out there will be discovered too, one day
60 years after Clarke first mooted the communications satellite, Kavan Ratnatunga talks to him about astrology, fantasy and life on Mars.
Sixty years ago, a letter titled Peacetime Uses for V2 from Arthur C. Clarke of the British Interplanetary SocJety suggesting the use of Geostationary Satellites for instant global communications was published in the February 1945 issue of the Wireless Wod magazine.
“An `artificial satellite' at the correct distance from the earth would make one revolution every 24 hours; i.e., it would remain stationary above the same spot and would be within optical range of nearly half the earth’s surface. Three repeater stations, 120 degrees apart in the correct orbit, could give television and microwave coverage to the entire planet’ Clarke wrote.
World War II was only just ending after five long years and the technology to make the suggestion a reality had not yet been invented. Arthur Clarke in his Scientific Autobiography Ascent to Orbit published in 1984 says that he had forgotten about this letter till he was reminded of it in 1968 by the engineering staff of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporátion.
The equatorial circular orbit at a distance of approximately 42,164 km from the centre of the Earth, i.e., approximately 35,787 km (22,237 miles) above mean sea level has a period equal to the Earth’s rotation on its axis (Sidereal Day=23h56m) and would remain geostationary overthe same point on the Earth’s equator In 2005 the Clarke Orbit had over 330 satellites.
A more detaile and famous paper with the original title The Future of World Communications was published in the October 1945 issue of Wireless World under the title Extra-Terrestrial Relays. The timing was perfect. The rocket technology and expertise developed in Germany for military use was picked up by USA and USSR, two nations with difterent political ideologies which tried to impress the world and obtain military superiority in space.
However, the applicauon of the same technology for science and peaceful ex
ploration of space is unique. Earth Satellites became a reality with Sputnik in a dozen yearson October 4, 1957 and the first commercial communication Satellite Intelsat I Early Bird was launched into geostationary Orbit on April 6, 1965. Man landed on the Moon in 1969, less than 25 years.
Arthur C. Clarke visited Ceylon over 50 years ago in December 1954 and within a few years decided to make his residence in Lanka. In February 2005, Clarke travelled to his hideout in Hikkaduwa which had survived the tsunami that had devastated a large extent of the coast around Lanka.
This was the first trip he had taken to
this region after the disaster. The heritage seaside walauwa, just south of Hikkaduwa is probably from the Dutch era and over 200 years old. The house walls are so thick that it stood its ground against the tsunami except for minor damage to some doors. The more recenty built boundary walls to the property had been washed away giving a more magnificent view of the sea.
On reaching the walauwa, Clarke first went out to the edge of the property to look out to the sea. The access ramp which allowed him to go on to the beach had been washed away by the tsunami leaving just the support columns.
Now two months later, the beach had been cleaned but tourists had still not returned. The golden beach with no one, not even footpñnts to spoil the view was clearly a rare sight.
Clarke's original plan was to travel all the way from Hikkaduwa to Kirinda, off the coast of which is the Great Basses Reef on which Clarke had helped discover a shipwreck with silver coins in 1962. His present condition however allowed him to only travel up to Weligama after a brief visft to Unawatuna. Back at Hlkkaduwa on February 24th evening, Kavan Ratnatunga who made the trip with him took the opportunity to interview Sir Arthur Clarke.
Q:In 1945 you suggested the idea of geostationary satellites
for instant global communications. Any reflections on the 60th anniversary
of the first publication of your great idea ?
I can't remember what happened then. After all, it was
60 years ago. The war was then about to finish. In fact the atom
bomb was dropped soon after I worked on this article. The idea for
that was brewed over a period of time. There has always been an
interest in space travel. There may have been stories that suggested
communication satellites, and I would like somebody to do some research
to see if anybody did mention them earlier.
Mobile phones have made instant global communications very personal.
Do you carry this mobile technology with you?
Well, I don't carry anything with me now since I can hardly
carry myself. I have my staff and they have mobile phones to take
care of those needs.
tsunami of December 26 was Lanka's worst natural disaster in recorded
history. Shouldn't instant global communications have solved the
problems of disaster management?
Obviously instant global communications are needed to
warn people of disasters but I don't think it applies to this case.
I don't believe there could be any warning of a tsunami, since there
is no way of predicting earthquakes, and that's what caused this.
You first came to Lanka over 50 years ago in December 1954, and
in a famous quote from the 'Sea of Sinbad' you said about Unawatuna
"Ten thousand kilometres from the place where I was born, I
had come home". Now that you have visited it again this morning,
what are your thoughts and hopes for Unawatuna ?
I think Unawatuna appealed to me because the curve of
the bay reminded me of Minehead where I was born. I am quite happy
with the way it is now. I hope it continues to be looked after and
not spoiled with too much tourism or anything like that. I think
we have gained something from the sea recently as more sand has
been built up.
Q:Over 40 years ago you helped discover a ship with the treasure
of the Great Basses Reef. As a numismatist, the lumps of Surat Rupee
coins you found are of particular interest to me. Any reflections
on that discovery?
This is a long time ago. I gave one of these coin lumps I think
to the Museum here; not quite sure where they are now. I have only
one or two of the coins myself. The book records what happened and
what we found. There is a great deal more in the Great Basses and
the Little Basses that have been death traps for ships for at least
2000 years. In every ocean in the world there are shipwrecks caused
by warfare, hurricanes, and any number of things that will cause
a ship to go down. So I don't think there is any shortage of shipwrecks
to explore by amateurs and professionals.
In a nation where there are new laws against spreading of false
rumours, national TV stations still feel free to broadcast predictions
of astrologers, which we know scientifically have no reality. What
will it take for educated people to understand that astrology has
no reality, like the Flat-Earth Theory ?
is an attractive idea. I am sure that the celestial bodies, the
Sun and Moon will have all sorts of influences some of which may
not been discovered. But the idea that astrologers can predict an
individual's future is I am sure, utter nonsense, and the idea will
die out eventually. Also I don't think there are any flat earth
theorists around still. I am also reminded that spiritualism used
to have a big role when I was young after the results of the First
World War. I don't know what has happened to spiritualism; is it
still around or whether it has died a natural death.
As the last remaining Grand Master of Science Fiction, what is your
take on the more popular interest in fantasy? Why has magic become
more appealing than science to the younger generation of readers
I don't know. It is hard to draw the line between
fantasy and hard science fiction, because we have seen so many things
which seemed fantastic at one time and have come true. I enjoy both
and I am not totally against fantasy. Books like Harry Potter will
introduce children to hard science eventually.
The headline of a recent issue of the "Sinhala Bauddhaya"
quoted the 1953 prediction in your famous novel Childhood's End
that only a form of purified Buddhism - perhaps the most austere
of all religions - will survive. I understand you meant the Buddha
dharma (philosophy). Over the past few decades organised religion
has become stronger, although science has a much deeper understanding
of the nature of the Universe. As an astronomer I would like to
know your thoughts as to why even some of the educated feel they
still need so much faith in religion?
Has organized religion become stronger? I didn't know
that. I doubt that. Even educated people, what ever that means,
need some emotional crutch and it is nice to feel that somebody
up there is looking after your concerns and it is harmless unless
it becomes an obsession.
has cancelled the servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.
It is also now over two years since the Columbia accident in early
February 2003, and the Shuttle has not yet returned to space; currently
scheduled for mid May 2005. It took a similar 2.6 years for NASA
to return to space after the Challenger accident in January 1986.
But they landed on the Moon in less time, after the Apollo 1 accident
in January 1967. Are we softer now in taking the risks needed for
I think one reason why the Apollo, the first moon landing
was not held up was the fear that the Russians may be on their way
and get there first and I don't know how seriously that was ever
taken. So I think we need to wait now till we have more reliable
and reusable ways of exploring space and then move on to Mars and
What is your view on the recent evidence for CH4 on Mars and its
implications for potential life on Mars?
This latest evidence seems some of the most convincing
yet. I mean it will be surprising as well as disappointing if we
don't find life there. We know that all kinds of stuff has splashed
around the solar system, DNA might survive a trip across space.
I sincerely hope that is the case. As for comets, of course they
have all the organic material needed for life. I don't remember
who said that comets have bad breath.
Is there a major project you would like to see achieved or see happen
in your lifetime?
I think I have done enough. There are some things I would
like to see happen. The first of course is the discovery of life
and intelligence in outer space. I think it is unlikely to be in
my lifetime but I am sure it will be eventually achieved.