Paul McAuley

A Very British History



A short story first published in Interzone.

It's about time someone produced a proper history of the space race.

After all, here we are in this year 2001, with two permanent colonies on the Moon, and outposts on Mars, Mercury, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Not to mention close to a hundred low Earth orbit factories, hotels, laboratories and solar power farms, and the even dozen habitats orbiting the L5 point between Earth and the Moon. Why, at the Aldermaston Jet Propulsion Laboratories they're building the first robotic interstellar probes, and blueprints for multi-generation arks capable of transporting colonists to new Earths around other suns are already on the drawing boards. We've had plenty of readable, thoughtful but rapidly dated pieces of space boosterism by enthusiasts like Clarke and Asimov and Sagan. We've had far too many dry-as-dust official histories written by committees, and a plethora of self-serving, ghostwritten autobiographies by minor rocket scientists and second-string astronauts. We've had more than enough heavyweight commentaries by the likes of C.P. Snow, Norman Mailer, and Gore Vidal which, although ostensibly about the first men on the Moon or the second American revolution or the race for the outer system, are really about the authors' egos and hangups. And we've certainly had enough quickie pieces of crap knocked up from press releases by sci-fi hacks and penny ante journos, and more than enough half-baked manifestos cranked out by greedy shills masquerading as space-age messiahs (I can dig George Adamski's for-real craziness, and chortled my way through Baudrillard's The Space Race Did Not Happen, but L. Ron Hubbard?).

Yes, it's about time that we had a proper history of space colonisation by a real historian: rigorous, heavily researched, determinedly fair-minded, leavened with some cerebral wackiness, and big enough to do some serious damage if you dropped it on your foot, even here on the Moon. A capstone to the first instalment of space exploration. Of course, it could only have been written by a Brit.

So here it is, Professor Sir William Coxton's A Brief History of the Colonisation of Space (University of Oxford Press, 858 pp (with another cccxxvi pages of appendices, references and an exhaustive index), £75.00). And I'm very pleased to tell you that, despite the dry semi-detached style, for someone like me, who lived through part of this, it's the Real Deal. It makes you kind of proud to be in it, even if not much more than a footnote (page 634 if you're interested). But I should warn you that despite appearing to bend over backward to be fair-minded, Sir Bill is never shy of elevating the contributions of his own country above those of the States and the former Soviet Union whenever the opportunity arises, as might be expected from someone who has, after all, benefited from the touch of the Queen's sword on his shoulder. Sir Bill isn't an actual aristo, having been born into a coal-mining family in a Yorkshire village which is, as far as I can make out, more like one of the hard-scrabble towns in Kentucky than the landscaped acres of some ancestral pile. But like a lot of heavyweight Brit academics, he's far more pro-establishment than most of the actual establishment, and despite the many hours he spent in the archives, and the many more hours he spent interviewing the surviving principals of the keynote dramas (he even wasted a couple of hours talking to yours truly), he's prone to a certain partiality. As shown by the fact that he doesn't begin his story in the usual places -- Tsiolkovski's schoolroom, Goddard's machined fireworks -- but with the race for Peenemünde at the end of WW2. Sir Bill is famous for his theories on hinge points in history, and has edited a fat book of counterfactual essays in which historians imagined what might have happened if, for instance, that ur-student radical Gavrilo Princip's revolver shots had missed Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in 1914. And here he spends a lot of time arguing that, as far as the space race is concerned, the capture of the Nazi rocket scientists is the crucial hinge point in the history of space exploration. In fact, he's so consumed by this notion that he wastes a whole chapter speculating about what would have happened if the Brits didn't get there first. But I'm not going to depress us all by arguing the details of Sir Bill's imaginary account of the failures of nerve, the overriding requirements of the military-industrial complexes of the USA and the former Soviet Union, and the political, budgetary and managerial blunders that might have aborted NASA's exploration of the Moon and prematurely curtailed the slower but in many ways more ambitious Russian space program. After all, none of that actually happened, and even if the US army had managed to get to Peenemünde before the Brits, it still might not have happened. In the end, I'm pretty sure that Sir Bill's counterfactual is just one more of his ploys to convince us all that only the Brits were fit to be the first true space pioneers.

So we can skip all that theoretical gloom with a clear conscience, and get our teeth into the meat of the book. The story of the British army's capture of Peenemünde has been told many times before, but Sir Bill spices his account with an extensive reimagining from the point of view of a certain Sergeant Stapledon, who claims to have led the mission and who remained to his death (Sir Bill interviewed him ten years ago) sorely pissed off that he was written out of history by his superiors. It's exciting, full of hectic detail, and permeated with the intricacies of the British class system (Sergeant Stapledon was, like Sir Bill, a committed socialist, and ignored the order of the day because he despised his officers as effete fops).

It was because of Stapledon's initiative, Sir Bill claims, that the space age began in the ruins of Europe at the end of the Second World War, when the Brits won the race to capture the secrets of the V-2 bunkers. Winston Churchill cannily arranged a swap of a few of the debriefed German personnel and a number of V-2s for American atomic technology, while spiriting much equipment, several half-completed V-3s, and a large contingent of technicians led by the formidable Wernher Von Braun, to the new rocket ranges at Woomera in the Australian outback. One of Churchill's last acts before the postwar election was to secure the future of the Woomera facility by encouraging engineering luminaries such as Barnes-Wallis, Christopher Cockerel and Frank Whittle to work with the Germans and, in Churchill's words, "extend the British ideal of freedom and fair play towards the stars". What he was about, of course, was building a new British Empire.

The next half dozen chapters dig deep into the crazy stiff-upper-lipped heroics of early Brit space pioneers, who defied death atop barely tested rockets for the glory of King and country. Sir Bill is no sentimentalist, but it's easy to detect a sneaking admiration for those rocket boys in his account, which in taut, laconic prose captures the reckless mood of volunteers who, like Battle-of-Britain Spitfire pilots, made almost inevitable death seem like no more than an awfully big adventure: boys who could never grow up. The most famous of them all, Maurice Gray, now retired and tending his beehives and rose garden in Devon, still sounds like a fey mix of Peter Pan and Christopher Robin, a boy laughing lightly at inconceivable death, the British version of a zen master.

These were necessary heroics. While the Russians were racing to launch the first satellite, using big chemical multistage rockets designed by their own native genius, the legendary Chief Engineer, Sergei Koryolev, and the Americans were developing a military space program centred on the X-series rocketships, the British were concentrating on true manned space flight. The first man to ascend beyond the tropopause, to a height of more than twenty miles, was sixteen-year-old Maurice Gray, in a helium balloon in 1955; he also broke the current airspeed record by breaking the sound barrier when he plummeted nineteen miles back to Earth in free fall before opening his parachute. This was quickly followed by several suborbital lobs of RAF volunteers atop modified V-3s in 1956 and 1957, but after several fatal crashes of the two stage A.20, British scientists became dissatisfied with mere chemical rockets and decided to develop a more powerful atomic technology, despite a couple of hair-raising (and hitherto suppressed) accidents which could have rendered most of Australia uninhabitable for a thousand years.

Meanwhile, the Russians were the first to orbit a satellite in 1957, swiftly following that with a capsule containing a dog, and then a capsule containing a man, and with the X-20 the American Air Force developed a reusable chemically powered space plane which achieved orbit in 1960. But even as the two superpowers vied for military and political supremacy in Earth orbit, Britain's space program looked further, developing a reusable space ship using the highly advanced White Streak atomic motor, whose power both the Russians and the Americans grievously underestimated. In July 1962, two Brit scientists, Savage and Kingston, landed on the Moon, where they spent an entire Lunar day, two weeks, exploring and collecting rocks before returning to a hero's welcome.

The American government's space program remained strictly military. But the brilliant and ruthless entrepreneur Delos Harriman, spurred on by the British example, started a commercially funded space program in the States, and in 1970 finally reached the Moon using conventional multistage chemical boosters. Sir Bill's account of Harriman's achievement is curiously muted; it's clear he doesn't think much of the Yankee mix of rabid capitalism and pioneer individualism. And of course the British, using their atomic technology, had already reached Mars in 1968 -- here, drawing upon extensive interviews with the protagonists, Sir Bill deftly improves upon Patrick Moore's classic account, in Mission to Mars, of how the first expedition was stranded because the motor of their craft was damaged on landing, and of how they survived for a year before a second expedition rescued them.

With the Moon and Mars secured by the British government and American free enterprise, the Russians turned their attention to the inner solar system. Only recently, after the fall of the communist state, has the tragic fate of the first manned expedition to Venus been revealed. No one who has heard the recordings will forget the screams of the two unlucky cosmonauts as their descent capsule was cooked and crushed in Venus's infernal atmosphere. There's no derring do here: only horror. What had been intended as a coup de theatre to trump the British expedition to Mars became a tragedy which was hastily covered over, and Sir Bill has cannily exploited the recent openness of the new Russian government too secure at first hand accounts of the Venus disaster. The first Russian landing on Mercury, four years later, in 1972, was of course more successful, establishing solar powered robot mining facilities and a rail gun which within a year began to launch back to Earth packages of refined precious metals, immensely enriching the Russian economy, and starting in earnest the race to commercially exploit the Solar System.

By this time the British had established a permanent colony on the Moon, and a dozen expeditions were exploring her surface in powerful tractors. Early space suits, which had borrowed their design from deep sea diving outfits, heavily armoured and with pincers instead of gloves, had given way to more comfortable suits based on the indestructible cloth invented by Sidney Stratton, with integral life support backpacks instead of heavy metal air cylinders. There was also a semipermanent scientific station on Mars. After the disappointment that the fabulous canals of Lowell had been no more than optical illusions and wishful thinking, the British Geological Society was busily exploring vast canyons, craters and volcanoes, and drilling deep for signs of life in the Martian crust. In 1977, to celebrate the Queen's Jubilee, a British climbing expedition planted the Union Jack on top of Mount Elizabeth, the largest volcano in the solar system.

All of this was no longer under the control of the military, but was funded by a mixture of public subscription, commercial money (especially from the BBC's Relay Chain satellite network), and money earned by transporting material for American and Russian projects -- just as in the old British Empire, the new colonies were largely self-funding. Meanwhile, British atomic-powered space ships were carrying out the first surveys of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Life was discovered in Europa's salty sub-ice ocean in 1982; the first expedition landed, if that's the right word for a descent to a surface covered in liquid ethane, on Titan in 1988.

While British expeditions are bringing back treasures to the Science Museum, and the British government has built an extensive spaceport in Ceylon to service almost daily flights to Earth orbit and the Moon, the official US space program is still recovering from the political and economic fallout of the Second American Revolution. The Lunar colony founded by Harriman's company had been taken over by the feds in 1977, and used as a dumping ground for dissidents after Nixon was elected to his third term as president. In 1979, a revolt by the imprisoned dissidents led to the foundation of the Lunar Republic and the fall of the Nixon government after a brief bombardment of the American mainland by rocks launched by the Lunar rail gun. Sir Bill's account of the revolt, the former Lunar prison's declaration of independence and the brief war quite rightly highlights the way mainstream history (heavily influenced by Heinlein's colourful but disapproving popular account in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, whose claims that libertarian heroes were suppressed by evil socialist radicals and drug-crazed hippies would be pitiful if they weren't, thanks to the movie version, still so widely held) has unfairly dismissed the discrete but vital help given by the British Lunar colonists to the former prisoners. For as this writer can affirm from personal experience, the phlegmatic Brit scientists were surprisingly sympathetic to us hepcat hippie rebels.

After the revolution, some of the rebels, including William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, chose to return to Earth, but this wasn't, as Sir Bill claims, a split in our ranks, merely a natural shake-down amongst a bunch of highly creative and mostly anarchic individuals. Many others, including Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, Neil Cassady, Tom Hayden and Noam Chomsky, stayed on to found a new republic that attempted to marry the artistic impulses of many of its members with the technology required for survival. Very soon, we in the New Lunar Utope became expert at building habitats from scratch, and furnishing them with self-sufficient closed ecosystems; something we developed by ourselves by the way, despite Sir Bill's crude hints that we were dependent on British expertise. It just wasn't so, Bill: we had to learn to develop efficient closed-loop systems quickly or perish, and as this veteran of Ken Kesey's magic bus tour of the Martian highlands can affirm from personal experience, it was all down to good old Yankee ingenuity.

After the fall of Nixon and the election of Ronald Reagan, detente with the Russians swiftly followed, and the end of the cold war has led to a welcome diversion of funding from the US military space program to the construction of habitats and factories and solar power farms in Earth orbit and at the L5 point between Earth and the Moon. It's a healthy sign, surely, that the habitats are not the transplanted whitebread suburbias of NASA's drawing boards, but are designed by the New Lunar Utope as diverse multicultural centres for any artistic and scientific community which can afford the one-way ticket out of Earth's gravity well.

Meanwhile, the Russians have consolidated their exploitation of the vast resources of Mercury and have begun to mine many near-Earth asteroids. After the fall of communism, Mercury declared itself an independent republic, and dozens of mining communities scattered through the asteroid belt have declared their autonomy too. Sir Bill's explication of the political links between the former Soviet mining stations and the Free Lunar Utope is enjoyably disapproving. He's forced to admit that the British hegemony is now strongly compromised by plans to extend the alliance to the outer reaches of the Solar System by sling-shotting seed colonies past Venus towards the newly discovered planetoids of the Kuiper Belt, and his speculation that the Free Lunar Utope and the Autonomous Space Republics have transformed the comet fragment Neo-8 into a multi-generation starship aimed at Tau Ceti reeks of panicky paranoia.

It's understandable that the Brits are nervous. It turns out that the bustling Solar System hasn't become the new British Empire after all, and it's natural that they don't want their tremendous investment in the first robot interstellar probes -- due to be launched within the next two years toward the eight extra-solar systems with Earth-like planets discovered by the Newton space telescope on the far side of the Moon -- to be upstaged. But hey, whatever happens, and here I'm in complete agreement with Sir Bill: we can only look back fondly and admiringly on the writings of the first prophets of the space age, and marvel at how timid their once outrageously optimistic predictions now seem. Let a thousand flowers bloom!


If you liked this story, you might like my novels The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun.

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