60th Anniversary of Clarke's
Communication Satellite Idea

ByKavan Ratnatunga

Sir Arthur C Clarke at his home in Colombo Sri Lanka
is seen in May 2003 reading a copy of February 1945 Wireless World.

Sixty years ago Arthur C. Clarke of the British Interplanetary Society sent a letter to the editor titled Peacetime Uses for V2 which was published in the 1945 February issue of the Wireless World magazine suggesting the use of Geostationary Satellites for the instant global communications. I quote

I would like to close by mentioning a possibility of the more remote future--perhaps half a century ahead.
An ``artificial satellite'' at the correct distance from the earth would make one revolution every 24 hours; i.e., it would remain stationary above the same spot and would be within optical range of nearly half the earth's surface. Three repeater stations, 120 degrees apart in the correct orbit, could give television and microwave coverage to the entire planet.

World War II was only just ending after 5 long years, the technology to make the suggestion a reality had not yet been invented.

In his Scientific Autobiography Ascent to Orbit Arthur Clarke says that he had forgotten about this letter till he was reminded of it in 1968 by the engineering staff of the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation.

The equatorial circular orbit at a distance of 42,164 km from the center of the Earth, i.e., 35,787 km (22,237 miles) above mean sea level has a period equal to the Earth's rotation on its axis and would remain geostationary over the same point on the Earth's equator. In 2005 the Clarke Orbit has over 330 satellites.

A more detailed and famous paper with original title The Future of World Communications was written in late June and submitted to the RAF censor on July 7th. It was sent to Wireless World on August 13th and accepted on September 1st. The editor had changed title to Extra-Terrestrial Relays and published it in the 1945 October issue of Wireless World (pages 305-308).

The timing was perfect. The rocket technology and expertise developed in Germany for military use was picked up by USA and USSR, two nations with different political ideologies which tried to impress the world community with their acquired super powers and obtain military superiority in Space.

However the application of the same technology for science and peaceful exploration of Space is unique. Earth satellites became a reality with Sputnik in a dozen years on 1957 October 4th, and the first commercial communication satellite Intelsat I Early Bird was launched into geostationary orbit on 1965 April 6th, and Man landed on the Moon in 1969 July.

Arthur Clarke visited Ceylon over 50 years ago in 1954 December and we are very fortunate that within few years he decided to make his residence in Lanka. I know personally many Lankan scientists, including myself who were greatly inspired by him into a Space related career.

In 2005 February, I got the opportunity to travel with him to his hideout in Hikkaduwa which had survived the Tsunami which devastated a large fraction of the coast around Lanka. This was the first trip Sir Arthur has taken to this region after the Tsunami on 2004 December 26th, which took the lives of over 40,000 Lankans.

The heritage seaside Walawe, just south of Hikkaduwa is probably from the Dutch era and over 200 years old. The house walls are so thick that it had stood it's ground against the Tsunami except for some minor damage to some doors. The more recently built boundary walls to the property had washed away giving a more magnificent view of the sea.

On reaching his place, Sir Arthur first went out to the edge of the property to look out to the sea. The disable access ramp which allowed him to go on to the beach had washed away by the Tsunami leaving just the support columns. Now two months after the Tsunami, the beach had all been cleaned out, but Tourists had still not returned. The golden beach with no one or even footprints to spoil the view, was clearly a glorious sight.

Heritage seaside Walawe

The original trip was to travel all the way from Hikkaduwa to Kirinda, off the coast of which is the Great Basses reef on which he had helped discover a shipwreck with silver coins in 1962. His present condition however allowed him to only travel up to Weligama after a brief visit to Unawatuna. At Unawatuna he was not motivated to get down. Maybe now partly reclaimed by nature, but Unawatuna still bore the scars of over exploitation by Tourism in the recent decades. I understood why Clarke had decided to relax away from Unawatuna where he had fallen in love with Lanka. It seemed not the Unawatuna he wished to remember.

Back at Hikkaduwa on 24th February evening, I took the opportunity to briefly interview Sir Arthur Clarke.

Kavan: In 1945 you suggested the idea of geostationary satellites for instant global communications. Any reflections on the 60th Anniversary of the first publication of your great idea ?

Clarke: I can't remember what happened then. After all it was 60 years ago. The war was then about to finish. In fact the Atom Bomb was dropped soon after I worked on this article. The idea for them was brewed over a period of time. There has always been an interest in Space travel. There may have been stories that suggested communication satellites, and I would like somebody to do some research to see if anybody did mention them earlier.

Kavan: Mobile phones have made instant global communications very personal. Do you carry this mobile technology with you. ?

Clarke: Well I don't carry anything with me now since I can hardly carry myself. I have my staff and they have mobile phones to take care of those needs.

Kavan: The Tsunami of 26th December 2004 was Lanka's worst natural disaster in recorded history. Shouldn't instant global communications have solved the problems of disaster management ?

Clarke: Obviously instant global communications are needed to warn people of disasters but I don't think it applies to this case. I don't believe there could be any warning of a Tsunami, since there is no way of predicting earthquakes, and thats what caused this.

Kavan: You first came to Lanka over 50 years ago in December 1954, and in a famous quote from the Sea of Sinbad you said about Unawatuna Ten thousand kilometers from the place where I was born, I had come home. Now that you have visited it again this morning, what are your thoughts and hopes for Unawatuna ?

Clarke: I think Unawatuna appealed to me because the curve of the bay reminded me of Minehead where I was born. I am quite happy with it as it the way it is now. I hope it continues to be looked after and not spoiled with too much tourism, or anything like that. I think we have gained something from the sea recently as more sand has been built up.

Kavan: Over 40 years ago you helped discover a ship with The Treasure of the Great Basses Reef. As a Numismatist, the lumps of Surat Rupee coins you found are of particular interest to me. Any reflections on that discovery ?

Clarke: This is a long time ago. I gave one of these coin lumps I think to the Museum here, not quite sure where they are now. I have only one or two of the coins myself. The book does record what happened and what we found. Almost certainly there is a great deal more in the Great Basses and the Little Basses that have been death traps for ships for at least 2000 years. In every ocean in the world there are shipwrecks caused by Warfare, hurricanes, and any number of thing that will cause a ship to go down. So I don't think there is any shortage of shipwrecks to explore by amateurs and professionals.

Kavan: In a nation where there new laws against spreading of false rumors, national TV stations still feel free to broadcast predictions of astrologers, which we know scientifically has no reality. What it will take for all educated people to understand that Astrology has no reality, like the Flat-Earth Theory ?

Clarke: Astrology is an attractive idea. I am sure that the celestial bodies, the Sun and Moon will have all sorts of influences some of which may not been discovered. But the idea that astrologers can predict an individual's future is I am sure utter nonsense, and the idea will die out eventually. Also I don't think there are any flat-Earth theorist's around still. I am also reminded that spiritualism used to have a big role when I was young, a result of the First World War. I don't know what has happened to spiritualism is it still around or has it died a natural death.

Kavan: As the last remaining Grand Master of Science Fiction, what is your take on the more popular interest in Fantasy. Why has Magic become more appealing than Science to the younger generation of readers ?

Clarke: I don't know. It is hard to draw the line between fantasy and hard science fiction, because we have seen so many thing which seemed fantastic at one time and have come true. I enjoy both and I am not totally against fantasy. Books like Harry Potter will introduce children eventually to hard science.

Kavan: The headline of a recent issue of the "Sinhala Bauddhaya" quoted the 1953 prediction in your famous Novel Childhoods End that Only a form of purified Buddhism - perhaps the most austere of all religions - still survived. I understand you meant the Buddha Dharma (Philosophy). Over the last few decade organized Religion has become stronger, although Science has a much deeper understanding of the nature of the Universe. As an Astronomer I would like to know your thoughts as to why even some of the educated feel they still need so much faith in religion ?

Clarke: Has organized religion become stronger ? I didn't know that. I rather doubt it. Even educated people what ever that means need some emotional crutch and it is nice to feel that somebody up there is looking after your concerns and it is harmless unless it becomes an obsession.

Kavan: NASA has canceled the servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. It is also now over 2 years since the Columbia accident in early February 2003, and the Shuttle has not yet returned to Space; currently scheduled for mid May 2005. It took a similar 2.6 years for NASA to return to space after the Challenger accident in January 1986. But they landed on the Moon in less time, after the Apollo 1 accident in January 1967. Are we softer now in taking the risks needed for space exploration ?

Clarke: I think one reason why Apollo 11, the first moon landing was not held up was the fear that the Russians may be on their way and get there first. I don't know how seriously that risk was ever taken. So I think we need to wait now till we have more reliable and reusable ways of exploring space and then move on to Mars and Jupiter.

Kavan: What is your view on the recent evidence for CH4 on Mars and it's implications for potential life on Mars?

Clarke: This latest evidence seems some of the most convincing yet. I mean it will be surprising as well as disappointing if we don't find life there. We know that all kinds of stuff has splashed around the Solar system, DNA might survive a trip across Space. I sincerely hope that is the case. As for Comets of course they have all the organic material need for life. I don't remember who said that "Comets have bad breath".

Kavan: Is there a major project you would like see achieved or see happen in your lifetime ?

Clarke: I think I have seen enough, but there are somethings I would like to see happen. The first of course is the discovery of life or intelligence in outer Space. I think it is unlikely to be in my lifetime but I am sure it will be eventually achieved.

Passing Tent cities for Tsunami Refugees

Clarke looking toward the sea at Hikkaduwa.

The remnants of the ramp after Tsunami

Clarke relaxing at Hikkaduwa

Clarke getting ready to travel

View toward the house from the golden beach

"And always it is the same; the slender palm trees leaning over the white sand, the warm sun sparkling on the waves as they break on the inshore reef, the outrigger fishing boats drawn up high on the beach. This alone is real; the rest is but a dream from which I shall presently awake"

The Treasures of the Great Reef
By Arthur C. Clarke 1964

An edited version of this article Life out there will be discovered too, one day By Kavan Ratnatunga appeared in the SundayTimes of Sri Lanka on 2005 March 13th. The printed copy of Newspaper included the introduction and four of the Photographs shown above not included in online edition. Access to the Online edition of the SundayTimes of Sri Lanka requires a paid annual subscription.

See also 2000 March interview.