Interview with Arthur C. Clarke
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
KUMAGAI: This is Spectrum Radio. I’m Jean Kumagai.
TAPE: music from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
KUMAGAI: Most of us know Arthur C. Clarke as a science-fiction writer, most notably of 2001: A Space Odyssey . His impressive body of work puts him in the ranks of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Isaac Asimov. Clarke has spent a lifetime imagining and writing about technology. In the 1940s, as a young officer in Britain’s Royal Air Force, he envisioned using geostationary satellites as communications tools—well before there were any satellites. Now, of course, they’re commonplace and have revolutionized the way we communicate and send information, as Clarke said in a recent video.
Clarke: Growing up in the 1920s and ’30s, I never expected to see so much happen in the span of a few decades.
KUMAGAI: Clarke has witnessed the dramatic outbursts of technology—from the first rocket flight to the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, to the landing on the moon.
TAPE: brief Sputnik-related audio
KUMAGAI: A former chairman of the British Interplanetary Society and an early promoter of space exploration, Clarke was knighted in 2000 for his literary and scientific contributions. He has lived in Colombo, the capital of the island nation of Sri Lanka, since 1956. Now 90 years old and in failing health, Clarke agreed to a series of interviews with Spectrum’s Saswato Das.
Saswato Das: We started with geostationary satellites—satellites in orbits above the Earth’s equator that have a remarkable property: their rotations match the Earth’s. And so the satellites look stationary from Earth and are extremely useful for communications, since transmitting and receiving antennas on Earth don’t have to track them. In 1945, Clarke proposed that geostationary satellites would be ideal telecommunications relays. Today there are about 300 geostationary satellites in orbit—sometimes called ”Clarke orbits.” I asked Clarke whether he’d suspected, back in the 1940s, that geostationary satellites would prove to be so valuable to telecommunications.
Clarke: I’m often asked why I didn’t try to patent the idea of a communications satellite. My answer is always, ”A patent is really a license to be sued.”
Das: Do you remember what got you thinking about geostationary orbits?
Clarke: I can’t pinpoint the exact reference….I’m not sure who first mentioned the idea. One of the moons of Mars is always in a stationary orbit…that’s probably a reference.
Das: Did you discuss your paper with someone else before publication?
Clarke: Probably discussed it with my friends in the Interplanetary Society. I never received any additional input, so it was all my own work.
Das: While Clarke came up with the idea of the communications satellite, it was John Pierce of Bell Labs who was instrumental in developing the first communications satellites, Echo I and Telstar, in the 1950s. Clarke had interacted with Pierce during that period. I asked him about his collaboration with John Pierce when the first communications satellite was built.
Clarke: We were good friends; we wrote a number of papers of together.
Das: Do you consider the paper on geostationary orbits your most important contribution?
Clarke: It’s definitely my most important contribution. And maybe in a generation or so the space elevator will be considered equally important.
Das: Ah, yes, the space elevator, another technology that Clarke has championed. The idea of a space elevator is basically a huge cable connecting the Earth to space, along which payloads can be launched using electromagnetic vehicles. The cable would be tethered to an object beyond the geostationary orbit, while having its center of mass in a geostationary orbit. Current plans call for a cable about 50 kilometers long. Clarke first wrote about the space elevator in his 1978 book, The Fountains of Paradise.
Clarke: I’m often asked when do I think the space elevator will be built. 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.
Das: Can you elaborate a little more on the space elevator?
Clarke: The space elevator is exactly that, reaching from the Earth’s surface to the stationary orbit. Getting to space purely by electrical energy, and you recover it all on the way down…a very efficient economical system and the key to the planets. The chief expense of space travel when you build the space elevator is catering and in-flight movies.
Das: Now that private entrepreneurs are entering space exploration, do you think they will get into this? Like a Virgin Space thanks to Richard Branson, for example?
Clarke: I’m sure that there will be quite a few interesting rackets.
Das: So what do you think of private entrepreneurship in space exploration?
Clarke: 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 soon, relatively speaking, aircraft would pay for themselves.
Das: Clarke was born in 1917 and grew up in western England. He became interested in science as a youngster, when he started reading American science-fiction magazines. I asked whether he spent a lot of his pocket money on those magazines.
Clarke: Yes, these magazines cost the astronomical sum of thruppence… three pennies. I couldn’t always afford that….They had a tremendous influence on me, of course.
Das: Clarke was so interested in what he read that he started corresponding with some of the authors. I asked how he managed to contact Willy Ley and other science-fiction authors.
Clarke: I probably saw their addresses in the various magazines….I hope I still have most of the correspondence.
Das: Clarke published his first story in 1937. It was called ”Travel by Wire!”
After high school, unable to afford a university education, he decided to join the British Civil Service. I asked Clarke what made him join.
Clarke: I think I was directed to the Civil Service—”this job should suit you”—and, indeed, it had plenty of leisure of time.
Das: During the Second World War, he became a radar specialist in the Royal Air Force. Once the war was over, he studied physics and mathematics at King’s College London. Soon after, he joined the nascent British Interplanetary Society and for a while served as its chairman. The society had a big impact on popularizing space exploration, as Clarke described in a video.
Clarke: 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.
Das: Clarke was at a conference in Barcelona in 1957 when the news of Sputnik 1 came through. Reporters started calling him for comment. I asked him if he remembered the day.
Clarke: I was at the international astronomy conference when the news came through…tremendous sensation. Some crazy people thought it was a propaganda story…a hoax. In my time, I have been very fortunate to see many of my dreams come true.
Das: So now that people are talking about manned missions to Mars again, something you’ve written about for many years, what are your thoughts on sending humans to Mars?
Clarke: 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.
Das: And what about terraforming Mars, changing Mars so that it is more like Earth? You had a book about the process in the 1990s. Have your ideas changed since?
Clarke: Start terraforming Mars by remote-control systems…it’ll be a joint process, humans and machines….I hope the machines don’t get annoyed with us!
Das: Clarke is also an accomplished diver, who has dived around the world. It was on his way home from a diving trip off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia that he first encountered Sri Lanka, where he today makes his home. I asked what brought him to Sri Lanka.
Clarke: I came to Sri Lanka accidentally. I got into underwater exploring.
Das: Clarke turned 90 recently. How does it feel to be 90?
Clarke: 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.
Das: I asked Clarke if he had some advice for young people who are interested in science today.
Clarke: Read as much as you can about the whole field of science and decide which particular subject rings a bell, and go for it.
Das: And always, at the end of day, Clarke’s thoughts turn to space.
Clarke: I still can’t quite believe we that have just marked the 50th anniversary of the space age. We accomplished a great deal in that time, but the golden age of space is only beginning.
Das: The visionary Sir Arthur C. Clarke.
For Spectrum Radio, this is Saswato Das.
TAPE: music from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey .