In 1976, historian Dirk Alexson is sent to England by the University of Chicago to document for posterity the first manned mission to the moon sponsored by a private company called Interplanetary. While in the UK, he interviews and befriends some of the scientists and administrators involved in the project and receives a number of lessons in astrophysics and engineering.
However, Alexson is given very little face time with the crew of the Prometheus until they fly to the deserts of Australia for the actual launch. In fact, of the five possible crew members, only three will be chosen for the mission and that choice is not even made until the entire team reaches Australia.
Prelude to Space reads more like a documentary than a novel. The only character development occurs when our skeptical historian slowly becomes convinced during his assignment that landing a man on the moon is, in fact, feasible and exciting.
There is almost no tension in the story save for one of the astronauts worrying about his pregnant wife. Any risk to the astronauts’ lives is treated lightly. Instead, the narrative merely follows Alexson as he chronicles the events around him.
Much of the book is comprised of info dumps ranging from the backgrounds of some of the characters (as if Clarke just wanted to get that out of the way in order to focus on the technology) to engineering specifications about the Prometheus and space flight in general. Arthur C. Clarke’s scientific prowess is evident in this book, to the point where it eclipses what little story exists. For example, as if an afterthought or an attempt to manufacture tension near the end of the story, a religious zealot fatally fails in an attempt to sabotage the Prometheus a few days before its launch. The character was introduced and killed off within a few pages, all of which seemed pointless.
If you’re looking for an exhilarating fictional tale of man’s first foray to the moon, Prelude to Space will likely be a verbose and tedious disappointment.