Sir Arthur Charles Clarke: 1917-2008 Personal Memories of a Great Man
Thousands of e-mails honoring the life and works of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who passed away on March 19 in a hospital near his home in Colombo, Sri Lanka, have poured into the web site of the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation (www.clarkefoundation.org). One such tribute, by letter from SSPI board chairman Dom Stasi, really is illustrative of them all. Stasi writes, “Our generation’s Leonardo, Clarke’s
was a life lived through science and art in equal and extraordinary measure.”
My own tale of knowing Arthur C. Clarke begins with the premiere of “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1968. Never a sci-fi fan, I wasn’t engaged by his imaginative writings, but the movie made a big impression. Clarke next made an appearance in my life when he co-anchored the Apollo 11 moon mission with CBS’s Walter Cronkite. These giants made a great pair, and the Clarke-Cronkite duo teamed up for two more Apollo missions.
Clarke popped up on my radar screen from time to time over the next decade (an apt reference as he was one of the early pioneers of ground control radar during World War II), but he really came to life when I left my newsroom job at The Washington Post to join Communications Satellite Corp. (Comsat) as a PR specialist. Within figurative minutes of getting to my new desk at corporate headquarters in L’Enfant Plaza, Washington, D.C., I was awash with images of Clarke. Just as light bulbs have their Edison, satellites will always have their Clarke!
In 1983, I was asked to finagle a congratulatory note from Clarke marking the 20th anniversary of the incorporation of Comsat. Little did I know that I was embarking on a friendship that would last 25 years. Working via snail mail, Clarke let me know that he was game and asked me to map out what the executives at Comsat would like him to say. With a bit of trepidation, I reviewed a few articles from Clarke’s vast inventory, including his seminal paper of late 1945, “Extra-Terrestrial Relays,” in which he outlined the orbital positions and rationale that ever since have been the backbone of commercial communications via satellite from the geosynchronous, or Clarke, orbit, and then started writing.
Clarke graciously reviewed my draft, noting that I clearly was a bit unlettered — everyone knows honor is spelled honour and that program has an extra “me” on the end. But he accepted my words virtually unchanged, and I proudly said to myself, “I’m a ghostwriter for Arthur C. Clarke.”
As the years rolled by, the number of commercial satellites in Clarke orbit went from just one in 1965 to scores when we first collaborated in the early 1980s, to hundreds by the time he died. During those years, Clarke devised numerous new applications — from broadcast to mobile to data to Internet. He never slept as far as satellites were concerned. He left it to the ingenuity of industry to put marketplace meat on the bones he so frequently and presciently presented to the fledgling industry. Satellites were his babies, if not necessarily the loves of his life. He may have reserved that “honour” for scuba diving and underwater exploration, but even then he managed to link it back to space, saying that the freedom and wonder of diving was as close as he would ever get to the weightlessness of space.
In his last years, Clarke kept up with a steady stream of new ideas and worked to popularize those of others that he felt were worthy of investigation. One such idea, the space elevator, he attributed to various scientists and visionaries and always was quick to defend the concept. Asked when he thought space elevators would become reality, Clarke replied, “About 50 years after everyone stops laughing.”
That really was his hallmark, an impish, boyish charm and love of laughter coupled with a formidable intellect that was always ready to turn on a dime, greet a visitor, talk orbital mechanics, table tennis, scuba, world peace or fiction.
For Arthur Clarke, immortality has been achieved, through science as well as literature. In his 90th birthday “observations” made in December, Clarke said he most wanted to be remembered as an author. From his first writings to his last breath, Arthur Charles Clarke was and is that … and so much more.