Sir Arthur C. Clarke at the Smithsonian, June 2001

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."


The new Arthur C. Clarke Award for lifetime achievement in the field of communications was presented by the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation of the United States to Santiago Astrain, the first secretary general and the first director general of Intelsat. The company provides global communications provider through its system of 19 satellites, as well as connections via Internet and broadcast services.
Santiago was presented with a medal and an autographed copy of Sir Arthur's book, "The Coming of the Space Age." The presentation was made by Dr. John McLucas, foundation. Comments also were made by Gen. John Dailey, director of the National Air and Space Museum, and by Conny Kullman, Intelsat's CEO.


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 demented landscape gardeners."
Touting that there is organic vegetation on Mars, Sir Arthur urged that "We should continue the search" for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, by hunting for artifacts.
Asked whether he still believed that human colonization of the planets would be worthwhile, Sir Arthur replied quickly, "Absolutely," if only to make certain that the human species survives the risks to which Earth is exposed.
"If we [humans] hadn't left Africa," he said, "we'd have been wiped out. This is not a very safe neighborhood. If that asteroid hadn't wiped out the dinosaurs, the first creature on the moon would have said, 'That's one small step for T. rex, one giant leap for dinokind.'"
Cernan asked Sir Arthur regarding space travel: "What's it going to take to get people to dream again?" and Sir Arthur replied, "That's the $64 trillion question." He called space tourism a potential trigger, as well as "some major discovery." Then he repeated, "Have a good look at these Mars images."
Sir Arthur also agreed with Cernan's remark that it would be worthwhile to "Get teen-agers involved" and give young people an opportunity to experience and understand the concepts of space travel.
In reference to space travel, Sir Arthur added, "We may have oversold it, made it look easier than it really will be." He pointed out that many films portray space travel of the future as fast and exciting, but that the reality is otherwise.
"There's a real possibility there may be a propulsion breakthrough," he said. "The rocket is going to play the same role in space as the balloon did in aviation. It will be superseded by something much better.
"After all, could anyone a hundred years ago have conceived the world the way it is now?"

Asked by Bova if he'd seen any recent sci-fi films, Clarke replied that he hadn't, whereupon Bova enthusiastically recommended "Galaxy Quest."

Cernan reiterated his belief that it's only a matter of time before science fiction continues to become science fact. Sir Arthur agreed with Cernan and then, expanding on the theme of Time, added that "Time is the great mystery." He mentioned his collaboration with Stephen Baxter on a novel involving looking into the past, but remarked that, in reality, he had no idea how such a feat would be accomplished.

After Bova remarked that "There's no political will to go further in space; it's going to have to come from the private sector," Sir Arthur replied, "There's truth in that," and reiterated his belief that "space tourism" may hold a key. He said even rides of the fabled Vomit Comet might be an entry point of interest, because the experience was tantamount to being in a weightless "ballet." Pointing out that such rides last for only 30 seconds, Clarke grew whimsical when he remarked "Some have said that's as long as any ballet should be."

When asked whether he is disappointed by the current shortfall of manned missions and seeming public disinterest, Sir Arthur remained optimistic: "What has happened is planetary reconnaissance. I never expected to have so much information about the solar system in my lifetime."


Sir Arthur also:
-- Said he's looking forward to seeing what is produced by the ongoing Mars Odyssey mission when it generates information beginning in October.
-- Remarked that "I'm sad Stanley [Kubrick] didn't live to see the year he made famous."
-- Recalled showing Kubrick the 1930s film "Things to Come" and Kubrick's response that he would never watch another movie that Arthur recommended.
-- Recalled being stopped by a customs agent in Hawaii who said she would allow him into the country if he explained the ending of the film version of "2001." He also reiterated his explanation of the monolith as "a cosmic Swiss Army knife," and his long-standing recommendation that people should see the film, read the book and "repeat the dosage as necessary."
-- Was asked by Ordway about the various stories on which the film "2001" had been derived. Sir Arthur said, "It was half a century ago and I'm not clear about things a day and a half ago." But then he cited his stories "Encounter in the Dawn" and "The Sentinel."
-- Recalled past trips to Washington, when he stayed with Fred Durant. He said that, on some of those visits, he was present for visits by Fred Whipple and Von Braun -- which he said were very enlightening.
-- Asked about his current projects, replied that he had 12 or 13 books in the works -- "reprints, of course," as well as several TV projects. He mentioned that Morgan Freeman was still trying to raise money to make a film of "Rendezvous with Rama," and that the two of them recently had exchanged birthday greetings. He also mentioned that he was participating in a television production focusing on the history of Astounding magazine and its artwork, to which Bova responded: "The brass brassiere covers?"


After the event, I met briefly with the gathering's organizer, Joseph Pelton, executive director of the Clarke Institute for Telecommunications and Information.. He responded to my questions as follows:

SHERWOOD: Obviously this event has been an effort to reach out to show the public that something is going on. Why is it necessary to do that in Sir Arthur's name and why is Sir Arthur so important in this effort?

PELTON: Arthur C. Clarke is known worldwide for his writings and his scientific concepts in communications satellites, the space elevator and other things. So he becomes a powerful voice for space exploration, and the use of technology to further mankind. So our foundation feels that Arthur Clarke is more than just a man who lived on this planet, and that he really represents an idea of the use of technology for the betterment of humankind and the evolution of humankind.
With the Clarke Institute we are indeed trying to embark on a number of projects -- like Project One, for emergency recovery and warning; the Millennium Village, the use of technology for the development of rural societies for education, health and economic development; and other projects, including a television project called Futureworld that we're working on.
This is in part to honor Arthur Clarke and his accomplishments but it's also in part to use his name and his concepts to use technology to better humankind. So it's a living memorial to what he has done and to try, for the 21st century and beyond. to try to use that technology for the betterment of mankind.

SHERWOOD: Many of Sir Arthur's fans have been gathering and organizing online. What can this body of devotees do with their interest and their own expertise, in order to help you?

PELTON: The Clarke Institute is actually designed as a virtual research institute. We already have more than 10 organizations -- in Japan, the United Kingdom, Sri Lanka, the United States and around the world -- trying to use the Internet and communications technology to teach some of these goals and to create better networking opportunities, so people who do support Arthur Clarke and his concepts can work together.
We are creating an ever-expanding database of people who are interested in Arthur Clarke, who would like to receive our electronic newsletter, and also become aware of the projects we're working on -- and support them. In some cases that might be financial support. In other cases it might be that they'd be that they can contribute directly to the project or in other in-kind ways. The foundation dates back to 1983, but the Clarke Institute really has been in existence only a little more than a year.
So this is sort of the second wave. Instead of being just a group of people in Washington, we are reaching out to a global community of people. We have a Web site where people can find information about what we're doing in terms of events such as the one we've had here tonight at the Smithsonian -- and also if they want to become involved electronically -- and in person.

Text by, Kennett Square, PA


The "Clarkives" at Dene Court