Shortly after World War II, a young Arthur C. Clarke penned a work of speculative documentary fiction: his account of mankind's first foray to the moon. Written in 1947, Prelude to Space has that accomplishment taking place in 1978—nearly a decade, we know now, after the real-life moonshot.
If Clarke underestimated the speed with which human beings would make it to the moon, he overestimated the speed with which space exploration would advance in subsequent decades. His book takes it for granted that the first journey to Mars will follow closely on the heels of the first lunar mission. Indeed, reaching the moon is seen as valuable in part because it offers a low-gravity launch pad from which to explore the further reaches of space. Needless to say, reality has failed to match those hopes.
Even further off the mark is Prelude's expectation that we would see the first lunar settlements before the close of the 20th century. Most of the story takes place in the months leading up to the launch of the spacecraft Prometheus. But in an epilogue set at the end of 1999, protagonist Dirk Alexson is seen in his office on the moon, where he relocated after being diagnosed with a deadly health condition. In the much lower lunar gravity, Clarke writes, "a heart which would have failed on Earth could still beat strongly for years."
This medical miracle is taken as a confirmation of the immense value of space exploration. Another main character "had been speaking the truth," Clarke concludes, "when he said, long ago, that the greatest benefits which the crossing of space would bring were those which could never have been guessed beforehand." Back on Earth, we're still waiting to find out about most of them.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Prelude to Space".