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Master of Space by Arthur C. Clarke

Master of Space (original 1951; edition 1961)

by Arthur C. Clarke (Author)

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6791224,053 (3.46)4
Here is the compelling story of the launching of Prometheus -- Earth's first true spaceship -- and of the men who made it happen. Dirk Alexson: Chronicler of the greatest space adventure of all time, he was chosen to immortalize the incredible story of the men and their heroic mission. Sir Robert Derwent: Direct-General of Interplanetary -- London Headquarters for the international space-flight project -- he was the man who got the mission off the ground and into the pages of history. Professor Maxton: The world's leading atomic engineer, he designed the huge ship's drive units and he waited with the rest of the world to see if the project would be a success.… (more)
Title:Master of Space
Authors:Arthur C. Clarke (Author)
Info:Lancer Books (1961), Edition: First Thus
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Prelude to Space by Arthur C. Clarke (1951)



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In 1976, historian Dirk Alexson is sent to England by the University of Chicago to document for posterity the first manned mission to the moon sponsored by a private company called Interplanetary. While in the UK, he interviews and befriends some of the scientists and administrators involved in the project and receives a number of lessons in astrophysics and engineering.

However, Alexson is given very little face time with the crew of the Prometheus until they fly to the deserts of Australia for the actual launch. In fact, of the five possible crew members, only three will be chosen for the mission and that choice is not even made until the entire team reaches Australia.

Prelude to Space reads more like a documentary than a novel. The only character development occurs when our skeptical historian slowly becomes convinced during his assignment that landing a man on the moon is, in fact, feasible and exciting.

There is almost no tension in the story save for one of the astronauts worrying about his pregnant wife. Any risk to the astronauts' lives is treated lightly. Instead, the narrative merely follows Alexson as he chronicles the events around him.

Much of the book is comprised of info dumps ranging from the backgrounds of some of the characters (as if Clarke just wanted to get that out of the way in order to focus on the technology) to engineering specifications about the Prometheus and space flight in general. Arthur C. Clarke's scientific prowess is evident in this book, to point where it eclipses what little story exists. For example, as if an afterthought or an attempt to manufacture tension near the end of the story, a religious zealot fatally fails in an attempt to sabotage the Prometheus a few days before its launch. The character was introduced and killed off within a few pages, all of which added nothing to the story.

If you're looking for an exhilarating fictional tale of man's first foray to the moon, Prelude to Space will likely be a verbose and tedious disappointment. ( )
  pgiunta | Nov 20, 2017 |
Writing in 1951, Arthur C. Clarke used Prelude to Space to explore ideas about the possibilities of travel to the moon and the solar system based on the predictions of technology at the time. In many areas he was right, such as his fictional scientists' statement, "We will take no frontiers into space" (p. 101), which hit upon the gist of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. By his own acknowledgement in his post-Apollo introduction, Clarke was too conservative in his date estimates as the United States landed humans on the moon before the end of the 1960s. At one point, Clarke's characters discuss the historical field's development, saying, "When I was a kid their textbooks were nothing but limitary primers. Then the economic determinists held the field - until the neo-Freudians routed them with great slaughter" (p. 66). This commentary on the discipline shows great insight and the modern reader expects the conversation to continue into Focault and the linguistic turn. With this in mind, Clarke never intended to predict the future. He wished to promote scientific advancement and his inside knowledge of the early space programs gave him an advantage in his storytelling.
The story itself closely resembles The Right Stuff, though Clarke's explorers lack the humanizing character flaws of the Mercury 7. The same energy of doing something great for the first time pervades the story and Clarke's use of an historian as his main character allows him to explain his ideas to an educated layperson in a natural manner that does not interrupt the plot. The theme of exploration for its own sake pervades the novel, with the characters encountering Captain Scott's Discovery early on and reminiscing, "The line that stretched through Scott back to Drake and Raleigh and yet earlier voyagers was still unbroken; only the scale of things had changed" (p. 19). In yet another instance of life imitating art, much of the early materials promoting NASA's manned spaceflight programs drew upon this continuity of historical exploration.
The novel itself represents the hopes and dreams of the dawn of the Space Age. As a story, it continues to entertain, while it serves as an artifact of that time. ( )
  DarthDeverell | Apr 6, 2016 |
Arthur C. Clarke

Prelude to Space

Ballantine, Paperback, 1976.

12mo. x+179 pp. Post-Apollo Preface by the author dated "September 1975" [v-x].

First published in Galaxy Science Fiction Novel #3, 1951.
First published in book form by Sidgwick & Jackson, 1953.
First Ballantine Books edition, March 1954.
Second printing, July 1976.


On July 20, 1969, all the countless science-fiction stories of the first landing on the Moon became frozen in time, like flies in amber. We can look back on them now with a new perspective, and indeed with a new interest – for we know how it was really done, and can judge the accuracy of the predictions.

Now – contrary to a general belief – prediction is
not the main purpose of science-fiction writers; few, if any, have claimed “this is how it will be.” Most of them are concerned with the play of ideas, and the exploration of novel concepts in science and discovery. “What if…?” is the thought underlying all writing in this field. What if a man could become invisible? What if we could travel into the future? What if there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe? These are the initial grains around which the writer secrets his modest pearl. No one is more surprised than he is, if it turns out that he has indeed forecast the pattern of future events.

Yet it must be admitted that the stories of space travel form an exception to this general rule. Although the earliest works, such as Cyrano de Bergerac’s Voyages to the Moon and the Sun, were pure fantasy, most of the tales written in the past hundred years were based as far as possible upon accurate science and foreseeable technology. Their writers did believe that they were predicting the future, at least in general terms. More than that, the pioneers of astronautics used fiction in a deliberate attempt to spread their ideas to the general public. Tsiolkovsky, Oberth, and von Braun all wrote space fiction at one time or another. In so doing, they were not merely predicting the future, they were creating it.

I must confess that I had similar propagandist ideas in mind when planning this book. It was written in July, 1947, during my summer vacation as a student at King’s College, London. The actual composition took exactly twenty days, a record I have never since approached. This speed was largely due to the fact that I had been making notes on the book for more than a year; it was already well organized in my head before I set pen to paper. (“Pen” is correct; the original manuscript was handwritten in a series of school exercise books which were a relic of my Royal Air Force days.)

This is the beginning of Post-Apollo Preface, one of those pieces worth getting the whole book for. Further in this rich and beautifully written essay, Arthur summarises the profound change in the public attitude to space travel in the 22 years between his first novel and the first landing on the Moon, and he tries to excuse some of his (rather embarrassing) failures of imagination. In 1947, he imagined that Britain could go for it alone, with “Interplanetary” research centre at the heart of London and a launching pad at Woomera “down under”; that atomic rockets would replace the ones propelled by chemical fuels; that space research would be privately funded; and that the conservative Americans would merely be watching the whole thing. Nothing of all this, of course, happened. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to laugh at the author: “Poor Arthur! He was hopelessly wide of the mark.” But in 1947, I daresay, it all looked entirely possible. Right until the late 50s, Arthur claims, “many American engineers in the rocket field itself pooh-poohed the idea of space flight.”

Almost forty years later, not all of Arthur’s predictions in the Post-Apollo Preface have been realised, either. He was already aware, in 1976, of a hiatus in space exploration, but his hope that “sometime in the 1980s, the real story will begin” has not been fulfilled. The Space Shuttle, which he also mentions, never quite lived up to the high expectations, was marred by two major disasters and is today no longer in use. Arthur seemed certain that “some form of nuclear propulsion will be available when we are ready to go to Mars”, but the atomic rocket, so far as I know, is still a chimera. Then again, we are not ready to go to Mars yet, either.

Arthur did score “a few successes as a minor prophet.” He mentions them with commendable modesty, for instance that Hermann Oberth, one of the great visionaries of space travel from the 1920s, lived to see the first Moon landing. Much more important are some technical and political predictions which, alas, still lie in the future. It remains to be seen whether or not they will happen at all. In case they do, they will be among Arthur’s major successes as a prophet.

In this story I assumed the use of orbital rendezvous techniques, and particularly of reusable boosters which could be flown over and over again. My imagination failed to conceive multi-million-dollar vehicles like the lunar module and the Saturn-V launcher, which would be discarded after a single mission. But the future of space flight lies with such concepts as those described here; politics, and not economics, has shaped our present systems, and history will soon pass them by.


Although I am well aware that propaganda is the enemy of art, I am still proud of the fact that this novel’s main theme is the absurdity of exporting national rivalries beyond the atmosphere. In 1947, I summed up this concept in the phrase, “We will take no frontiers into space.” Exactly twenty years later, the United Nations Space Treaty prohibited territorial claims on any celestial bodies.

Arthur finishes this gem of a preface with his characteristic optimism, slightly dimmed by the “hiatus” but by no means extinguished. So much the worse for us if we fail – again – to meet his vision:

Yet when, in 1947, I set this novel exactly thirty years in the future, I did not really believe that a lunar landing would be achieved even by that distant date; I was optimistically whistling in the dark – and perhaps trying to give myself a sixtieth birthday present. I would never have dared to imagine that by 1977 a dozen men would have walked on the Moon, and twenty-seven would have orbited it. Still less could I have imagined that the first nation to reach the Moon would so swiftly abandon it again….

In one sense, the Apollo Project was indeed a Prelude to Space. Now there will be a short interlude; and sometime in the 1980s, the real story will begin.

The hiatus does not disappoint me, for I have already seen achievements beyond my wildest dreams. I have shaken the hands of the first man to orbit the earth, the first man to step out into space, and the first man to walk upon the Moon.

In the long perspective of history, it will not matter that two of them were Russian and one was American.

I suppose Arthur’s lack of disappointment was sincere at the time. But I do wonder how long it lasted. More than twenty years later, in his “Foreword to Millennial Edition” of Profiles of the Future (1999), his notorious optimism was considerably qualified:

Though I had no doubt that all these events [the landings on the Moon, the reconnaissance of the other planets in the Solar System] would occur, I never expected to see them in my lifetime. Still less did I imagine that, after reaching the Moon, we would abandon it for – how long? Your guess is as good as mine, for the answer depends on politics and economics as much as on technology.[1]

The “short interlude” still continues….

For an exercise in pure propaganda written by hand in the course of twenty days, Prelude to Space is a remarkable piece of entirely realistic science fiction. True, some of the characters are here only to explain astronautics and rocketry, and some passages are more suitable for a collection of essays than for a novel. You are not supposed to need any background knowledge, but if you feel you do, you might consider reading Arthur’s non-fiction writings on the subject.[2] If you have read some of his speculative essays[3], you will find here not only many familiar ideas, but occasionally even the same examples. The novel is set some thirty years after the year of writing, but it finishes with an Epilogue that jumps further twenty-five years ahead. Unabashedly optimistic, this Epilogue envisions a New Renaissance stimulated by space exploration and realised by brilliant scientists who are first of all poets and visionaries.

Yes, pure propaganda it is. But there is nothing wrong with that if the ideas are worth propagating. Arthur Clarke does not advocate pessimism, intolerance, fear, hate or war. Far from it! He dreamed of a space-inspired outlook free of political paranoia and tribal conflicts, of mankind as a space race that braves the Solar System and ultimately the stars. These aspirations may seem terribly naïve to some people, but they are certainly not ignoble. Incidentally, I should like to know what such people propose themselves. Stay here and turn this planet into utopia? Very well. Let’s say one day we achieve that. Then what? Sooner or later, a lotus-eating culture will stagnate and perish.

I can see why Arthur didn’t regard this as a full-length novel. The whole plot is concerned with a single incident, albeit one of epic proportions, and takes place in the course of a few weeks. So it may legitimately be regarded as a novella or even a longish short story. But when, in 2001, he dismissed it as “now of no more than historical interest (if that!)”[4], I think he was being too harsh. However dated it may be technologically, philosophically it is still relevant and, if you choose to believe, inspiring. It is supremely readable and written with the deceptive simplicity characteristic of Arthur’s complete works. I say “deceptive” because, first, it belies the amount of hard work that must have gone into it, and second, it hides disturbing depth that is often neglected. The prodigious Clarkian wit is a welcome bonus, too. Most of the characters are no more than shadows, but there is at least one for whom this is not true.

Dirk Alexson, our hero, is an American historian who has been sent from Chicago to London in order to chronicle for posterity the first Moon landing in 1978. He has written a highly regarded history of the Medici family, but now he aspires to be, as another character jokes, “Gibbon of astronautics”. Like Martin Gibson in The Sands of Mars (1951), he is a layman who needs a good deal of explanation, but his position as an outsider, coupled with a perceptive brain and a good deal of experience in historical research, allows him to judge with objectivity no insider could achieve. Being part of a huge international project that works towards a goal so much bigger than any personal egos is something new for him. He is profoundly changed by the experience. Used to dealing with the past, now he has to become accustomed to shaping the future. Once terrified by Pascal’s famous dictum about the emptiness of space, Dirk slowly but steadily falls under its spell. In the beginning, he is told: “You Americans have always been a bit conservative about space flight, and didn’t take it seriously until several years after us [the British].”[5] In the end, he is living on the Moon and has just published the sixth volume of his monumental study of the space age. Edward Gibbon might have been proud with Dirk Alexson’s achievement.

Prelude to Space is no mean achievement for a first novel by a writer not yet thirty. It’s a good story beautifully written, packed with fascinating ideas and graced with a reasonably well-drawn main character. Clarke buffs, sci-fi aficionados or anybody interested in the history of space exploration in fiction ought to find it a rewarding read.

PS Finally, a piece of amusing trivia. This was the first and last novel Arthur wrote by hand. By the time he came to write the next one, The Sands of Mars (1951), he was using a Remington Noiseless Portable.[6]

[1] Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future, Indigo, 2000, p. 1.
[2] The fairly technical Interplanetary Flight (1950), its popular companion The Exploration of Space (1951) and the lavishly illustrated by R. A. Smith The Exploration of the Moon (1954) are all highly recommended. Alternatively, you can read Arthur’s magnum opus on astronomy, astronautics and space exploration, The Promise of Space (1968; rev. edn., 1970).
[3] For example, the collections The Challenge of the Spaceship (1959), Voices from the Sky (1965) and Report on Planet Three (1972).
[4] Foreword to The Space Trilogy, Gollancz, [2001], p. [xi].
[5] Cf. the essay “Memoirs of an Armchair Astronaut (Retired)” from the collection Voices from the Sky in which he describes “an ideological gulf” between B.I.S. and A.R.S. in the 1930s which was later “bridged”:
As is well known, we British are a romantic and wildly imaginative race, and to our annoyance the conservative Americans did not consider that space travel was respectable. Though they had formed the American Interplanetary Society in 1930, the name had been changed to American Rocket Society a few years later. The suggestion was sometimes made that we should follow suit, but we refused to lower our sights. To us, the rocket was merely the interplanetary bus; if a better one came along (it hasn’t yet, but we’re still hoping) we would transfer, and give the rocket back to the fireworks industry.
[6] See Arthur’s introduction to The Sands of Mars in the omnibus The Space Trilogy, Gollancz, [2001], p. 135. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Aug 6, 2015 |
Written many years before the Apollo astronauts left the Earth for their trip to the moon, Arthur C. Clarke's novel covering the build up to a fictional moon mission launch gave a glimpse of one possible, but not taken route to the stars.

The technology he espoused of a reusable space plane lifting another reusable non-atmospheric spacecraft was obviously not the option chosen for the Apollo missions, though it does bear a remarkable similarity to some of the early design's for NASA follow on Space Shuttle programme. Similarly the nuclear rocket engines that powered the Prometheus pair in the novel were based on technology being developed from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, both for space flight and aircraft. Another path that we looked at, trod down for a while and then turned back from.

Clarke's text provides an interesting and well written story whilst simultaneously introducing some complex technical details in an accessible manner, even if you aren't a Sci-Fi fan or rocket engineer.

Well worth a read to see how space could have been viewed from the point of view of a late 1940s British visionary who still saw Britain as leading where America and the rest of the world would follow. ( )
1 vote jimll | Dec 24, 2013 |
Space travel as imagined by ACC in the 50's was a far different thing than what actually occurred. For myself, I think I would prefer Clarke's "reality" to that of today.

Great Britain was a serious world power, particularly in space travel; there was no "space race" per se--countries actually cooperated. Five astronauts were considered for the first flight and the two who didn't make it took it well enough.

The Prometheus (space ship) seemed to me to be along the lines (very generally) of the soon to be late, lamented space shuttle program. There was genuine enthusiasm, interest, fascination with the future--all things that to me are now lacking in life, as well as the space program.

As to the book itself, it is of course dated. One of the most touted advantages to having a presence in space was the ability to manufacture vacuum tubes for computers and communications--and when was the last time that was an issue? But the other ideas--medical products, and so on--it's a pity I think that none of this has come to be even remotely to pass.

The book itself is written with Clarke's usual style and care--sometimes a little wordy, but always thoughtful.

As always, looking backward to what might have been is affected by a rose-colored filter, but the what-might-have-beens always make me wistful.

Then, I think of gynecology and dentistry and get over it, at least to a point.
1 vote MissJessie | Oct 16, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Clarke, Arthur C.primary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bosch Barrett, ManuelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fernandes,StanislawCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Powers, RichardCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Roch, HerbertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To my friends in the British Interplanetary Society--who by sharing this dream, helped to make it come true
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For five miles, straight as an arrow, the gleaming metal track lay along the face of the desert.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Prelude to Space was published in paperback with the title The Space Dreamers by Lancer books. In 1961, Lancer published Prelude to Space as Master of Space.
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Here is the compelling story of the launching of Prometheus -- Earth's first true spaceship -- and of the men who made it happen. Dirk Alexson: Chronicler of the greatest space adventure of all time, he was chosen to immortalize the incredible story of the men and their heroic mission. Sir Robert Derwent: Direct-General of Interplanetary -- London Headquarters for the international space-flight project -- he was the man who got the mission off the ground and into the pages of history. Professor Maxton: The world's leading atomic engineer, he designed the huge ship's drive units and he waited with the rest of the world to see if the project would be a success.

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