Status Report

Arthur C. Clarke, A Visionary Astrobiologist

By SpaceRef Editor
July 3, 2008
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Arthur C. Clarke, A Visionary Astrobiologist

By Simon Mitton

Arthur C. Clarke, the British science fiction writer who died on March 19, 2008, is best remembered for the saga 2001: A Space Odyssey, published 40 years ago. The driving force behind that novel and the screenplay was Stanley Kubrick, who had developed a fascination for extraterrestrial intelligence. Fired up by enthusiasm to make a sci-fi movie set in space, he contacted Clarke, who was by then living in Ceylon, as collaborator. The movie is outstanding for its scientific realism. Without question it had enormous influence on bringing the possibilities of space exploration to a wide public.

2001: A Space Odyssey was crafted before the Apollo moon landings, in an era when the space exploration programs of the United States and the Soviet Union were in their infancy, and the Cold War made collaboration between these nations impossible. Kubrick’s direction and screenplay showcased the possibilities of space exploration, illustrating how lengthy journeys, involving suspended animation, might be undertaken. Clarke’s descriptions of the orbital manoeuvres needed are accurate, and even the zero gravity toilet is correctly envisaged.

Clarke’s first sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two, published in 1982, had nothing like the same impact, but it is noteworthy because it describes a joint American-Soviet mission to Jupiter. When Clarke wrote this, the Cold War had continued, and the collapse of the Soviet Union lay nine years in the future. Today the International Space Station is a major collaboration of the United States, Russia, and 11 European states. Humans have continually occupied it since November 2, 2000, all of which Clarke foresaw in his fiction.

The second sequel, 2061: Odyssey Three (1987) is breathtaking in its vision. Once again the action takes place at Jupiter. Fusion reactors power space travel, and interplanetary flight is now mainstream. There is alien life in Europa’s buried ocean. Fusion reactors have not yet been achieved, but ion drive, long envisaged by fiction writers, powered NASA’s Deep Space 1 launched in 1998. And, Europa’s warm ocean is now a major target of opportunity for future astrobiology missions.

Clarke’s first two non fiction books, Interplanetary Flight (1950) and The Exploration of Space (1952) are platforms for his immense interest in what is now termed astrobiology, for which he used the expressions “astronautics” and “space exploration.”

Clarke caught the space bug in his teens. By the age of 20 he was a member of the technical committee of the British Interplanetary Society, becoming deeply engaged in the theoretical aspects of designing a rocket that would take explorers to the Moon and back. Planning came to an abrupt stop in September 1939 when its members signed up for war service.

In World War Two Clarke served in Britain’s Royal Air Force as a radar instructor. His background in radar enabled him to be the first to propose using artificial satellites for global telecommunications, global television, and for meteorology.

When Clarke entered astronautics the fundamental knowledge of rocketry and space travel were already well known. The US had a credible program of rocket development and the military advantages of travelling to the Moon or Mars had become matters of immediate importance. Optimistic scenarios for exploring space were stimulated by another technical advance, nuclear energy.

Towards the end of Interplanetary Flight, Clarke speculated on the impact of the new science of astronautics would have on the exploration of the solar system. The Moon would be reached first, where scientists would explore it using tracked vehicles. Clarke attached great importance to establishing a permanent lunar colony equipped with an astronomical observatory. He excluded any possibility that life would be found on the Moon.

In the case of Mars, which would become the target of opportunity after the Moon, Clarke believed that the red planet had seasonal vegetation. He argued for the astrobiological exploration of Mars, while admitting that the quest for intelligent life was entirely speculative. He dismissed any hope for life on Venus because the cloud-covered planet showed no evidence of oxygen or water.

Clarke’s astrobiology dreams in the realms of the outer planets drew attention to the many satellites, “some considerably larger than our Moon.” Titan he found most intriguing, on account of its atmosphere. He felt the exploration of these worlds would take many centuries.

By 1952 Arthur Clarke had been the Chairman of the British Interplanetary Society for three years. That same year his The Exploration of Space brought the possibilities of the space age to worldwide audience. He gave vivid non-technical descriptions on how spaceships would refuel outside the atmosphere. There would be a large space station in a permanent, stable orbit, to provide a platform and laboratory space for scientific research. Vast new fields of endeavour would open up such as zero-gravity experiments and the manufacture of electronic gadgets in the vacuum conditions of space. Furthermore, Clarke correctly foresaw the advantages of the space telescopes that would conduct deep surveys of the whole of the sky.

Clarke envisaged that by 2050 the Moon would have enormous bases that would be indistinguishable from those dreamed up by science fiction writers such as himself.

In the outer solar system he continued to regard the natural satellites of the giant planets as suitable for landings, even daring to suggest that these would be achieved in the 21st century. So far only Titan has that distinction. Clarke correctly predicted that Titan would become the most important target among the moons of Saturn because of its thick hydrocarbon atmosphere. Eventually, he felt, there would be self-supporting enclosed colonies, but that took his speculations into the realm of fiction.

The practical realisation of space exploration and the search for life in the solar system required an enthusiastic public that supported their taxes being used to fund space research. In the US and Britain in the 1950s – 1960s three people were outstanding ambassadors for space: Carl Sagan, Patrick Moore, and Arthur C. Clarke. Within this trio Clarke’s strength stemmed from his technical background in engineering that enabled him to see the potential for space exploration with remarkable clarity and vision. Astrobiology, remote sensing, and human spaceflight owe him a great debt.

SpaceRef staff editor.