From our files: Arthur C. Clarke on space exploration
The science fiction writer died today in Sri Lanka.
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"I saw the subject of space flight go through a complete cycle," Mr. Clarke observed during his visit to Boston. "One it's utter nonsense, don't waste my time. Two, it's possible but isn't worth doing. Three, I said it was a good idea all along. Now in some ways we're back to square one again." But he added: "To be fair, we have made some progress. We may have only gone back to square two."Skip to next paragraph
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The problem, he says, is that the public has not been made aware of the day-to-day benefits of space flight: the weather, communication, spinoffs from the space program; guidance systems, computer chips, misinformation.
In 1945, as a young Royal Air Force technician, Mr. Clarke suggested that orbiting spacecraft could relay radio and television signals from place to place on earth. Now more than 40 communication satellites circle the globe, relaying two-thirds of all international electronic communications.
"I assumed they would be large, manned space stations," admits Mr. Clarke. "At that time at least one vacuum tube a day blew in our equipment. I didn't imagine the invention of the transistor."
For originating the idea, he won the gold medal of the Franklin Institute in 1963. He also earned $40 when he first submitted the idea in an article to 'Wireless World." Years later he recalled the event. The essay was named, "A Short Pre-History of Comsats; or How I Lost a Billion Dollars in My Spare Time."
INDIA'S SATELLITE EXPERIMENT
One of Mr. Clarke's favorite topics is India's experiment with a satellite. Borrowing NASA's ATS-6 satellite for one year in 1975, the Indian Government beamed educational programs more than 22,000 miles into space and back again to remote villages. The government built and distributed 2,500 simple antennas. Mr. Clarke showed a slide of a simple on during his Boston visit – half a pyramid of dried mud cradling a chicken wire dish. "Cost less than $100."
The government also gave Mr. Clarke a receiving station so he could follow the program from his home in Sri Lanka. "The pictures were essentially perfect," he declared enthusiastically.
Mr. Clarke's enthusiasm for the program reflects the direction he thinks short-term space efforts should take. "Try to concentrate on things which are now immediate applicability," he told the U.S. Congress in 1975. More recently he said, "Only by using the tools of space can we monitor the earth's resources. One of the most valuable spinoffs of the whole Apollo[manned spaceflight] program is that it enabled us to see earth as it is from space, to understand its uniqueness and fragility."