Final Thoughts from Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

The last interview with the late Sir Arthur in a Sri Lankan hospital in January found the famed author still entranced with terraforming planets, space elevators, and the search for extraterrestrials

Photo: Saswato R. Das

Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Saswato R. Das in the Apollo Hospital in Colombo, Sri Lanka in January

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”He was a good diver, very calm. He could hold his breath for a long time, sometimes for 3 minutes,” said Hector Ekanayake, Sir Arthur C. Clarke's friend and diving partner from the 1950s. Clarke, unfortunately, could no longer breathe easily, much less dive when I met him. He was confined to a wheelchair. His last dive was a number of years ago—Ekanayake thinks it was when Clarke was in his early eighties but isn't quite sure. ”We took him down to 100 feet,” his friend noted. ”He loved it.” See sidebar, ”Sir Arthur C. Clarke's Treasure-Diving Days”

I sat with Ekanayake in a hospital waiting room in Colombo, Sri Lanka, waiting for Clarke to recover his breath. When I arrived in Colombo a couple of days earlier, Clarke's assistant, Nalaka Gunawardene, told me that Clarke, who had turned 90 last December, had taken ill and been hospitalized at Colombo's Apollo Hospital, Sri Lanka's most advanced multispecialty facility, the previous night. He was in severe pain and couldn't sit up, and his doctors were performing various tests on him. He would be there for a while but was still interested in talking with me when he was able over the course of two days.

Clarke's private suite overlooked the city. There was a large waiting room, complete with a sofa and coffee tables, and beyond that, the actual hospital room. There were many people milling about—friends, hospital staff, personal staff, other visitors. I noticed a curious thing. When people went in to meet Clarke, they took off their shoes outside the room. When they came out after meeting him, they put them on again. In Sri Lanka, almost everyone knew who Clarke was. I took the shoe removal to be a mark of veneration—Sri Lanka has a long Buddhist tradition, and you take off your shoes before you enter a Buddhist shrine.

When I entered the hospital room, Clarke was lying flat in bed. He looked pale and in some pain but he seemed to be in fine humor—except every so often he had to pause for breath. We chatted about ”the design faults of the human body” briefly and discussed a few apparent exceptions to the rule—an octogenarian who completed the New York City marathon in about 6 hours a few years ago.

I started our interview sessions with geostationary satellites—those in orbit above Earth's equator that have the remarkable property of matching the period at which Earth rotates. As a result, these satellites look stationary to someone on Earth. They are extremely useful for communications, because transmitting and receiving antennas on Earth don't have to track them. In a 1945 article, ”Extra-terrestrial Relays,” published in Wireless World , Clarke proposed that geostationary satellites would be ideal telecommunications relays. I asked Clarke whether he'd ever suspected that these satellites would one day prove to be so valuable to telecommunications.

He laughed. ”I'm often asked why I didn't try to patent the idea of communications satellites. My answer is always, ’A patent is really a license to be sued.' ”

Clarke couldn't pinpoint the exact reference that got him thinking about geostationary satellites. ”One of the moons of Mars, Phobos, is always in a stationary orbit,” he mused. ”That probably got me thinking.”

He had discussed his ideas with his friends in the nascent British Interplanetary Society but didn't get many comments, he reminisced. ”I never received any additional input, so it was all my own work in the end,” he said.

While Clarke came up with the idea of the communications satellite, it was John Pierce of Bell Telephone Laboratories who was instrumental in developing the first communications satellites, Echo I and Telstar, which launched in the early 1960s. Clarke had interacted with Pierce during their development in the 1950s.

”We were good friends; we wrote a number of papers together,” he said about his relationship with Pierce.

Clarke won the 1982 Marconi Prize and Lifetime Achievement Award for his idea of geostationary satellites as telecommunications relays. It's an irony that in his final days—while he was confined to Sri Lanka because of poor health—his connection to the wider world (via the phone and television) often relied on these very satellites.

”It's definitely my most important contribution,” he said of his seminal paper. In the next breath, he added, ”And maybe in a generation or so the space elevator will be considered equally important.”

The space elevator is another technology that Clarke championed. The concept of a space elevator basically involves a huge cable connecting the Earth to orbital altitude, along which payloads can be launched using electromagnetic vehicles. The cable's center of mass would remain in a geostationary orbit while the cable is tethered to an object beyond that orbit. Current plans call for a cable about 50,000 to 100,000 kilometers long. Clarke first wrote about a space elevator in his 1979 book, The Fountains of Paradise .

Clark smiled. ”I'm often asked when I think the space elevator will be built,” he said. ”My answer is about 10 years after everyone stops laughing. Maybe 20 years. But I am pretty sure that the space elevator is an important element in future space travel.” He elaborated, saying that the space elevator allows one to get to orbit ”purely by electrical energy, and you recover it on the way down.” He called it a ”very efficient, economical system and the key to the planets.”

Since it's so close to the equator, Sri Lanka actually sits in a favorable spot to anchor the space elevator, and Clarke had suggested that if it is built, Sri Lanka should be used as a base. ”The chief expense of space travel when you build the space elevator is entertainment and in-flight movies,” he joked.

We talked about how private entrepreneurs are getting interested in space exploration. He believed that they could not substitute for governmental support. ”It can never be fully private, because it is so expensive. Aircraft initially were funded by governments, and the same for the space elevator. I don't know if the Wright brothers realized how quickly aircraft would pay for themselves.”

* * *

Clarke was born in western England in 1917 and became interested in space as a youngster. He was a fan of American science-fiction magazines, reading as many as he could get his hands on. They would cross the Atlantic as ballast on ships, and he would buy them at the local Woolworth's. ”These magazines cost the astronomical sum of thruppence, or three pennies,” he said. ”I couldn't always afford that. They had a tremendous influence on me, of course.”

He was so moved by the stories that he contacted some of the authors, including Willy Ley, a German-American who, in addition to being a pioneer in rocket science, wrote science fiction. Clarke probably still had most of the correspondence, he said.

Although he loved reading about rockets and space, he had a bad experience the first time he encountered one, as he once described: ”My first encounter with rockets was not an auspicious one….It must have been November 5, Fireworks Day….Perhaps I was 10 years old; it could not have been any more. I was standing in the village square at Bishops Lydeard, just outside the little post office in which I was to spend so many hours as mail sorter and night telephone operator, when some idiot launched a rocket horizontally, so that it shot along the ground. It hit the toe of my shoe, was deflected up inside my shorts, and wandered around for awhile before burning its way through the back of my shirt. Mirabile dictu, I was not badly hurt.”

After high school, unable to afford a university education, he decided to join the British Civil Service in 1936, at the age of 19. His main motivation: he wanted a job that allowed him plenty of leisure time to devote to writing and other pursuits that might interest him. He ended up doing very well in the examination, ranking 26th among approximately 1500 applicants. Because he aced his arithmetic exam, he was advised to take a job in the exchequer and audit department. He was given the task of auditing teachers' pensions, which took him no more than an hour or so per day.

Clarke published his first story, ”Travel by Wire!” in 1937, the following year. He continued working in the British Civil Service, until the Second World War intervened. Clarke then became a radar specialist in the Royal Air Force. It was during this time that the idea of geostationary satellites and their use in communications first came to him.

Clarke was always very optimistic about space travel. Right after the war, he became heavily involved with the British Interplanetary Society, which was instrumental in popularizing ideas of rocket travel among the public. He was even the society's president for a while. He remembered those days.

”I don't know if the society ever enrolled a hundred members. In fact, I am not sure if it still exists.” He laughed. Clarke had previously said that ”we space cadets of the British Interplanetary Society spent all our spare time discussing space travel. We didn't imagine it lay in our own near future.”

We talked about those heady days in the 1940s and 1950s, when space exploration was firing up Clarke's imagination. And of course we talked about Sputnik I, which changed things forever when it launched in 1957. Clarke was at a conference in Barcelona when the news of Sputnik came through. Reporters started calling him for comment. I asked him if he remembered the day.

”It was a tremendous sensation,” he remembered. ”Some crazy people thought it was a propaganda story, a hoax.”

He still ardently hoped that humans would continue to explore the solar system. We talked about Mars and sending humans there, something he had written about for many years. ”I should say that we could send a manned flight to Mars in 10 years if there was the incentive, but certainly in 20 years,” he said.

I asked him about terraforming Mars, changing the Red Planet so that it would be more like Earth. He wrote a book about the process in the 1990s, trying to use software on his computer to model how Mars would change with terraforming. I asked him if his ideas had changed since then.

”Start terraforming Mars by remote-control systems,” he said. ”It'll be a joint process, humans and machines.” Then he added mischievously, ”I hope the machines don't get annoyed with us!”

Clarke turned 90 on 16 December 2007. The government of Sri Lanka organized a birthday celebration for him. A few days before his birthday, when asked how he felt, he replied with characteristic humor, ”Well, I actually don't feel a day older than 89. Of course, some things remind me that I am indeed qualified as a senior citizen. As Bob Hope once said, you know you are getting old when the candles cost more than the cake.”

”In my time, I have been very fortunate to see many of my dreams come true,” he noted. ”Growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, I never expected to see so much happen in the span of a few decades.”

Clarke sat next to Walter Cronkite on the historic day when Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon. I asked Clarke about his memories of that day.

”I have no specific memories,” he said. ”I have the audiotapes and videotapes. My polio episode has wiped out so many of those memories.”

Since the 1980s, Clarke had been afflicted with what is known as postpolio syndrome (PPS), which is characterized by muscle fatigue, joint pain, and some memory lapses. It is a consequence of the polio episode he had in 1959 (from a vaccination). He had to use a wheelchair for years. Yet at the time I met him, he was still keeping a pretty full schedule and answering e-mail quickly, with the help of his secretary. While I was waiting for Clarke to catch his breath, I asked his assistant, Gunawardene, to describe how Clarke worked with e-mail.

”Sir Arthur's day has shrunk in terms of waking hours because of his postpolio condition and because he is not as strong as he used to be,” Gunawardene said. ”He would wake up around 8:00, have a leisurely breakfast, and then come to his desk between 9:30 and 10:00 in the morning. Then he would look at the overnight e-mail and decide which he would answer immediately and which could wait a couple of days.”

I asked Clarke if he remembered his interaction with Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which brought him immense fame.

”There weren't any real fights,” he quipped. Clarke spent a few weeks holed up in an apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side finishing the screenplay, based on his 1948 short story ”The Sentinel.”

We came back to the present. He said that in many ways, being confined to a wheelchair had left his mind free to roam the cosmos. He was spending a lot of time thinking.

”My main interest is astronomy and the discovery of extraterrestrial life,” he said. ”I'm sure the ETs are all over the place. I am surprised and disappointed they haven't come here already—assuming they haven't. Maybe they are waiting for the right moment to come. And I hope they are not hungry!”

About the Author

Saswato R. Das is a New York City–based writer.

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