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The Pre-war British Interplanetary Society

The person responsible for founding the British Interplanetary Society, (BIS) was Phillip Cleator, who became interested in space travel and made the first tentative steps to gather together like-minded people to form a society which could promote astronautics in the UK. The outcome of his endeavours was the formation of the BIS in Liverpool on Friday 13th October 1933.

Although the Society enjoyed some modest success in Liverpool by November 1936 the BIS was struggling and at the behest of some London members of the Society, the headquarters were transferred to London in the spring of 1937 where an active group of enthusiasts were better placed to take the Society forward. Many people who later became very influential in astronautics joined the BIS at this time including the science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke and Val Cleaver who developed the rocket engines for the Blue Streak missile. Monthly lectures were given by notable personalities and feasibility projects such as the design of a manned lunar rocket were also undertaken.

With the outbreak of war in September 1939 the activities of the Society were suspended for the duration.


The Immediate Post-war Period

Several members of the BIS had kept in touch during the war and in September 1945 a meeting was held to reconvene the Society. The enormous strides made in rocket technology and the realisation by many people that space travel was a real possibility meant that there were many British contributors whose work became an important part of the activity of the Society. During the years 1946-51 the strength and status of the Society grew considerably. Many important designs published by the BIS, included a man carrying rocket based on the V2, a space station, space suits and a ground breaking paper on nuclear propulsion.


The BIS and the IAF

The BIS played a leading role in creating the International Astronautical Federation, (IAF). The IAF was effectively born in London in September 1951 at the second IAF Congress; the first was a preliminary meeting in Paris the previous year. The IAF Congresses have become extremely important in bringing together delegates from many nations to discuss and share ideas.


In May 1952 the BIS moved into its first permanent head quarters at 12 Bessborough Gardens, SW1, London, an event which reflected the Society’s growing size and importance. The Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (JBIS) continued to be a forum for important publications and in October 1956 the Society began publication of the popular magazine ‘Spaceflight’ initially under the editorship of Patrick Moore. This reflected a growth of public interest in space travel and a policy by the BIS of reaching out to people not professionally involved in astronautics. With the launch of Sputnik 1 on 5th October 1957 the outlook for spaceflight began to look very good indeed and a very strong indication of this was the fact that the 1959 IAC Congress organised by the BIS in London was five times larger than the Congress held in 1951.

Also during this period the Society began to organise symposia on various topics and this has become an important part of the Society’s contribution to astronautics over the years.



The BIS Gold, Silver and Bronze medal awards were initiated in 1961 and Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space was one of the first people to be presented with a Gold medal.

The Apollo Moon landings captured the imagination of many people, even by those who did not consider themselves particularly interested in spaceflight but the run down of the Apollo programme and the reduction of the UK’s involvement in space inevitably led to a slackening of interest in the topic. Some organisations similar to the BIS became more concerned with current technical issues but the British Society made a decision to maintain and promote the vision of spaceflight. This had been its hallmark since the Society’s inception and continues as its essential ethos to this day and is indeed still best summed up by its motto, ‘From Imagination to Reality’.


A very important project of the seventy’s decade was “Project Daedalus”, which grew out of ideas by Alan Bond and Bob Parkinson, and was then led by Alan Bond and Tony Martin. This was published in 1977 and was a highly respected study of the construction and mission of an interstellar spacecraft.

In October 1976 a property was purchased which was to become the present BIS headquarters in South Lambeth Road. However considerable refurbishment was required before the Society could move in and it was not until the 1st May 1979 that the building was occupied. The Society also now had a fine library thanks to the generosity of Arthur C. Clarke and this has grown into one of the best astronautical libraries anywhere in the world.


The work of the BIS during the last two decades of the twentieth century has built on the traditions and activities which had grown up during the previous thirty years. The Society was involved in the early evolution of HOTOL, (Horizontal Take-Off and Landing) a study of the design of a single stage to orbit spacecraft and the forerunner of the present Skylon project.

Another very important initiative to emerge during this period was the study of the Soviet Space programme, and the resulting publications in this area have contributed enormously to our understanding of not only the old Soviet space programme but also to a better understanding of current Russian space exploration.

In October 1983 the BIS celebrated its 50th anniversary an event made even more special by the guest of honour Philip Cleator the founder of the Society, still active and enthusiastic at 75 years old.

Many symposia continued to be organised including a very successful space weekend named ‘Space 82 – A Vision of the Future’ at the Brighton Conference Centre and this paved the way for similar biennial meetings to be held and which lasted until 1993.

In October 1987 the Society organised the International Astronautical Congress, also in Brighton. This Congress would see around 1500 attendees with over 600 papers delivered.


The New Century

The new century has brought new challenges to the BIS both internal and external. The Society continues to promote space travel whenever and wherever possible. The BIS was in the vanguard of a campaign for the UK to participate in a programme of human spaceflight, an initiative which has met with some considerable success. It has also hosted another International Astronautical Congress in Glasgow in 2008. The BIS has also carried out another study, called “Project Boreas”. This was an investigation to design a Martian station located at the north pole of the planet capable of supporting, in the first instance six people for a complete Martian year. Twenty-seven active contributors working via the internet produced the report in 2007. Yet another project is now underway, “Project Icarus”. This is the study of a second generation starship drawing on the experience of the earlier “Project Daedalus” but using new technology and procedures.


Throughout its history, the greatest strength of the Society has been its endeavour to meet the aspirations of both the interested enthusiast and the aerospace professional. This almost unique aim has not always been easy to achieve but the BIS can be proud of its record over the years. To continue to pursue its role of promoting its motto ‘From Imagination to Reality’ to a modern audience will not be easy and will require a new approach from its members. However, it is the strength of the commitment of its members to the vision of space travel, (surely one of the most exciting aims of humanity) which has led the way in the past and will surely lead it to its continued success in the future.

BIS Presidents

Period of Office Name
2018 – Gerry Webb
2015 – 2018 Mark Hempsell
2012 – 2015 Alistair Scott
2009 – 2012 Dr Bob Parkinson MBE
2006 – 2009 John Harlow MBE
2003 – 2006 Rex D. Hall MBE
2000 – 2003 John Harlow MBE
1997 – 2000 Mark Hempsell
1994 – 1997 Dr Paul Thomas Thompson
1992 – 1994 Anthony Thomas Lawton
1988 – 1992 Gillies William “Bill” Childs
1985 – 1988 Cyril Rex Turner
1983 – 1985 Anthony Thomas Lawton
1979 – 1982 Gordon Vallins E. Thompson
1977 – 1979 Professor Gerald Van Groves
1973 – 1976 Kenneth William Gatland
1970 – 1973 Professor Gerald Van Groves
1967 – 1970 Dr William Ralph “Max” Maxwell
1965 – 1967 Dr Leslie Robert Shepherd
1963 – 1965 Michael N. Golovine MBE
1960 – 1963 Dr William Ralph “Max” Maxwell
1957 – 1960 Dr Leslie Robert Shepherd
1956 – 1957 Ralph Andrew (R.A.) Smith
1954 – 1956 Dr Leslie Robert Shepherd
1951 – 1953 Sir Arthur C. Clarke
1948 – 1950 Arthur Valentine “Val” Cleaver OBE
1946 – 1947 Sir Arthur C. Clarke
1944 – 1945 Eric Burgess
1937 – 1939 “Prof” Archibald Montgomery Low
1933 – 1936 Philip Ellaby Cleator

BIS Executive Secretaries

Period of Office Name
2016 – Gill Norman
2002 – 2016 Suszann Parry
1991 – 2001 Shirley A. Jones
1945 – 1991 Leonard J. Carter
1937 – 1939 Edward John Carnell & Miss Elizabeth Huggett
1933 – 1937 Leslie Joseph Johnson


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