Other articles by John C. Sherwood

Sir Arthur C. Clarke at the Smithsonian, June 2001

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The following focuses on a June 6, 2001, gathering at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, where Sir Arthur C. Clarke spoke by telephone for the Wernher von Braun Memorial Lecture. -- John C. Sherwood

By now, you've heard much of the hoopla over Sir Arthur C. Clarke's statements regarding Martian life. The most recent comments were made June 6, 2001, during the Wernher von Braun Memorial Lecture at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum's Langley IMAX Theatre.

"I'm quite serious when I say have a really good look at these new Mars images," he said, referring to photographs from the Mars Global Surveyor being made available via the Internet. "Something is actually moving and changing with the seasons that suggests, at least, vegetation." He added that what he was seeing was some kind of plant that he described as like Banyan trees.

This report intends to focus on other matters, considering that there actually was little excitement among those present when Sir Arthur made this statement. In fact, the panelists and more than 400 audience members expressed no reaction to the comments. Museum curator Martin Collins, who acted as master of ceremonies for the event, quickly moved the proceedings to other topics. In the interest of more thorough coverage, then, this report is intended to summarize those other comments.
The panel was made up of Apollo 17 moonwalker Eugene Cernan, science fiction writer Ben Bova, and space historian Fred Ordway III, who worked with Stanley Kubrick on hardware shown in "2001: A Space Odyssey."
There was no "real-time" Web coverage of the gathering. According to the event's organizer, Dr. Joseph Pelton of the Clarke Institute for Telecommunications and Information, no transcript was made of the evening's events, and the videotape that rolled during the evening was made only for the museum's archives and wasn't intended to be distributed.
The event actually began before Sir Arthur has arisen from a night's sleep in Sri Lanka. A series of presentations and speeches filled the first hour, and Collins promised that the celebration of modern technology would be capped by Sir Arthur's appearance by telephone -- "a grand display of 19th century technology."


Before Sir Arthur's telephone appearance, guest speakers Bova, Ordway and Cernan kept the group of about 400 interested. Bova spoke of Sir Arthur as the logical successor to H.G. Wells as the foremost science-fiction master of the 20th century -- "and, hopefully, of the 21st."
"Arthur shows that technology is not enough," Bova said. "I think Arthur is a great soul -- he sees far into the future and that the possibilities are magnificent. He tells us that we are not the end of creation. That life is an integral part of the universe. We may build what comes. We will evolve. We will transcend ourselves or we will go the way of the trilobites. That's his contribution -- not just to science fiction but to world literature."
Ordway followed, giving a synopsis of how the film "2001" came to be made, and his role in working with Kubrick on its science-hardware components. Clarke, he said, had been instrumental in bringing him and Kubrick together. He reminisced about working on the set and dealing with the great director.

Cernan, the last of the 12 human beings to walk on the moon, waxed philosophical as well as spiritual about his experience as commander of the Apollo 17 mission. And he worried about whether space exploration ever would become a nation interest again.
"Yes," he said, "I am the last man to have walked on the moon ... for now."
Cernan admitted that he had rented the movie of "2001" just two days before, just to watch it again.
Cernan offered rhetorically: "What's it going to take to get people to dream again, to realize they can once again do the impossible? John F. Kennedy said that we plan to go the moon and 'do the other things.'" Cernan pointed out: "We haven't done 'the other things' yet.
"We continue to need dreamers. We need to get our kids to dream, and to take the word 'impossible' out of our vocabulary."


About 9 p.m. Washington time, the moment the crowd had been waiting for came after Collins introduced Sir Arthur as the man who "owns the franchise on the year 2001."
Sir Arthur's voice was transmitted into the theater as a projection of his photo was placed on the huge screen. When Collins told Sir Arthur what the crowd was seeing onscreen, Collins added, "Your head is very large."
Sir Arthur quipped, "Sorry about that."
It was 7 a.m. Colombo time, but Sir Arthur said he usually gets out of bed about that time. He sounded raspy at first but was quick-witted and humorous for the next half-hour.
"I am flying over Mars, thanks to the Mars orbital surveyor," Sir Arthur said at the onset. "I'm now convinced that Mars is inhabited by ...."

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