The builders' merchants and greasy spoons of South Lambeth Road have an unlikely neighbour. The British Interplanetary Society, just five minutes walk from Vauxhall station, must puzzle many a passer-by. What goes on behind that smart Georgian facade? What does an interplanetary society do? And why is it here in Vauxhall?
If you're a Londoner interested in space exploration, then you'll really want to know about this place.
Inside the BIS
The handsome, Grade II-listed exterior belies the temple of futurism that awaits inside. The lobby is a case in point. Most waiting rooms offer well-thumbed copies of Vogue or National Geographic. The BIS has Sky & Telescope magazine, stacked beside a huge model of the never-built HOTOL spaceplane.
The building is filled with visions of a space-faring future. Model rockets and satellites line the shelves. A fireplace carries a motif depicting Halley's Comet. Round every corner, 1930s artwork by RA Smith seems to pre-empt the Space Race of the later 20th century. This is what the BIS is all about — the past, present and future of spaceflight, and bringing people together to talk about it.
What is the British Interplanetary Society?
The BIS was founded in 1933. Its aim was simple: get people into space. This was over a decade before anything punched above the atmosphere (beginning with the V2 rockets of the second world war), and 28 years before Yuri Gagarin became the world's first space traveller.
In championing human spaceflight, the BIS also throws its own ideas into the mix. In its earliest days, the society put forward plans to reach the Moon. This 1930s design for a lunar module hangs proudly in the society's hallway. It shares many similarities with the landers that NASA eventually sent to the Moon three decades later.
The BIS was also among the first organisations to seriously propose a mission to another star. The Daedalus project called for a nuclear-powered probe that could reach another solar system within half a century. The visionary work continues today, rallying behind such projects as the SKYLON spaceplane, a successor to the HOTOL craft that dominates the lobby.
Why is the British Interplanetary Society in Vauxhall?
The society was originally founded in Liverpool, but soon moved down to London. Its first permanent home was in Bessborough Gardens, Pimlico. The move to Vauxhall came in 1979. The location tied in neatly with a hobby of the executive secretary LJ Carter, who was a collector of vases and other ceramics from the Lambeth potteries. His collection is now on display in the society's meeting room — a peculiar combination of ancient and space-age technology.
Vauxhall has other aerospace connections. During the 19th century, the area was synonymous with balloon flights, the most advanced aerial technology of the day. Even back then, Vauxhall was a muse to futurologists. This humorous cartoon from 1856 imagines an airport at 'Vauxhall New Town' a century in the future. It foreshadows the work of the BIS which, also working from Vauxhall, looks to the future of spaceflight.
Why you should join
The BIS is a membership organisation for anyone with a keen interest in space exploration, particularly astronautics. Anyone can join — you need no qualification or expertise, just a passion for the subject. Members receive a monthly copy of Spaceflight magazine, which covers space developments in greater depth than you'll find anywhere else. (Its first editor was Patrick Moore.)
Members can also access one of the world's largest space-themed libraries. Many of the books here were donated by Arthur C Clarke, the visionary science fiction author credited with the idea for geostationary satellites. It's festooned with further spacecraft models.
Above all, members get the opportunity to mingle with like-minded space enthusiasts, and to meet some very inspiring people. The society organises one or two events every month. Over the years, the BIS has hosted many astronauts and space visionaries. The first public announcement of the US space shuttle program was, remarkably, made from the BIS headquarters.
A famous Londoner — Oscar Wilde — once said that we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. Vauxhall is the place where some of us are looking hardest.