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The Exploration of Space by Arthur C. Clarke

The Exploration of Space

by Arthur C. Clarke

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Arthur C. Clarke

The Exploration of Space

Temple Press, Hardback, 1951.

8vo. xiii+198 pp. Preface by the author, May 1951 [xi-xiii]. Illustrated with frontispiece in colour and 14 plates (3 in colour), most of them drawings by R. A. Smith and Leslie Carr.

First published, 1951.



1. The Shaping of the Dream
2. The Earth and Its Neighbors
3. The Rocket
4. Escaping from Earth
5. The Road to the Planets
6. The Spaceship
7. The Journey to the Moon
8. Navigation and Communication in Space
9. Life in the Spaceship
10. The Moon
11. The Lunar Base
12. The Inner Planets
13. The Outer Planets
14. Exploring the Planets
15. Stations in Space
16. Other Suns than Ours
17. To the Stars
18. Concerning Means and Ends



This is not a review but a brief note about editions. What I have to say about this beautifully written, highly entertaining and very informative book I have said it about the Revised Edition, first published in 1959, and more specifically about the inferior Premier Paperback reprint.

The most striking feature of the original 1951 edition is the plates; all of them, alas, are missing from the Premier paperbacks of the Revised Edition published in the early 1960s. Most of these are drawings by R. A. Smith and Leslie Carr; some indeed are works of both of them, ideas coming from the former and execution from the latter (see below). Arthur had a great respect for both illustrators, and with good reason. Even the black-and-white plates show stunning detail and three-dimensional perspective. They do add to the pleasure of reading the book, yet it is safe to say that they are not in the least essential for understanding or enjoying the text. The only disappointment among the plates is the last colour one, by Leslie Carr, which looks as if it were the cover of a pulp sci-fi magazine; unfortunately, and inexplicably, it is reprinted on the front cover. Here is a list of the plates together with some of the credits:

Frontispiece: Automatic Rocket Surveying Mars [in colour, by Leslie Carr after R. A. Smith]
Plate I: High-Altitude Man-Carrying Rocket [R. A. Smith]
Plate II: Spaceships Refuelling In Free Orbit [R. A. Smith]
Plate III: Lunar Type of Spaceship: Sectional View [R. A. Smith]
Plate IV: Spaceship on the Moon [R. A. Smith]
Plate V: The Lunar Base [in colour, by Leslie Carr after R. A. Smith]
Plate VI: (a) Pictorial Map of Moon; (b) Mare Ibrium Region
Plate VII: Lunar Formations: (a) Hevel and Lohrmann; (b) Sirsalis
Plate VIII: The Space Suit
Plate IX: The Martian Base [in colour, by Leslie Carr after R. A. Smith]
Plate X: Map of Mars
Plate XI: Building The Space-Station [R. A. Smith]
Plate XII: The Space-Station [R. A. Smith]
Plate XIII: A Multitude Sun System [in colour, by Leslie Carr]
Plate XIV: (a) The Great Nebula In Andromeda; (b) Star Clouds In Cygnus

The chapters in both editions are the same and so, with few slight modifications, are the 18 figures in the text. The quality of the printing is naturally higher in the hardback, or rather it is vastly inferior in the Premier paperback. Unlike the plates, the figures are, if not essential, at any rate very helpful for fuller understanding of the text. Here is a full list of the figures in this edition:

Figure 1. The Solar System.
Figure 2. The Earth's Atmosphere.*
Figure 3. The Reduction of Gravity with Distance.
Figure 4. The Principle of Reaction.
Figure 5. The Rocket Principle.
Figure 6. The Two Types of Rocket.
Figure 7. The Effect on Fuel Weight on Rocket Speeds.
Figure 8. The Forces in the Rocket Motor.
Figure 9. The ''Pit'' Analogy of the Earth's Gravitational Field.
Figure 10. The Easiest Routes to Mars and Venus.
Figure 11. Returning to Earth by Air-Braking.
Figure 12. Checking of the Spin of a Spaceship (I) by Rocket, (II) by Flywheel.
Figure 13. Position-finding in Space.
Figure 14. Altering the Velocity of a Spaceship.
Figure 15. Departure Curve from Earth.
Figure 16. Producing ''Artificial Gravity''.
Figure 17. Map of Moon.
Figure 18. Space-station Orbits.

* This figure is missing in the Premier Paperback, which in turn contains one which is missing here ("Figure 9. The Gravity Fields of Earth and Moon". That's why the figures from 3 to 9 have a "+1" difference between both editions. )

I admit that I have not compared the texts of both editions in detail. Since the book deals with the very foundations of rockets and space flight, as well as with the long-term philosophical implications for us as a species, I suspect the 1959 revisions were minor ones. After all, they were done but two years after Sputnik I, and two more would pass before the first man in orbit. Yet it must have wanted a great deal more courage to write such a book as early as 1951, when the world at large still viewed space travel as science fiction, at best – or as pure nonsense, at worst.

If you want but one edition of the book, by all means do get the Revised one; whatever the nature of the revisions, they were at least carried out by Arthur himself, unlike the 1960 update of the more technical but otherwise very similar Interplanetary Flight (1950). In addition to the drab Premier paperbacks, the Revised Edition of The Exploration of Space is also available as an illustrated hardback, presumably very similar to this one by Temple Press in terms of plates. The early edition is of interest mostly for Clarke buffs who are curious to see if his notorious optimism was as strong in the pre-Space Age days as it was in later years. It is. That's why it is even more inspiring and at the same time more saddening. The book is also of considerable historical interest for Clarke aficionados. It was quite a success at the time and it finally convinced Arthur that there was money in writing. So he turned himself into a professional writer, as opposed to an occasional one, and the same 1951 also saw the publication of his first two novels, Prelude to Space and The Sands of Mars. The rest, of course, is history. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Feb 26, 2012 |
Arthur C. Clarke

The Exploration of Space

Premier, Paperback, 1964.

12mo. ix+192 pp. Revised Edition. Preface by the author [vii-ix].

First published, 1951.
Revised Edition, 1959.



1. The Shaping of the Dream
2. The Earth and Its Neighbors
3. The Rocket
4. Escaping from Earth
5. The Road to the Planets
6. The Spaceship
7. The Journey to the Moon
8. Navigation and Communication in Space
9. Life in the Spaceship
10. The Moon
11. The Lunar Base
12. The Inner Planets
13. The Outer Planets
14. Exploring the Planets
15. Stations in Space
16. Other Suns than Ours
17. To the Stars
18. Concerning Means and Ends



This book covers very much the same material as Interplanetary Flight (1950), whose success indeed inspired it, but in less technical a language, especially designed for fairly intelligent fellows who don't want to be bothered with complicated mathematics.

The stupendous dimensions of the scope and the irresistible charm of the writing style are of typically Clarkian character. Innocently enough, Arthur starts with a short historical overview of space travel in fiction and a brief description of our Solar System (chapters 1 and 2). But then follow the ABC of astronomy and astronautics, how we tried to cope with many a difficulty up to the late 1950s (chapters 3 to 5, 8), a number of possible solutions how to deal with manned space flight, planet colonization and interstellar travel (chapters 6, 7, 11, 14, 17, for instance). One should bear in mind that all that was written in pre-Gagarin times, yet most of it, as it seems, was extraordinarily prescient, and not a little, alas, is still far advanced even for the present. Finally, there are magnificent vistas of near and far galaxies (chapter 16) and one of those philosophical speculations (chapter 17) that end a book by Arthur Clarke in the same way as grand coda ends a symphonic masterpiece for large orchestra: only the pause it does give is intellectual, rather than sensual.

The writing style lacking the fairly technical language characteristic of Interplanetary Flight, Arthur in this book is the entertaining and witty popularizer of science so well-known from his later books. Seasoned Clarkian aficionados would be foolish to be slightly impatient with the lengthy analogies that occur from time to time; they do help to uncover the secrets of the rocket drive or Earth's gravity. Apart from the tons of lucidly presented facts and figures to learn from and ponder upon, Clarke's wry sense of humour is what makes his narrative a very enjoyable and quite unique experience. I find it difficult not to smile when reading about the ''cheerful theory'' that all suns may become novae at one time or another during their evolution, or how ''an astronomer of our acquaintance discovered this useful analogy by accident one day when he tossed a tennis ball into a large Chinese vase!'' But my favourite bit of unforgettably hilarious Clarkian humour is the description of the first story about lunar trip in English, written by one Bishop Godwin in 1638; note the subtle merge with serious science and history:

Godwin's hero, Domingo Gonsales, flew to the Moon on a flimsy raft towed by trained swans. This feat was really quite accidental, for Gonsales had merely been attempting the conquest of the air, not of space. But he did not know that his swans had the habit, hitherto unrecorded by ornithologists, of migrating to the Moon. His involuntary flight to our satellite occupied twelve days, and he had no difficulty with breathing on the way. However, he did notice the disappearance of weight as he left the Earth, and on reaching the Moon discovered that its pull was much weaker, so that one could jump to great heights. This idea is now quite familiar to us, but Godwin was writing fifty years before Newton discovered the law of gravitation.

Despite such funny passages here and there, The Exploration of Space is a very serious and, indeed, not altogether non-technical book. Equations there are none, but the volume contains no fewer than 18 figures; they supplement the text perfectly, but do require a good deal of mental effort. Yet these drawings are extremely illuminating, sometimes giving you an immediate visual understanding that even the finest text cannot hope to match. To take but one example, take a look at ''Figure 2. The Reduction of Gravity with Distance''. (There is something about gravity, the most mysterious of all forces, which I find almost unbearably compelling.) You see immediately why gravity is so overwhelming on the Earth's surface: what weighs one ton here, weighs no more than 10 pounds 60 000 miles above the surface; but our whole atmosphere is mere one or two hundred kilometers thick, and for that distance gravity barely weakens its grasp. Here beautifully comes the text which gives another staggering fact to reflect carefully on: even a thousand miles up gravity still has 65% of its value on the sea level. Imagine these distances if you can: this is some five to ten times higher than the whole of the atmosphere, virtually the open space, yet the Moon is some two hundred times further...

The most precious quality of this book is Clarke's nearly miraculous ability to: 1) explain complex concepts in a most accessible manner; and 2) make an absorbing read from virtually everything. Among many other things, here you will find lucid and logical answers to a number of perplexing questions. Why does a rocket work in vacuum? (The popular notion that it ''pushes against the air'' is, as it turned out, perfectly fallacious.) How could two space ships make a rendezvous in the Earth's orbit while travelling at 18 000 mph? (That's easy to explain - if difficult to imagine: the speed is relative to the Earth and it matters not to the ships as long as it is equal for both - which of course it is when they are in the same orbit.) How could weightlessness actually have nothing to do with gravity, let alone with escaping from it? How on earth - or, more accurately, as close to Earth as a few hundred miles, where the gravity is virtually the same as on the sea level - could man be weightless under such conditions? That this is a fact there is no doubt. That Arthur knew it well before anyone ever got in orbit is an excellent proof of his solid scientific background. But the real gem is his beautiful explanation of what, at first glance, seems quite illogical. And it is worth quoting at some length; all emphasis is Arthur's:

The reason for this paradox may be made clear as follows. It is true enough that on the Earth gravity gives us the feeling of weight: but it only does so when we resist it. ''G'' tries to give us an acceleration downwards, but this is prevented from the pressure of the floor, the ground, or the chair in which we are sitting. Remove these supports, let gravity have its way, and we should at once feel completely weightless. We seldom notice this in practice, as on such occasions - which are brief enough anyway - our minds are usually concerned with other more urgent matters. Perhaps the only time in our normal lives when we do experience a momentary feeling of near weightlessness is in a high-speed elevator, just as it begins its descent.


Now a rocket moving freely in empty space, with its motors cut off, is not resisting gravity: on the contrary, it is letting gravity take it where it will. [...] In this state, which would begin at the moment the rockets were turned off, the ship and its occupants would have no weight whatsoever. This condition would last even when the ship entered another gravitational field, such as when it approached the Moon and began to fall towards it. It is therefore nonsense to speak, as many authors have done, of a steadily increasing sense of weight as one fell towards another planet. There would be an increasing gravitational force and an increasing acceleration, but the passengers in the spaceship would feel nothing at all until the rockets were turned on again.

This matter of weightlessness is perhaps the cause of more confusion than anything else in astronautics. One can, however, avoid all difficulty by remembering the simple rule that, outside an atmosphere, a spaceship and its contents are completely weightless
as long as the rockets are shut off. It does not matter in the least where the ship may be - close to a planet or in the depths of space.

When the rockets were turned on again, the resulting acceleration produced by the thrust of the motors would produce a feeling of weight once more - a feeling which would last only as long as the motors were operating, and which might have any intensity from a barely perceptible ''tug'' to a crushing pressure that would prevent all movement by the passengers.

As an accessible, thorough and extremely well-written introduction to the theoretical foundations of space flight, its mechanical means and its endless ends, The Exploration of Space cannot be recommended highly enough. The 1959 Revised Edition is the one to have because - unlike the 1960 edition of Interplanetary Flight - this revision was carried out by Clarke himself. This particular Premier edition, however, you should avoid: 60 cents might have been a commendably cheap price for 1964, but the abominable quality of the figures fully explains it. Dated the book may well be, but only slightly so. I am not sure if it's a good thing that the basics of space flight have not changed for the last half a century, but that does seem to be the case. As far as popular science and future space exploration go, Clarke is in a class of his own and still rather ahead of our time, respectively.

If you are in a mood for a more quantitative approach, with a good deal of formulas and equations to keep you company, try also Interplanetary Flight (1950). If you are in a more speculative mood, with space-inspired philosophical and cultural fantasies orbiting inside your head, then try The Challenge of the Spaceship (1959) and Voices from the Sky (1965). And if you want all that condensed in a single volume, then try The Promise of Space (1968), arguably Clarke's magnum opus in this category. Whichever of these books you may try, you can hardly go wrong, repetitions and all. ( )
4 vote Waldstein | Sep 11, 2011 |
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THE very conception of interplanetary travel was, of course, impossible until it was realised that there were other planets.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Please do not combine this book with excerpts from it published under the same title in collections with essays, for instance Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! (1999).
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