Interview: Arthur C. Clarke

Thursday, July 01, 1999
Overstating Arthur C. Clarke's contribution to the space age is difficult. In a 1945 issue of Wireless World, Clarke predicted that communications satellites would someday circle the globe. Today the geostationary orbit inhabited by a number of satellites carries his name.

Thirty years ago this month, Clarke joined Walter Cronkite for CBS's coverage of the Apollo 11 mission, during which he illuminated the difficult science of landing on the moon and hailed the likely consequence: manned journeys to the planets.

Now 81, Clarke lives in a lush "technoasis" in Sri Lanka. His mind and his wit are as sharp as ever.

What's your most unusual memory of the Apollo XI lunar mission? We were at Cape Kennedy for the takeoff, and I remember meeting vice president Spiro Agnew. He was saying, "Now we must go to Mars!" He was lucky not to go to prison!

Historically, how significant is the 1969 moon walk? To me, it's as significant as when the first fish crawled up on the beach. It was the first step in becoming a space-faring civilization. Also, we know now that comet and asteroid impacts have changed history, and soon we will have the technology to avert that disaster. As I wrote recently: the dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program.

Have you found any events in recent history to be as thrilling as the first lunar landing? Hmmm. When was I last thrilled by anything? Oh, yes, of course: the Pathfinder and Sojourner mission to Mars. That was definitely the biggest thing since Apollo.

What was the most important development during the past 30 years of space exploration? For want of anything else, I might as well say the space shuttle--although it's only the DC-1-and-a-half, and not the DC-3, that NASA had hoped for.

Where would you place humanity on our journey to the stars? It depends what you mean. We already have probes going toward the stars. Granted, it will take at least 50,000 years to get there. But in a century or so we should be able to achieve perhaps 90 percent of light speed. Then the nearer stars won't seem much farther away than the antipodes were to the first ocean voyagers.
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