From our files: Arthur C. Clarke on space exploration

The science fiction writer died today in Sri Lanka.

In 1977, the MONITOR covered this talk and rare U.S. visit by science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, who died today. In his remarks he addresses topics from the applications of space exploration to his desire to ride the space shuttle.

'2001' Author and Tropic Isle

By Douglas Starr
Special to The Christian Science Monitor

From the December 14, 1977 edition of the Monitor

BOSTON - The white-faced man with the shining blue eyes steps to the podium. He stoops a bit, yet walks with a springy youthful step. His ready smile is mischievous, flashing

"Forty years ago I was one of a bunch of crazy Englishmen who used to meet several times a month in London pubs and talk about ways of going to the moon," he begins. And for the next hour he takes us on a journey to the shores of outer space…

Arthur C. Clarke paid a rare visit to the United States recently to receive the Washburn Award, given by the Boston Museum of Science for an outstanding contribution to the public's understanding of science. Mr. Clarke adds it to a collection: the Ballantine medal of the Franklin Institute: the UNESCO-Kalinga Prize; the International Fantasy Award; the AAAS-Westinghouse Science Writing Award; the Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell awards, and many others.  

Science and science fiction writer, he's produced more than 500 articles, stories and books. He collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on the film '2001: A Space Odyssey." His most recent book, "The View From Serendip,' came out a few weeks ago. His next, "The Fountains of Paradise," is due to reach his publisher in December on his 60th birthday.


Born in the seaside town of Minehead, Somerset, England, Mr. Clarke's interest in science was aroused when his father gave him a postcard of a dinosaur. For two years he was absorbed by fossils, then, at the age of 12, he switched to astronomy. 'I spent my nights mapping the moon until I knew my way around it better than my native Somerset," Mr. Clarke once said.

In London, Mr. Clarke worked as a government auditor, writing science articles and science fiction in his spare time. He joined the British Interplanetary Society, that 'bunch of crazy Englishmen." The Society's membership included one George Bernard Shaw – attracted by a paper Mr. Clarke had written.

"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."


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."


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."


Arthur C. Clarke first visited Sri Lanka in 1954. He was immediately captivated by the island, making it his home two years later. Long a scuba-diving enthusiast, he delights in exploring its clear, warm, water.

The serenity of Mr. Clarke's life in Sri Lanka was changed when his partner Mike Wilson discovered two bronze cannons and a clutch of silver coins off the island in 1961. The two spent the next few years salvaging the wreck. The project became the basis for Mr. Clarke's book, "The Treasure of the Great Reef."

Commenting on the relationship between ocean and space technology, Mr. Clarke says, "anything that happens in one helps the other. Much of the work in oil drilling depends completely on satellites for positioning. It's the only way to place yourself anywhere in the ocean, anytime, day or night."

He is convinced that the future of many things lies in the oceans. "I have a hunch that future mining lies in the sea; not necessarily [in the] deep sea, but in place like the Red Sea. There are cracks in the earth's crust with hot bring coming out loaded with metals. One of the greatest resource potentials of the sea is thermal power – the temperature differentials in the upper hot waters of tropical oceans and very cold waters about a mile down."


He speaks of other things, some personal.

Does he think he'll ever ride the space shuttle? "I have a sporting chance. The space shuttle will be taking passengers to justify the payload within five years."

When will we begin space colonies? "Perhaps in the next 20 to 30 years we'll be staring to plan small colonies. First we've got to build societies that work here on earth."

Is it true that this will be his last trip outside Sri Lanka? "It's my last planned trip. I'm going back to England for my mother." Mr. Clarke is taking her to live with him in Sri Lanka.

"'Sri Lanka'" means 'the beautiful land, the noble land,'" he says somewhat wistfully in clipped English monotone. "I'm just finishing my big novel, the last one. It's about Sri Lanka and takes place 200 years into the future and 2000 years in the past. And in space, of course."

As he nears the end of his talk, he speaks of "other suns, some strange beyond imagination – giant red stars with tiny white companions so mismatched in size that it's as though a mosquito and an elephant were waltzing together."

He projects a slide. Taken from the moon, it shows the equipment left behind by the Apollo astronauts. 'This is a rather sad picture," he says. "The party's over, the guests have gone. Even those instruments irradiating back information from the moon have been shut off because NASA can't afford the staff to keep the records." He pauses. The words sink in. "But I'm sure we are going back," he adds. "What has already happened was merely a brief interlude in the real exploration and exploitation of space."

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