A trip to our mysterious neighbour on South Lambeth Road – the British Interplanetary Society

Picture 029On May 1st Colin Philp, fellow and council member of the British Interplanetary Society – the world’s longest- established organisation dedicated to promoting the use and exploration of space – gave a talk at the library for Friends of TSL. He invited his listeners to visit the BIS offices – two formerly derelict houses in Vauxhall, renovated by BIS and made into one. Two weeks later a group went there under the aegis of Friends. Here is the account of one of the trippers, Kate Kelly-Tanguay.

What excited me, from the very beginning of our visit, was the emphasis given to the importance of imagination in the work of the scientist, the engineer and the mathematician whose combined talents have sent man to the moon.

Unsurprisingly the motto of the society is “from imagination to reality”.

There were many paintings lining the walls in every room of this gracious building , many from before the first voyages into space. Illustrations dating from 1951 by R.A. Smith show prototype landing modules , lunar space suits and hydroponic cultivation on a space station.

While some pictures bore an amusing resemblance to a B movie film set, many seemed uncannily similar to later NASA photographs. This is explained however by British involvement – not widely known – in the evolution and development of space exploration. The first landing module on the moon, we learned, owes much to original British designs. Until the early 1950s Britain led the research into space exploration and was, in 1938, the first country to conduct serous engineering studies into landing a man on the moon.

That we can “encircle the earth and the moon”* and see for ourselves our tiny blue planet in all its beauty is in no small way due to such visionary BIS members as ex chairman Arthur C Clarke . His The Young Traveller in Space in 1954 ‘took space out of the realms of fiction and fantasy and into those of fact and probability’ and must have helped to inspire a whole generation of space enthusiasts.

Our guide, the very welcoming Colin Philp, brought us right up to date when he showed us a model of the Skylon. This extraordinary reaction- engined craft is named after an exhibit at the 1951 Festival of Britain, which had inspired a young Alan Bond who, along with Bob Parkinson, originally conceived the HOTOL space plane, its forbear. This amazing design is due to become a reality in 2018, enabling a space plane to take off (and land) from a runway (on earth!) and go into space with cargo that can be delivered to a space station, all with a totally non-polluting fuel source.

It was exciting to hear that there are already plans to develop a “domestic”‘ model (which will fly lower) that is due to revolutionise air travel in years to come with an estimated journey time from the UK to Australia of four hours, all without fuel pollutants! These are entirely British designs and projects which currently receive additional EU funding.

The close links with NASA were underlined by the display of artefacts and commemorative memorabilia, plaques and pictures, including photographs of space missions signed by American astronauts. And at a recent BIS anniversary dinner the special guest was the one and only Buz Aldrin.

We visited the BIS library – the UK’s most extensive library on space exploration. On the wall were some inspiring quotes, one of my favourites being from Herbert Samuel, “ A library is thought in cold storage”. Very appropriate for a group of library loyalists.

Reflecting its history, the building has a room of period furnishings in late Georgian style, with a fine selection of Lambeth glazed and decorated pottery -all, as far as I could see, attributed to female artists/potters.

We look forward to a growing relationship between the library, the BIS and the local community, and a greater appreciation of the tremendous work being fostered behind those no longer mysterious portals.

Friends’ note: to find out more about BIS go to www.bis-space.com

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