C. Clarke died just a few weeks ago, in March 2008. Very few people
have had more influence on my life than he did, even though I talked
to him only once, nearly fifty years ago.
I had been introduced to the possibility of space travel as a child
by my father, who had drawn V2 rockets for me in 1948 and predicted
that men would walk on the Moon within thirty years. A few years
later, I watched a reasonably realistic movie about a manned expedition
to the Moon, George Pal's "Destination Moon", and
was fascinated by Bonestell's magnificent paintings of imagined
vistas of the Solar System. I had also read a short book on the
physics of space travel by Otto Willi Gail.
Still, human space flight seemed a distant goal;
something that might be achieved sometime in the 21st century.
In the early 1950s, I was not aware of any significant development
in this direction. An altitude record of 400 km had been set in
1949 with a two-stage rocket: a V2 carrying a small WAC Corporal,
but I realized that it had achieved only a small fraction of the
speed needed to achieve earth orbit, and with a very small payload.
For several years, all further progress in rocketry
was cloaked in military secrecy.
When "The Exploration of Space"
was translated into Swedish in 1954, it came as a revelation to
me. I received it from its translator Sven Hallén, a journalist
at Dagens Nyheter who was a friend of the family. —
He also devoured science fiction books and handed
them down to me, by the hundreds. By the way, he handed me Keyhoe's
book on "Flying Saucers", which he had been asked to review,
with an accompanying note from the editor at Dagens Nyheter: "This
book seems completely deranged. I hope you will deal with it accordingly."
Here, for the first time, I could read a relatively
detailed treatment, addressed
at adults, of the prospects for space
flight. The book was based on pre-war studies carried out by enthusiasts
at the British Interplanetary Society, complemented with an account
of German wartime accomplishments. The performance figures of the
V2 rocket were known and could be extrapolated to larger designs.
A 150-ton three-stage rocket based on V2 engines should be able
to lift a payload of 50 kg into orbit. If engines could run on hydrogen
and oxygen, a 30-ton rocket might achieve the same orbital payload.
It should be possible to launch an artificial satellite within 10
years. (The book was originally published in 1951.)
In-orbit refuelling of a spaceship.
by R. A. Smith. ©BIS
Clarke takes us on a tour of all the basic aspects
of spaceflight: the multi-stage rockets, trajectories and orbits,
g forces and weightlessness, space suits, rendez-vous and
docking, assembly of space stations and orbital refuelling of interplanetary
spacecraft, possible applications of unmanned satellites, interplanetary
robotic probes, manned bases on the Moon and on Mars. —
He even touches on interstellar flight, concluding that it will
remain out of reach for the foreseeble future, but —
ever the optimist —
considers that anything that does not contradict the fundamental
laws of physics will ultimately be achievable. He has famously pointed
out that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable
from magic". (How would Mozart or Chopin have reacted to
an MP3 player?) Another famous Clarke observation is that when a
distinguished elderly scientist claims that something is possible,
he is almost certainly right, while when he claims that something
is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
Some of Clarke's predictions have proven to be remarkably
accurate. He concludes that even a high-performance rocket with
a single stage will only barely be able to reach orbital velocity.
Today, almost 60 years later, "SSTO" (Single Stage to
Orbit) still has not been realized. It would be technically possible
to achieve, but it would be wasteful and pointless as long as a
recoverable vehicle with a decent payload capacity remains out of
1947, Clarke wrote his first science fiction novel, Prelude to
Space. (Published only in 1951, it was dedicated to "Val
and Wernher, who are doing the things I merely dream about".)
It describes the first expedition to the Moon, in 1978, using a
two-stage vehicle with atomic rocket engines. "The old chemical
rockets would have needed several thousand tons of fuel to carry
a load of one ton to the Moon and back, which wasn't practicable."
(A fairly accurate figure: The Saturn V vehicle weighed
3,000 tons at liftoff, and soft-landed 7 tons on the Moon. The Command
Module weighed 5 tons at splashdown in the Pacific.) The
first stage is a ramjet-powered winged vehicle. The project is financed
by an international foundation headquartered in London (its
location is modestly described as an historical accident),
having its rocket range in the Australian desert. —
The cost figures are rather less prescient than the engineering
projections: Professor Maxton once calculated that the ship had
cost about ten million pounds in research and five millions in direct
The novel ends: Beyond the lagoon, past the friendly shelter
of the coral reef, the first frail ship was sailing into the unknown
perils and wonders of the open sea. —
An apt description, I think, of what was to come in 1968, when Apollo
8 "slipped the surly bonds of earth..."!
Shortly after Clarke published The Exploration of Space,
Collier's Weekly magazine in U.S.A. printed a series of articles
by Wernher von Braun. Von Braun's vision was ambitious and grandiose:
he proposed a large wheel-formed space station with a 75 m diameter
and a crew of 80 in a 2-hour polar orbit. The station would have
important applications in Earth observation etc., but it would also
serve as a springboard for fleets of spaceships going to the Moon
and to Mars. During construction of the space station, 15 recoverable
three-stage rockets, each with a launch mass of 6,400 tons, would
deliver a 20-ton payload to the station every 16 hours! —
The articles were lavishly illustrated with tantalizing drawings
by Chesley Bonestell and other artists, showing amazing detail.
They had a great impact on the American public, but I did not read
them until 1958 when they came out in book form. I did see an animated
"Man in Space" Disney film based on von Braun's
vision sometime around 1955, but it was Arthur C. Clarke who convinced
me that space flight was imminent.
faith in Clarke earned me a taste of martyrdom. For years, I decorated
my room with a picture showing the first orbit of a satellite launched
from Florida. In the mid-1950s, space flight was not taken seriously
by very many people in Sweden, and a teacher called me "the
little man from the Moon". Besides, Clarke himself was best
known as a science fiction writer. In Prelude to Space he
"I'm not ashamed of the fact", he [Professor
Maxton] said cheerfully, "that before Ray was born I was paying
my college fees with the aid of my typewriter. Besides, someone
had to write about space-travel before people would believe it was
"But it didn't work out that way", objected
Collins. "Most of those stories were so darn silly, and so
badly written, that they had just the opposite effect. Everyone
thought that interplanetary travel was stuff for the kids."
"So it was
— in the 1940s", said Maxton.
"They read about it —
and when they grew up they made it happen."
In March 1957, together with two classmates, I performed some experiments
using standard fireworks rockets, where, to the consternation of
many onlookers, we removed the pyrotechnics in order to improve
By then, the development of ballistic missiles and plans for the
International Geophysical Year had given some credibility to the
proposition that artificial satellites would actually be launched
within a year or so.
by R. A. Smith. ©BIS
I joined the Swedish Interplanetary Society in the spring of 1957.
It was housed in an old building at Malmskillnadsgatan in central
Stockholm. It was the type of environment you might associate with
an old-fashioned English club. Creaking stairs, narrow passages,
antique furniture. A real fire trap. (The building was torn down
just a few years later.) Here I quickly became the Society's Librarian;
a great privilege, as it gave me instant access to the current issue
of all the leading aeronautics and space journals along with the
library's book collection. The Society held regular meetings, including
lectures on various astronautical subjects: Orbital mechanics, rocket
engines, space medicine etc.
Its finest hour occurred in 1960, when it hosted a congress of
the International Astronautical Federation in Stockholm. I served
as an usher, carrying a ribbon in the Swedish colors, and met dignitaries
such as Leonid Sedov, Hermann Oberth, Wernher von Braun and Theodore
von Karman. —
Or, come to think of it, perhaps its finest hour came the following
year, when it organized a charter flight to the IAF Congress in
Washington D. C. and the American Rocket Society's meeting in New
York in October. That was my first flight across the Atlantic, a
14-hour flight to New York on a DC-7 with a stopover in Goose Bay,
Labrador. Memorabilia and some details
in Swedish here.
But I digress. What I wanted to say was that it was Clarke's book
that triggered my passion for spaceflight. Even before I graduated
from high school, I had decided to become an engineer and to aim
for a career in astronautics.
father encouraged me and borrowed Hermann Oberth's "Wege
zur Raumschiffahrt", published in 1929, from the Library
of the R. Institute of Technology. It contained a lot of technical
information that I absorbed like a sponge. (My math education had
by then reached the calculus.) Amusingly, the technical stuff was
punctuated with diatribes against critics who claimed that a rocket
could not function in a vacuum as there was nothing "to push
against"! One would think that a thought experiment, such as
this one from Clarke's book, should make it intuitively obvious
that an atmosphere is not needed to make a rocket work. (On
the other hand, intuition cannot always be trusted. Just consider
Hall's Paradox, which has fooled many professional mathematicians...)
Unmanned Mars observer.
by Leslie Carr after a sketch by R. A. Smith. ©BIS
I went on to study engineering physics at the R.
Institute of Technology in Stockholm. After graduation in 1963,
I sought employment with von Brauns's team at NASA's Marshall Spaceflight
Center. Despite an encouraging letter
from him, and a follow-up letter,
in the end it proved unrealistic to think that a fresh graduate
from Sweden with no experience would be embraced by NASA. I was
forced to follow the great adventure through trade journals such
as Missiles and Rockets, Aviation Week (I still have
a large collection from the 1960s in my garage) and Voice of
America broadcasts from all the manned flights. (I have preserved
my own tape recordings of VOA's coverage of Apollo 11.) — In 1966-67,
I visited Stanford University on a European post-graduate scholarship,
studying an assortment of space-related subjects. Then, after a
few years at Saab Aircraft Co., I spent the rest of my professional
life, 35 years, at Swedish Space Corporation and as a Swedish delegate
at the European Space Agency.
Strangely enough, Arthur C. Clarke's greatest achievement came
in 1945, when he pointed
out in Wireless World that satellites in geostationary orbit
could provide the ideal solution for worldwide telecommunications.
I say 'strangely', because on the one hand I find it surprising
that such an obvious concept had not been proposed
much earlier; on the other hand you would hardly expect an obscure
27-year old radar technician to make such a proposal and get it
into print at that time. — Clarke used to lament (in jest), that
he should have patented the idea. Fortunately, perhaps, his patent
would have lapsed by the time the first geostationary satellite
was launched. — More
recently, some aerospace companies have tried to patent certain
orbits useful for telecommunications — and trajectories around the
moon useful for recovering satellites injected into the wrong orbit
— opening up a vast (literally!) new arena for litigation.
Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)
Today, Clarke is best remembered as a science fiction writer, especially
as the author behind Stanley Kubrick's hugely successful movie 2001:
A Space Odyssey. What many people liked about Clarke's stories
(including my father) was that they combined great inventiveness
with solid, or at least plausible, science. He described the early
stages of the space age in Prelude to Space, The Sands of Mars
and A Fall of Moondust (an intriguing story, with lots
of physics, about a rescue operation for a manned lunar surface
vehicle which has disappeared into a pocket of dust). He speculated
about mankind's first encounter with an alien civilization in The
Sentinel (which was expanded into 2001; a transmitter
has been left on the Moon by aliens who visited the Earth eons ago,
to alert them that a spacefaring civilization has now arisen on
our planet), in Childhood's End, and in Rendezvous with
Rama, in which a huge alien starship (similar to an O'Neill
space colony) passes through the solar system on a hyperbolic
trajectory. In The Fountains of Paradise he proposed a "space
elevator": a high-strength wire would connect the Earth's surface
with a satellite at geostationary altitude 36,000 km above the equator,
allowing a high-speed elevator to run up and down the wire, eliminating
the need for wasteful rocketry. (This idea may not be as outlandish
(no pun intended!) as it sounds. Its weakest
point may be that the space elevator could become an attractive
target for terrorist groups.)
Although a Briton, Arthur C. Clarke lived the last 50 years or
so of his life in Sri Lanka, where he enjoyed scuba diving and,
understandably, became an early adopter of advancements in telecommunications
technology. He was knighted in 2000. He enjoyed his fame and had
a whole room in his home allotted to memorabilia from his remarkable
- An interview
by Stephen Baxter 1997 (Science fiction award site).
by Luke Harding, The Guardian, 2000. Visit to Clarke's home, rather