Interview: Clarke on Space

From an interview with Sir Arthur C Clarke, from March 1, 2008.

(FYI: Sir Arthur died on  March 19, 2008.

As a “British science fiction writer, science writer and futurist, inventor, undersea explorer, and television series host” who lived for decades on an exotic and distant world nation, he would work out pretty well as a famous Traveller, especially if he has his own starship. Of course, he would need a crew…)

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.”

Well, inventors who discover something profitable often discover they’ve been robbed by some corp with dozens of lawyers.

Fighting them would:

  • put you in a lot of debt (while the corp barely notices the expense);
  • consume your personal time (while they just go home, after taking up plenty of billable hours)
  • and you’ll probably lose, after all that (the corp has friends in various bureaucracies and political networks, while you don’t.)

I don’t blame Clarke from walking away from all that.

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.

Nature is really, really inspiring! Especially when you start looking at the details, how things work together, why this cycle is so predictable.

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.

It’s going to take some doing, to build it: both money and political commitment.

I don’t see anyone doing it soon in the West, as government money is going to be spoken for by the welfare budget, especially for the oldsters.

Maybe China, in fifty years. There’s an outside chance that India or Brazil could do it in a century or so. I think that the US  is more likely to go into private rocketry than a megaproject like the beanstalk: perhaps the wiser choice. “No single point of failure, for twelve angry men with explosives to take advantage of.”

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.

Every time we go up a ‘tech level’, prices are cut 75%, while reliability jumps up.

“Just saying.”

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!

I doubt that the machines will ever be self-aware… but that’s as much for theological reasons as for scientific limitations. “You can’t replicate what you can’t even define!”

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.

I agree… but I suspect that, due to demographic & economic/budgetary reasons, we are going to have a generational hiatus in hands-on space exploration/exploitation. But when things pick up again — maybe in 2050? — it’s going to be really interesting!


About Alvin Plummer

I'm working to build a better world, a world that blesses Christ and is blessed by Him. I hope that you're doing the same!
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