Arthur C. Clarke: Sci-Fi Stud

Posted by | Filed under Science Fiction, The Cosmos | Sep 22, 2015 | Tags: , | No Comments

At the close of the war, the scientists who had built and launched Nazi Germany’s V-2 ballistic missiles immigrated to the Soviet Union and the United States. Amid the gypsum desert of White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, they worked with their American counterparts to rebuild and relaunch these rockets. The British knew firsthand the destructive power of rockets in war as the V-2s bombarded London; rocket power, as demonstrated by the German V-2s, was becoming a major new force. In 1952 Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, who worked at that time at White Sands, got Clarke access to the site and talked with him about rocketry’s potential.


Clarke saw the promise of space travel, but he also understood that governments would be loath to embrace it unless a practical use could be found. In October 1945 Wireless World published his article “Extraterrestrial Relays,” which laid down the principle of geostationary satellites. Three communications satellites, positioned 120[degrees] apart in a geostationary orbit, or “Clarke orbit,” as some now call it, would cover the globe except the polar regions. Clarke’s idea was ignored at first, as the U.S. and the Soviet Union struggled for technological superiority in the postwar years. Then on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, into orbit around the Earth. American thinking changed overnight. The U.S. was catapulted into the space race, and Clarke’s idea for geostationary satellites was finally taken seriously. “Communications and astronautics were inextricably entangled in my mind,” he explains, “with results that now seem inevitable.” Clarke’s vision became a reality in 1969, when the global network of Intelsat III geostationary satellites became operational shortly before Apollo 11’s historic lunar landing.

“If I had not proposed the idea of geostationary satellite relays,” Clarke wrote me, “half a dozen other people would have quickly done so. I suspect that my disclosure may have advanced the cause of space communications by approximately 15 minutes.” Hardly. Clarke, as a science-fiction writer, could see its potential and suggested it first. More important, he wouldn’t let the idea drop. In 1947 he wrote Prelude to Space, in which he pushed his idea for communications satellites even further. It was a novel set 30 years in the future–he envisioned a world where these satellites played an important role. It turned out to be prophetic indeed. “I have reason to believe,” Clarke e-mailed me, “that the proposal had some influence on the men who turned this dream into reality. In the 22 years between the writing of Prelude and an actual landing on the Moon, our world changed almost beyond recognition. Back in 1947 I didn’t believe a lunar landing would be achieved even by that distant date. I would never have dared to imagine that by 1972 a dozen men would have walked on the Moon, and 27 would have orbited it.”

Clarke took the idea a big leap forward in his 1997 novel, 3001: The Final Odyssey, the fourth in his Odyssey series. Where now many satellites serve us in Clarke orbits, a thousand years in the future Clarke sees most of humanity living in a giant geostationary ring, hanging 35,900 km above the Earth and linked with three gigantic towerlike space elevators.

Reality Versus Fiction

“I believe that if you’re an optimist,” says Clarke, “you have a chance of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.” In April 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey exploded into theaters around the world. Eight months later three real-life astronauts circled the Moon for the first time, sending greetings “to all of you, all of you on the good Earth.” The real 2001 seems different from the one Clarke offered us back then. But the differences between what Clarke and the late director Stanley Kubrick foresaw and what we have now are basically in the details. Although they are not yet common, video phones like the ones shown in the movie are certainly available: Clarke used one himself to talk to me during a PBS television program about Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 nearly seven years ago.

We don’t have a base on the Moon yet, and a human mission to Mars is still years away, but a space station is rapidly coming together high above the Earth. Artificial intelligence, cryogenics, and plasma-rocket propulsion are still in their infancy, but we’re slowly making progress in these fields. Clarke has no regrets for his futuristic picture of our world three decades ago. In its essence, he had it right.

A Spice Odyssey

Thankfully, we still have the benefit of Clarke’s insight. At 84 Clarke lives in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), a tropical island nation he moved to in 1956 for its excellent diving, and because he had suffered through “too many English winters.” But now, with post-polio syndrome, Clarke is pretty much confined to a wheelchair, although he can stand up with assistance. He contemplates the future from a large, book-lined room in a place called Cinnamon Gardens. “A spice odyssey,” he teases. “One of my windows looks out on my extensive garden; the other on the blank wall of a ladies’ college!”

Daylight has all but faded from my sky tonight. Halfway around the world, Clarke’s large garden must now be shrouded in predawn darkness, just as my desert yard will soon be dark. I wonder if he had the chance to use the little Questar telescope he’s had since 1956, or his more recent 14-inch Celestron. As I head outside to my backyard observatory, a brilliant moving light grabs my attention. It’s the International Space Station which, during the past year, has grown from a faint speck of light to a beacon that can be as bright as Jupiter. Although Clarke has in hand the predicted passage times of the space station over Sri Lanka, clouds often prevent him from sighting it. For me, that distant space station, made real by 2001, is the inspiration of Arthur C. Clarke who, in this real way, has brought space to Earth and made it useful to all humanity.


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