Prelude to Space is Arthur C. Clarke's first published science fiction novel. While he was already popular as a short story writer and as a magazine contributor, Prelude to Space was also a prelude to Clarke's becoming one of the world's foremost writers of science fiction novels.
Written in 1947 in 20 days, it was not until 1951 that it first appeared in magazine format from Galaxy Publishing. Sidgwick & Jackson published it in novel form for the British readership in 1953, followed the next year by a US hardcover edition from Gnome Press and a paperback from Ballantine Books.
Prelude to Space recounts the events leading up the launch of Prometheus, the world's first spacecraft capable of reaching the Moon. Prometheus consists of two components, named Alpha and Beta. Alpha is a true spaceship, designed for travel from Earth orbit to the Moon and back. It is not capable of independent atmospheric flight. Beta is a nuclear-powered flying wing which carries Alpha into orbit. Beta uses a nuclear reactor to superheat either air (when flying in the lower, denser, part of the atmosphere) or its own internal supply of methane (in the higher reaches of the atmosphere and in space) to achieve thrust. Beta thus effectively functions as a ramjet in the lower atmosphere and thus must be launched using an electric launch track. The return journey to the Moon thus proceeds as follows: Beta carries Alpha into Orbit. Alpha separates from Beta and refuels from tanks previously carried into orbit by Beta. Alpha flies to and lands on the Moon while Beta remains in Earth orbit. Alpha returns to Earth orbit and the crew returns to Earth aboard Beta: Alpha remains in orbit to await the next flight.
Prelude was written before the Apollo missions landed men on the moon and, follows the ideal that space travel is realistic and within the grasp of the population. Clarke wrote a new preface in 1976 in which he admits that he had some propagandist goals in writing Prelude to Space — he was an influential member of the astronautics community when the idea of rockets leaving earth's atmosphere was scoffed at by many scientists.
Interestingly, the novel actually ends with the launching of Prometheus; the entire plot consists of scientists, engineers and administrators showing Dr. Dirk Alexson how the mission was planned and how the technology will work. Dr. Alexson is the historian assigned to prepare the official history of Moon mission. He represents the point-of-view character for the sophisticated and imaginative, but non-technical, reader.
All the technology imagined in Prelude to Space is feasible, though nuclear engines for air and space travel have never been developed, except as prototypes. In one way, Clarke anticipated the current Space Shuttle: The Beta unit of Prometheus lands "deadstick' -- i.e., without power.
Prelude to Space has also been published under the titles Master of Space and The Space Dreamers.