Arthur C. Clarke: Still looking at the stars

"I BET Arthur has forgotten this," says British astronomer Patrick Moore before launching into a story about Arthur C. Clarke, his old friend from the heyday of the British Interplanetary Society. In those cold-war times, a group such as the BIS - which advocated space travel and collaboration with the Russians - was the object of official suspicion, not to mention derision from scientists working for the establishment.

Moore recalls that around 1950, Clarke went into a museum - it may have been London's Science Museum - carrying a suitcase. "Knowing that he was a member of the BIS, one of the attendant officers insisted on looking into the suitcase to make sure it didn't contain a bomb."

Clarke has indeed forgotten the suitcase incident when I mention it. This is hardly surprising, given that he is now 90. His memory, he says ruefully, has undergone a "data dump", even if his mind ranges as swiftly and eclectically as ever. But he is curious to know what was in the suitcase. Perhaps, we speculate, it contained some futuristic, though no doubt technically sound, designs for a rocket put forward by the precocious enthusiasts of the BIS.

Space rockets became possible, at least technically, with the launch of Germany's V2 rocket during the second world war, when Clarke was serving in the Royal Air Force, working on radar. Looking back, that feels like the "Jurassic" period of his life, he says. Even the start of the space age 50 years ago is "sort of ancient history - the Battle of Hastings so far as I'm concerned".

By then he had fully embarked on his tireless advocacy of space travel in both fiction and non-fiction, through books such as The Sands of Mars, A Fall of Moondust, The Exploration of Space and Profiles of the Future. Nevertheless, he was amazed that the moon landing happened so soon, in 1969. He had not expected to see it in his lifetime. "And then I was also surprised, and disappointed, that it wasn't followed up. We abandoned space for decades."

Clarke's screenplay and companion novel for the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, made by Stanley Kubrick in 1968, had imagined the construction of a moon base in the 1990s. Kubrick, who tended to be sparing with his praise, once said of his collaborator: "Arthur somehow manages to capture the hopeless but admirable human desire to know things that can really never be known."

Arthur C. Clark continued

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