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  • Yehoshua Paul

1947 - Prelude to Space

1947. The derelict ship Exodus 1947 departs from France for Mandatory Palestine while carrying 4,500 Jewish refugees in a widely publicized and politicized journey. Most of the Jewish refugees are Holocaust survivors hoping to break the British blockade and make Aliya to their ancient homeland. The British refuse to be pressured though, and after commandeering the ship in the Haifa port and transferring the passengers to more seaworthy ships, send the Jews back to France. The French government refuses to accept the Jewish passengers unless they voluntarily disembark, which they don’t. The ships then sail to Hamburg in postwar Germany where most of the passengers are forcibly sent to refugee camps. There they will have to wait until Britain formally recognizes the new state of Israel in 1949.

A few months after Exodus is turned back, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) publishes the UN partition plan for Palestine. The British having already formally given up their mandate and refusing to cooperate with a plan not accepted by both sides begin withdrawing their forces. Meanwhile the UN adopts the partition plan which the Jews accept and the Arabs reject. Violence breaks out as each area the British withdraw from becomes a mini war zone. It is only a few months though until the Jews quest for their own state is finally at an end.

Yet even as this phase of the Jewish people is coming to a close, a new one begins for the rest of humanity. In Australia, the RAAF Woomera Range Complex is established for rocket testing. In the United States, a V-2 rocket carrying fruit flies is launched into space from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The goal of this experiment is to test the effects of radiation exposure at high altitudes. After reaching a height of 109 km, the rocket ejects it capsule and the fruit flies are recovered alive. In the Soviet Union plans are also being drawn up, but it will be a few more years until their first rockets can be launched. Space exploration, what once many considered an insane dream, is rapidly on its way to becoming a reality – a reality that is thoroughly explored and explained in Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s Prelude to Space.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917 – 2008) is another one of those authors worthy of their own series of 49 posts. Clarke was a British science fiction writer, science writer, futurist, inventor, undersea explorer, television series host, and one of the “Big Three” of science fiction together with Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. The list of titles and honors Clarke achieved during his lifetime is very long; however, I’m going to focus on only one: “Prophet of the Space Age.”

Clarke was a lifelong advocate of space travel. In 1934, while still a teenager, he joined the British interplanetary society. In 1945, he proposed an idea of using geostationary satellites as telecommunications relays. Later he wrote a number of non-fiction books describing the technical details and societal implications of rockets and space-flight. These include: Interplanetary Flight: An Introduction to Astronautics (1950), The Exploration of Space (1951) and The Promise of Space (1968), which were written for non-technical people to help them better understand what’s involved in space travel. In 1954, fifteen years before Apollo 11 landed on the moon, Clarke proposed creating a lunar base built out of inflatable modules covered in lunar dust for insulation. A spaceship, assembled in low Earth orbit, would launch the components to the Moon, and astronauts would set up the igloo-like modules. Prelude to Space is Clarke’s attempt to imagine the first rocket launch to the moon, along with everything the endeavor would entail – technical and societal.

The book is set thirty years in the future, shortly before Prometheus, the first manned spaceship is launched to the moon. Prometheus is comprised of two parts: Alpha and Beta. Beta would be responsible for carrying up fuel tanks to wait in floating in orbit around Earth. After the fuel tanks were in place, Beta would carry Alpha up to orbit where it would fuel up, detach from Beta and head to the moon. Beta would remain in orbit to carry Alpha and its astronauts back to earth. It’s an elaborate plan, which is costing an insane amount of money and also sparking the imagination of the best and brightest scientists from every nation on Earth.

Dirk Alexson is a historian. He is sent by the University of Chicago to learn more about the planned endeavor and record it properly from a historical perspective. Prometheus is being constructed by the private commercial institute Interplanetary in Australia, one of the few places on Earth where rocket testing can be performed safely away from civilians. Interplanetary is headquartered in London, and that is where Alexson is introduced to the project, the scientists, and the surrounding staff keeping the project running. While learning about the technical details of the project, he gets to witness the religious opposition the project faces, and the answers Interplanetary’s team has to offer. Eventually, as the project progresses towards the much anticipated launch, Alexson relocates with everyone else to Australia where he will get to witness and record all the great and small moments and decisions that will build up to the most important moment in human history.

In his 1969 preface to the book, written after Apollo 11 landed, Clarke explains that as a general rule science fiction is not about predicting the future. It’s about playing with different ideas and exploring the “What if” scenarios the writer imagines: “What if a person could become invisible? What if we could travel to the future? What if there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?” Space travel is an exception to this rule. Writers of space travel, Clarke among them, genuinely believed they were predicting the future, and now all they needed to do was figure out how. Not only that, the early rocket pioneers all wrote space fiction at one time or another to help spread their ideas. In writing these novels, the early rocket scientists weren’t just predicting the future, they were creating it, and that is what Clarke had in mind when he wrote this novel.

When reading this novel, written thirty-two years before Apollo 11 what stood out was how real it all felt – the technical descriptions and the physics involved. Space exploration was still an unrealized dream, and I constantly needed to remind myself that none of what Clarke was writing had happened yet. Another thing that stood out, which I was unaware of, was the opposition space travel had garnered. Clarke had an ongoing debate with C. S. Lewis over the moral implications of space travel – whether it would lead to utopia or endanger the human spirit. Interplanetary also has to fend off criticisms from religious institutions, and from this book I learned how controversial the idea was at the time.

The book does a very good job of guessing the future – sometimes with an uncanny level of prescience. The first lunar impact is predicted to have taken place in 1959, and that is what actually happened. However, there are also some very obvious things that turned out differently. For starters Interplanetary is both private and headquartered in the UK. Clarke falsely assumed that due to the conservative tendencies of the United States, it would take a while for space flight to be pursued in that country. Also, Clarke assumed the cost of the research and development would be millions, not billions. And of, course Apollo 11 and Prometheus were two very different spacecraft. Yet, all these details felt trivial to the overall story this book was trying to tell - the reality of spaceflight. Reading this book was like reading the future, and I loved every moment of the vision it painted.

The Omer today is grandeur in kingship. Both the year and the book paint two very different visions of the future. Both visions describe a grandeur and both establish kingships: One for the Jewish people, and one for the entire human race. The Zionist vision is to establish a state for the Jewish people, a state which the Jewish nation has been dreaming about for the past two thousand years. The constant antisemitism, punctuated by pogroms and culminating in the holocaust, are additional reasons why such an entity is needed. The vision which Prelude to Space paints, shared by many around the world, is a vision of space as the domain of humanity as a whole in which national and racial differences are irrelevant and insignificant. Interplanetary has scientists and engineers from all countries of the world and a wide range of accents who share a common dream. That’s all that matters. Both these visions are going to become a reality in a few years. The Zionist dream with the state of Israel, and the post-national dream of space with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty which explicitly forbids any one government from claiming a celestial body and that all space exploration shall be done to benefit all states (1967 will also be the year Jerusalem is united under Jewish rule). These dreams are very different, but they are also very much the same. “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples”. The state of Israel is a light unto the nations rapidly making the world a better place. It’s only a matter of time until Bereishit 2 lands on the moon and Bereisht X helps us, all of us humans, colonize the rest of space.

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