Sir Arthur C. Clarke on the Columbia shuttle disaster

NOTE FROM John C. Sherwood:The following was received Feb 11, 2003, with many thanks to intermediary Richard Murch.

A Tribute from Sir Arthur C Clarke

This is the message I’ve sent to the Media as well as to President Bush and the NASA Administrator. Please share it with your friends and colleagues.

All best,


11th Feb 2003

Tribute to Columbia

In a few months we will be celebrating the first centennial of heavier-than-air flight. It is now hard to believe that when the Wright Brothers started the revolution which has changed our world, most Americans papers never reported the event because they were sure it was a hoax. Leading scientists had “proved” that it would defy the laws of Physics.

The conquest of the air took many lives though only a fraction of those lost during the millennia when the Oceans were opened up for navigation. As Kipling wrote: “If blood be the price of Admiralty, Dear God we have paid in full”!

Well, with Columbia and the earlier Apollo 7 and Challenger tragedies, we are starting to pay the price of Astronautics, and inevitably some are asking “Is it worthwhile”? A hundred years from now such a question will seem as absurd as criticisms directed at the importance of aviation, c1900.

No-one will deny the enormous value of space technologies for communications, weather forecasting, surveying and peace keeping. However, most, if not all, of these duties can best be performed by robot satellites: what useful work can men - and women do in Space?

Lost satellites have been saved by an astronaut with a screw driver - and it is not easy to make robots perform this sort of feat. Whole new branches of medicine will be opened up in the weightless environment of space, while this will also attract countless tourists during the decades to come.

Although space travel is still extremely expensive, there is no reason why it should always be the case. One day the noisy, inefficient and dangerous rocket will be replaced by the Space Elevator, which is exactly what its name implies. It costs about $1000 worth of electrical energy to take a human being up to Geostationary Orbit - and perhaps $100 for the round trip, since most of the energy can be recovered on the downward journey! For years I have been saying that one day the chief costs of space travel will be for catering and in-flight movies.

More seriously, there is a vital reason why we must explore Space: the very survival of the human race may depend upon it. There were at least three major meteor impacts during the last century, and almost every week our atmosphere protects us from meteorites which could deliver kiloton blasts if they reached the earth’s surface.

Some 60 million years ago a comet or meteorite changed the course of evolution and gave an un-prepossessing little mammal a chance to replace the giant reptiles who were then lords of the earth.

In 1973 I opened “Rendezvous with Rama” (choosing the ominous date 9/11!) with a devastating meteor impact on Europe. In that novel I proposed the name “Spaceguard” for an organization which would watch out for dangerous celestial projectiles, and deflect or destroy them. I am happy to say that when Congress ordered NASA to look into the matter, the resulting report (Jan 25th 1992) was called the ‘Spaceguard Survey’, with due acknowledgement to the novel.

As my fellow science-fiction writer Larry Niven summed it up: “The dinosaurs became extinct because they did not have a space programme”. If the same thing happens to us, we will have proved our unfitness to survive.

Arthur C Clarke
10 February, 2003




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