances by a group of young “radio hams” called the Teen Brigade). Nowadays, amateur radio is recognized as a valid educational activity – with, for example , astronauts on the ISS regularly using it to make contact with schools all round the world. That’s an opportunity I would have loved to have had – but as it was, teachers in those days tended to look down on amateur radio, just as they did on comic books, as a waste of kids’ time.

I didn’t have enough perspective at the time to dispute that view. In hindsight, however, it really is a very educational pastime. I had a map of the world on my wall with pins in it showing all the countries I’d listened to – giving me a much better understanding of geography than most teenagers have. I didn’t have a licence to transmit – you had to understand Morse code for that – but I was an avid listener and a member of the International Short Wave League (my membership ID was G-14007 – I was very pleased with the “007” part). Amongst other things, the ISWL ran a QSL bureau, through which radio hams would send you cards acknowledging reception reports you sent them.

Here are a few examples. To start with, four countries I bet most teenagers in 1972-3 wouldn’t even have been able to find on a map – Monaco, San Marino, U.A.E. and Oman:

QSL cards Monaco Oman etc
Now for some DX (i.e. long-distance) countries – Argentina, Bolivia, Australia and Malaysia (in these days of satellites and the internet, it’s easy to forget that radio waves normally travel in a straight line – so hearing someone on the other side of the planet is an impressive feat):

QSL cards DX
In geopolitical terms, the period we’re talking about was the height of the Cold War – but as a shortwave listener, I had no difficulty hearing both sides of the east-west divide. Here are two cards each from the USA and the USSR:

QSL cards USA USSR
It was in the context of shortwave listening that I first saw my name in print – with an SWL report in the September 1973 issue of Practical Wireless magazine (reproduced below). The YV5 prefix that appears three times in this list refers to Venezuela, while 4X and 4Z are both Israel. The last two are from Africa – 5U is Niger and 6W is Senegal. In the course of 1973 I heard no fewer than 303 different prefixes – as you can see from my entry in the “ladder” printed in Short Wave Magazine in March 1974.

SWL magazines 1973

Space-Age Nostalgia


Here are two items I bought in W. H. Smith’s recently. The first is a special (and very expensive) issue of the BBC Sky at Night magazine about the Apollo missions, and the second (a much better deal at the same price) is a repackaging of a 2008 Discovery Channel series about NASA spaceflights from Mercury to the Shuttle, together with another magazine. Presumably both items were put out for the Christmas gift market – mainly as a nostalgic treat for people of my generation, I guess, although it would be nice to think some youngsters are interested in the subject too.

I learned quite a lot from both items, particularly about the earlier and later missions. Although I was always interested in space, it was only in a vague, general way up until the Apollo 8 mission. That happened shortly after my 11th birthday, and it was the first one I really got drawn into – in the sense that I knew the astronauts’ names and avidly followed every little phase of the mission. This really intense awareness continued through Apollos 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13, but then started to get murky again after that point.

Not for the obvious reason, though. You might think, “well, of course, everyone lost interest in the later Apollo missions” – but that wasn’t it at all. I’ve got files of newspaper clippings I carefully cut out about Apollos 14 to 17, as well as Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz test project. I’ve got some photos and fact sheets about Skylab that I sent off to NASA for (as well as another batch about Apollo from a few years earlier). But I never absorbed the huge amounts of information about those later missions that I did for Apollo 8-13 – for the simple reason that the information just wasn’t there to be absorbed.

In the early 70s Britain only had three TV channels, and they were all in the “general entertainment” category. There were no purely factual channels, no 24-hour news channels … and of course no internet. The TV gave blanket coverage to things like Apollo 8 and Apollo 11, but later missions had to compete for airtime with soap operas, sports, comedy shows and the like. Key space events were still covered – live – but they had a frustrating tendency to happen when you were at school, or otherwise indisposed. People didn’t have video recorders in those days.

So it’s an over-simplification to say that “everyone lost interest in the later Apollo missions”. It was the mainstream media that lost interest – and in the 1970s, that was the only kind of media there was. We’re so much luckier today!