Friday, March 21, 2008

Ad Astra, Sir Arthur, Don't Forget to Write

Arthur C. Clarke, the author of numerous science and science fiction dreams and books, died this week. While he's best known for writing 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Stanley Kubrick made into one of the all-time greatest films, Clarke was a prolific writer (author of nearly 100 books) and a great thinker. Though his idea was considered by his attorney too crazy to be worth patenting, he is credited as the first to imagine telecommunications satellites.

His idea was proposed in a scientific paper he wrote in 1945 (Sputnik launched in 1957), which showed the feasibility of satellites that stayed in geostationary orbit around the earth. That now well-trafficked area of space has since been officially designated the Clarke Orbit. According to Clarke's New York Times obituary:

[That paper was] "the most important thing I ever wrote." In a wry piece entitled, A Short Pre-History of Comsats, Or: How I Lost a Billion Dollars in My Spare Time, he claimed that a lawyer had dissuaded him from applying for a patent. The lawyer, he said, thought the notion of relaying signals from space was too far-fetched to be taken seriously.

But Clarke wrote much that his millions of readers took very seriously. My personal favorite book of his is Childhood's End. Like 2001, which came later, this work included a benevolent yet removed presence that watches over -- even mentors -- humanity. They step in and stop warfare among nations, but their real goal is to prepare them for the next, awkward step in their evolution.

I never met or interviewed Clarke, who lived for the past half century in Sri Lanka, but he contributed a video commentary to Space Day in 2001, which I covered. The event, held at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, was special for me, in part because I love space but also because I had the chance to meet and interview John Glenn, the first American to orbit the planet and a former U.S. senator from Ohio. Clarke said to the crowd of mostly school children that among them might be sitting the first person to set foot on Mars.

That comment came back to me after watching a statement (available on YouTube video) that Clarke gave upon the announcement of the Google Lunar X Prize. The announcement of the $30 million competition, challenging a privately funded team to send robot up to the moon, came last September. As he did on Space Day 2001, Clarke offered a taped statement and spoke about things like the fiftieth anniversary of Sputnik, which occurred in October.

"I was always sure that humanity would reach the moon," he said, "but I didn't really believe I would live to see it. And I'm sure I didn't believe I'd live to see it end. ... We need to go to the moon for the right reasons. We need to find the models for markets of profitable operations that would inspire entrepreneurs and business leaders as well as our scientists and engineers. That's the only way to ensure permanence."

He went on to say that he hoped to one day enjoy one of the nongovernmental suborbital flights that he believed would be actively taking passengers before this decade is over. That sounds like a tall order, (assuming he means, as most people erroneously do, that the decade ends when 2010 begins; it ends when 2010 ends), but Clarke was not one to shrink from his dreams.

Peter Diamandis, who chairs the X Prize Foundation, offered his thoughts after the death of his friend, Sir Arthur. He wrote,
"Arthur once said, there are three phases to a great idea: 'The first phase is when people tell you it’s a crazy idea, it will never work; the second phase is when people say, it might work, but it’s not worth doing; and the third phase is when people say, I told you that was a great idea all along!' We at the X PRIZE Foundation know that feeling ... and Arthur was one of my great supporters to pursue the original Ansari X PRIZE, and the many prizes that followed. Thank you Arthur for encouraging our crazy ideas!"

Thank you, indeed, Sir Arthur, for dreaming big and encouraging others to dream too. Like you did, I hope one day to venture off this wonderful home planet. I can't think of a better way to truly learn the most about humanity and appreciate what we have here on earth than to view it from a distance and return to the cradle of life to share what has been learned.

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