The world’s first lunar spacecraft is about to launch. The ship, Prometheus, is built from two components—one designed to travel trough outter space to the Moon and back, and the other to carry the first component through Earth’s atmosphere and into orbit. Dirk Alexson, a historian assigned to documenting the project, travels from London to the desert base in Australia where Prometheus is to be launched. In a true example of life imitating art, Alexson describes what would become the foundation for the actual space shuttle program twenty years later.
First published in 1951, Prelude to Space is full of detailed technical descriptions and conversations regarding the possibility of spaceflight, many of which mirrored—or were actually cited in—the construction of the first spaceships and telecommunications satellites. Clarke’s uncanny ability to predict so many events, concerns, dilemmas, and triumphs of space exploration decades in advance make this fascinating novel as much science as it is fiction.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:December 16, 1917
Date of Death:March 19, 2008
Place of Birth:Minehead, Somerset, England
Place of Death:Sri Lanka
Education:1948, King's College, London, first-class honors in Physics and Mathematics
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Dirk Alexson threw down his book and climbed up the short flight of stairs to the observation deck. It was still much too soon to see land, but the journey's approaching end had made him restless and unable to concentrate. He walked over to the narrow, curving windows set in the leading-edge of the great wing and stared down at the featureless ocean below.
There was absolutely nothing to be seen: from this height the Atlantic's mightiest storms would have been invisible. He gazed for a while at the blank grayness beneath and then moved across to the passengers' radar display.
The spinning line of light on the screen had begun to paint the first dim echoes at the limits of its range. Land lay ahead, ten miles below and two hundred miles away — the land that Dirk had never seen though it was sometimes more real to him than the country of his birth. From those hidden shores, over the last four centuries, his ancestors had set out for the New World in search of freedom or fortune. Now he was returning, crossing in less than three hours the wastes over which they had labored for as many weary weeks. And he was coming on a mission of which they, in their wildest imaginings, could never have dreamed.
The luminous image of Land's End had moved halfway across the radar screen before Dirk first glimpsed the advancing coastline, a dark stain almost lost in the horizon mists. Though he had sensed no change of direction, he knew that the liner must now be falling down the long slope that led to London Airport, four hundred miles away. In a few minutes he would hear again, faint but infinitely reassuring, the rumbling whisper of the great jets as the air thickened around him and brought their music once more to his ears.
Cromwall was a gray blur, sinking astern too swiftly for any details to be seen. For all that one could tell, King Mark might still be waiting above the cruel rocks for the ship that brought Iseult, while on the hills Merlin might yet be talking with the winds and thinking of his doom. From this height the land would have looked the same when the masons laid the last stone on Tintagel's walls.
Now the liner was dropping toward a cloudscape so white and dazzling that it hurt the eyes. At first it seemed broken only by a few slight undulations but, presently, as it rose toward him, Dirk realized that the mountains of cloud below were built on a Himalayan scale. A moment later, the peaks were above him and the machine was driving through a great pass flanked on either side by overhanging walls of snow. He flinched involuntarily as the white cliffs came racing toward him, then relaxed as the driving mist was all around and he could see no more.
The cloud layer must have been very thick, for he caught only the briefest glimpse of London and was taken almost unaware by the gentle shock of landing. Then the sounds of the outer world came rushing in upon his mind — the metallic voices of loud-speakers, the clanging of hatches, and above all these, the dying fall of the great turbines as they idled to rest.
The wet concrete, the waiting trucks, and the gray clouds lowering overhead dispelled the last impressions of romance or adventure. It was drizzling slightly, and as the ridiculously tiny tractor hauled the great ship away, her glistening sides made her seem a creature of the deep sea rather than of the open sky. Above the jet housings, little flurries of steam were rising as the water drained down the wing.
Much to his relief, Dirk was met at the Customs barrier. As his name was checked off the passenger list, a stout, middle- aged man came forward with outstretched hand.
"Dr. Alexson? Pleased to meet you. My name's Matthews. I'm taking you to Headquarters at Southbank and generally looking after you while you're in London."
"Glad to hear it," smiled Dirk. "I suppose I can thank McAndrews for this?"
"That's right. I'm his assistant in Public Relations. Here — let me have that bag. We're going by the express tube; it's the quickest way — and the best, since you get into the city without having to endure the suburbs. There's one snag, though."
Matthews sighed. "You'd be surprised at the number of visitors who cross the Atlantic safely, then disappear into the Underground and are never seen again."
Matthews never even smiled as he imparted this unlikely news. As Dirk was to discover, his impish sense of humor seemed to go with a complete incapacity for laughter. It was a most disconcerting combination.
"There's one thing I'm not at all clear about," began Matthews as the long red train began to draw out of the airport station. "We get a lot of American scientists over to see us, but I understand that science isn't your line."
"No, I'm an historian."
Matthews's eyebrows asked an almost audible question.
"I suppose it must be rather puzzling," continued Dirk, "but it's quite logical. In the past, when history was made, there was seldom anyone around to record it properly. Nowadays, of course, we have newspapers and films — but it's surprising what important features get overlooked simply because everyone takes them for granted at the time. Well, the project you people are working on is one of the biggest in history, and if it comes off it will change the future as perhaps no other single event has ever done. So my University decided that there should be a professional historian around to fill in the gaps that might be overlooked."
"Yes, that's reasonable enough. It will make a pleasant change for us non-scientific people, too. We're rather tired of conversations in which three words out of four are mathematical symbols. Still, I suppose you have a fairly good technical background?"
Dirk looked slightly uncomfortable.
"To tell the truth," he confessed, "it's almost fifteen years since I did any science — and I never took it very seriously then. I'll have to learn what I need as I go along."
"Don't worry; we have a high-pressure course for tired businessmen and perplexed politicians which will give you everything you need. And you'll be surprised to find how much you pick up, simply by listening to the Boffins holding forth."
"Good lord, don't you know that word? It goes back to the War, and means any long-haired scientific type with a slide-rule in his vest-pocket. I'd better warn you right away that we've quite a private vocabulary here which you'll have to learn. There are so many new ideas and conceptions in our work that we've had to invent new words. You should have brought along a philologist as well!"
Dirk was silent. There were moments when the sheer immensity of his task almost overwhelmed him. Some time in the next six months the work of thousands of men over half a century would reach its culmination. It would be his duty, and his privilege, to be present while history was being made out there in the Australian desert on the other side of the world. He must look upon these events through the eyes of the future, and must record them so that in centuries to come other men could recapture the spirit of this age and time.
They emerged at New Waterloo station, and walked the few hundred yards to the Thames. Matthews had been right in saying that this was the best way to meet London for the first time. The spacious sweep of the fine new Embankment, still only twenty years old, carried Dirk's gaze down the river until it was caught and held by the dome of St. Paul's, glistening wetly in an unexpected shaft of sunlight. He followed the river upstream, past the great white buildings before Charing Cross, but the Houses of Parliament were invisible around the curve of the Thames.
"Quite a view, isn't it?" said Matthews presently. "We're rather proud of it now, but thirty years ago this part was a horrid mass of wharves and mud-banks. By the way — you see that ship over there?"
"You mean the one tied up against the other bank?"
"Yes, do you know what it is?"
"I've no idea."
"She's the Discovery, which took Captain Scott into the Antarctic back at the beginning of this century. I often look at her as I come to work and wonder what he'd have thought of the little trip we are planning."
Dirk stared intently at the graceful wooden hull, the slim masts and the battered smokestack. His mind slipped into the past in the easy way it had, and it seemed that the Embankment was gone and that the old ship was steaming past walls of ice into an unknown land. He could understand Matthew's feelings, and the sense of historical continuity was suddenly very strong. The line that stretched through Scott back to Drake and Raleigh and yet earlier voyages was still unbroken: only the scale of things had changed.
"Here we are," said Matthews in a tone of proud apology. "It's not as impressive as it might be, but we didn't have a lot of money when we built it. Not that we have now, for that matter."
The white, three-story building that faced the river was unpretentious and had obviously been constructed only a few years before. It was surrounded by large, open lawns scantily covered by dispirited grass. Dirk guessed that they had already been earmarked for future building operations. The grass seemed to have realized this too.
Nevertheless, as administrative buildings went, Headquarters was not unattractive, and the view over the river was certainly very fine. Along the second story ran a line of letters, as clean-cut and severely practical as the rest of the buildings. They formed a single word, but at the sight of it Dirk felt a curious tingling in his veins. It seemed out of place, somehow, here in the heart of a great city where millions were concerned with the affairs of everyday life. It was as out of place as the Discovery, lying against the far bank at the end of her long journeying — and it spoke of a longer voyage than she or any ship had ever made:
The office was small, and he would have to share it with a couple of junior draftsmen — but it overlooked the Thames and when he was tired of his reports and files Dirk could always rest his eyes on that great dome floating above Ludgate Hill. From time to time Matthews or his chief would drop in for a talk, but usually they left him alone, knowing that that was his desire. He was anxious to be left in peace until he had burrowed through the hundreds of reports and books which Matthews had obtained for him.
It was a far cry from Renaissance Italy to twentieth-century London, but the techniques he had acquired when writing his thesis on Lorenzo the Magnificent served Dirk in good stead now. He could tell, almost at a glance, what was unimportant and what must be studied carefully. In a few days the outlines of the story were complete and he could begin to fill in the details.
The dream was older than he had imagined. Two thousand years ago the Greeks had guessed that the Moon was a world not unlike the Earth, and in the second century A.D. the satirist Lucian had written the first of all interplanetary romances. It had taken more than seventeen centuries to bridge the gulf between fiction and reality — and almost all the progress had been made in the last fifty years.
The modern era had begun in 1923, when an obscure Transylvanian professor named Hermann Oberth had published a pamphlet entitled The Rocket Into Interplanetary Space. In this he developed for the first time the mathematics of space flight. Leafing through the pages of one of the few copies still in existence, Dirk found it hard to believe that so enormous a superstructure had arisen from so small a beginning. Oberth — now an old man of 84 — had started the chain reaction which was to lead in his own lifetime to the crossing of space.
In the decade before the Second World War, Oberth's German disciples had perfected the liquid-fuelled rocket. At first they too had dreamed of the conquest of space, but that dream had been forgotten with the coming of Hitler. The city over which Dirk so often gazed still bore the scars from the time, thirty years ago, when the great rockets had come falling down from the stratosphere in a tumult of sundered air.
Less than a year later had come that dreary dawn in the New Mexico desert, when it seemed that the River of Time had halted for a moment, then plunged in foam and spray into a new channel toward a changed and unknown future. With Hiroshima had come the end of a war and the end of an age: the power and the machine had come together at last and the road to space lay clear ahead.
It had been a steep road, and it had taken thirty years to climb — thirty years of triumphs and heartbreaking disappointments. As he grew to know the men around him, as he listened to their stories and their conversations, Dirk slowly filled in the personal details which the reports and summaries could never provide.
"The television picture wasn't too clear, but every few seconds it steadied and we got a good image. That was the biggest thrill of my life — being the first man to see the other side of the Moon. Going there will be a bit of an anti- climax."
"— most terrific explosion you ever saw. When we got up, I heard Goering say: 'If that's the best you can do, I'll tell the Fuehrer the whole thing's a waste of money.' You should have seen von Braun's face —"
"The KX 14's still up there: she completes one orbit every three hours, which was just what we'd intended. But the blasted radio transmitter failed at take-off, so we never got those instrument readings after all."
"I was looking through the twelve-inch reflector when that load of magnesium powder hit the Moon, about fifty kilometers from Aristarchus. You can just see the crater it made, if you have a look around sunset."
Sometimes Dirk envied these men. They had a purpose in life, even if it was one he could not fully understand. It must give them a feeling of power to send their great machines thousands of miles out into space. But power was dangerous, and often corrupting. Could they be trusted with the forces they were bringing into the world? Could the world itself be trusted with them?
Despite his intellectual background, Dirk was not altogether free from the fear of science that had been common ever since the great discoveries of the Victorian era. He felt not only isolated but sometimes a little nervous in his new surroundings. The few people he spoke to were invariably helpful and polite, but a certain shyness and his anxiety to master the background of his subject in the shortest time kept him away from all social entanglements. He liked the atmosphere of organization, which was almost aggressively democratic, and later on it would be easy enough to meet all the people he wished.
At the moment, Dirk's chief contacts with anyone outside the Public Relations Department were at mealtimes. Interplanetary's small canteen was patronized, in relays, by all the staff from the Director General downwards. It was run by a very enterprising committee with a fondness for experimenting, and although there were occasional culinary catastrophes, the food was usually very good. For all that Dirk could tell, Interplanetary's boast of the best cooking on South-bank might indeed be justified.
As Dirk's lunch-time, like Easter, was a movable feast, he usually met a fresh set of faces every day and soon grew to know most of the important members of the organization by sight. No one took any notice of him: the building was full of birds-of-passage from universities and industrial firms all over the world, and he was obviously regarded as just another visiting scientist.
His college, through the ramifications of the United States Embassy, had managed to find Dirk a small service flat a few hundred yards from Grosvenor Square. Every morning he walked to Bond Street Station and took the Tube to Waterloo. He quickly learned to avoid the early-morning rush, but he was seldom much later than many senior members of Interplanetary's staff. Eccentric hours were popular at Southbank: though Dirk sometimes remained in the building until midnight, there were always sounds of activity around him — usually from the research sections. Often, in order to clear his head and get a little exercise, he would go for a stroll along the deserted corridors, making mental notes of interesting departments which he might one day visit officially. He learned a great deal more about the place in this way than from the elaborate and much-amended organization charts which Matthews had lent him — and was always borrowing back again.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Prelude to Space"
Copyright © 1954 Arthur C. Clarke.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
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