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Ascent to Orbit by Arthur C. Clarke

Ascent to Orbit (1984)

by Arthur C. Clarke

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Arthur C. Clarke

Ascent to Orbit:
A Scientific Autobiography

John Wiley & Sons, Hardback, 1984.

4to. viii+226 pp. Foreword by Richard R. Colino, Director General of INTELSAT, 1984 [v-vi]. Postscript by the author, September 1983 [pp. 223-225].

First published, 1984.


I. The Marconi International Fellowship
1. In the Hall of the Knights [1984]

II. First Flights
2. Amazing Story: Science Discussion and Brass Tacks [1938]
3. An Elementary Mathematical Approach to Astronautics [1939]

III. Waves and Circuits
4. More Television Waveforms [1947]
5. You're on the Glide Path - I Think [1949]
6. Linearity Circuits [1944]

IV. The Beginnings of Satellite Communication
7. The Space-Station: Its Radio Applications [1968]
8. Extra-Terrestrial Relays [1945]

V. Rockets and Warfare
9. The Rocket and the Future of Warfare [1946]

VI. Amateur Astronomer
10. The Astronomer's New Weapons [1945]
11. Astronomical Radar [1946]
12. Stationary Orbits [1947]
13. The Radio Telescope [1949]
14. The Rocket and the Future of Astronomy [1952]

VII. Introduction to Astronautics
15. Principles of Rocket Flight [1949]
16. A Universal Escape-Velocity Mass-Ratio Chart [1947]
17. The Dynamics of Space-Flight [1949]
18. Interplanetary Flight [1950, Interplanetary Flight]

VIII. Electronics and Space-Flight
19. Electronics and Space-Flight [1948]
20. Electromagnetic Launching as a Major Contribution to Space-Flight [1950]

IX. The Space Elevator – and Beyond
21. The Space Elevator: 'Thought Experiment', or Key to the Universe? [1981]
22. An Optimum Strategy for Interstellar Robot Probes [1978]

X. Mathematical Recreations
HELP! I Am a Pentomino Addict [1975]

XI. Beyond the Global Village
23. Beyond the Global Village [1983]


*In square brackets: the year of first publication, in magazine form unless otherwise noted.


This massive quarto volume, apparently never reprinted since 1984 but still widely available second-hand, collects Arthur Clarke's most important scientific papers. These were mostly published during the late 1940s and early 1950s; occasional examples from later years are more like technical essays, if such thing exists. In all cases Arthur has added prefatory notes, usually titled as the paper in question, explaining the historical background of each piece. Engineers in the fields of astronautics and communications may well find the volume monstrously dated and of historical interest only (if that!), but they should know that it was not published for them. Ascent to Orbit, just like Arthur's "science fictional autobiography" Astounding Days (1989), is a book for Clarke buffs only. For them it is a treasure trove.

Let me first state my only minor and purely technical yet not negligible criticism. This is the quality of the printing. Most of the pieces appear as facsimiles, which is fascinating, but many of the more complex diagrams have parts that are all but illegible. At least one text is afflicted by the same misfortune. It is indeed a little unfortunate that this should be one of Clarke's letters to Astounding Stories which is not reprinted in the appendix of Astounding Days. It's an interesting historical curiosity as perhaps the most sarcastic thing Arthur ever penned, in this case as a response to the preposterous calculations of one Leo Vernon in an earlier issue of the magazine. Apart from such printing mishaps, the book is handsomely presented and the only other thing that could have been improved is something more in terms of photographs. There are only four small ones as a kind of frontispiece, showing Arthur during his receiving the Marconi award in 1983. This event was in fact responsible for the publication of the book and that's why "In the Hall of the Kings", the author's address for the occasion, is reprinted here.

As I have already indicated, many of these pieces are severely technical. The formulas and the schemes of the legendary "Extraterrestrial Relays", apparently the first time the idea of geostationary satellites found its way in print, can be understood by anybody with a high-school education. But ''Linearity Circuits'' consists almost entirely of differential equations which are far beyond my comprehension. Arthur himself is well aware of that, dismissing the article as a mathematical exercise of no practical value and, today, no more than a "quaint historical piece". For the most part, however, the material is far from incomprehensible, even for the layman (I should know because I am one). For instance, ''Principles of Rocket Flight'' and ''The Dynamics of Space-Flight'' deal very much with the same material as Arthur's first book to be published, the fairly technical Interplanetary Flight (1950), and the language is indeed considerably more technical here, yet the text and the very important schemes that accompany it are certainly in the range of any lay reader interested in space travel. As Arthur says, these two papers almost amount to a mini-textbook of astronautics.

There are several pieces, however, which are far removed from technical papers and require virtually no specialised background. Their inclusion here is justified by their considerable biographical significance. ''You're on the Glide Path - I Think'' has become one of Arthur's most famous pieces, being reprinted (in variously abridged versions) in at least two other of his books. It is a vastly amusing description of the development during the early 1940s of GCA (Ground Control Approach), the radar system that could for a change do something useful: talking aircraft down, rather than shooting them down. The background of the Second World War is hardly suitable for the tongue-in-cheek tone, which is probably why Arthur describes the piece somewhat sheepishly as ''light-hearted'', but I could never resist a smile when reading about their trucks with numerous cables resembling a ''rendezvous of amorous squids''. Nevertheless, Arthur is positive that his work on the GCA, together with ''a bunch of wild young scientists and engineers'' from MIT, had a decisive formative effect on his personality. He was less than 30 years old at the time and had the rare opportunity to work with real scientists and (for its time) cutting edge technology.

Other purely speculative essays that venture far beyond the realms of the technical are ''Beyond the Global Village'' and ''Interplanetary Flight''. The former is Arthur's address at the United Nations on May 17, 1983, the World Telecommunications Day, and is one of his finest explorations of the immense, far-reaching and essentially unpredictable social consequences of global communications. And the latter is a substantial part from the last chapter of the eponymous book in which the technical details of space flight are pushed aside in order to have a look at the philosophical implications. As a special bonus, all of the mathematical appendices from the same volume are also reprinted; so if you get along well with differential equations, you can enjoy playing with gravities, exhaust velocities, mass ratios and some other subtleties of rocket flight.

It is no coincidence that Arthur retained a special soft spot for this book so much later in his life. For one thing, the last chapter is one of his rare, and most affecting, ventures into the realms of rhetoric; it's never been dated and probably it never will be. Moreover, it was this very book, and especially the rather unexpected success it had, that convinced Arthur to finally turn writing into a professional occupation. After 1950, until the end of his life nearly six decades later, he never again was on a payroll. That he did extremely well – what a monumental understatement! – is shown by the fact after the early 1950s he virtually stopped writing technical papers, but his output of non-technical fiction and non-fiction has a combination of quality and quantity that amazes me no end. Even taking into account that his first novel and some 20 short stories or so were written before 1950, and that some of his books were rather short and that many pieces are reprinted more than once, consider this brief list of Arthur's nearly complete writings until the end of his career. (Dubious collaborations and reprints that consist, largely if not entirely, of previously collected material are deliberately omitted.)

1950: Interplanetary Flight (non-fiction)
1951: The Exploration of Space (non-fiction)
1951: Prelude to Space (novel, written in 1947)
1951: The Sands of Mars (novel)
1952: Islands in the Sky (novel)
1953: Childhood’s End (novel)
1953: Expedition to Earth (short stories)
1954: The Exploration of the Moon (non-fiction)
1955: Earthlight (novel)
1956: Reach for Tomorrow (short stories)
1956: The City and the Stars (novel)
1956: The Coast of Coral (non-fiction)
1957: The Reefs of Taprobane (non-fiction)
1957: The Making of a Moon (non-fiction)
1957: The Deep Range (novel)
1957: Tales from the White Hart (short stories)
1958: The Other Side of the Sky (short stories)
1958: Voice Across the Sea (non-fiction)
1959: The Challenge of the Spaceship (essays)
1960: The Challenge of the Sea (non-fiction)
1961: A Fall of Moondust (novel)
1962: Indian Ocean Adventure (short non-fiction)
1962: Profiles of the Future (non-fiction)
1962: Tales of Ten Worlds (short stories)
1963: Dolphin Island (novel)
1963: Glide Path (novel)
1964: The Treasure of the Great Reef (non-fiction)
1965: Voices from the Sky (essays)
1968: 2001: A Space Odyssey (novel)
1968: The Promise of Space (non-fiction)
1968: Against the Fall of the Night / The Lion of Comarre (two medium-length works of fiction)
1972: The Wind from the Sun (short stories)
1972: Report on Planet Three (essays)
1972: Beyond Jupiter: The Worlds of Tomorrow (non-fiction)
1973: Rendezvous with Rama (novel)
1975: Imperial Earth (novel)
1977: The View from Serendip (essays)
1979: The Fountains of Paradise (novel)
1982: 2010: Odyssey Two (novel)
1984: Ascent to Orbit (non-fiction)
1984: 1984: Spring - A Choice of Futures (essays)
1986: The Songs of Distant Earth (novel)
1988: 2067: Odyssey Three (novel)
1989: Astounding Days (non-fiction)
1990: The Ghost from the Grand Banks (novel)
1992: How the World was One: Beyond the Global Village (non-fiction)
1993: The Hammer of God (novel)
1994: The Snows of Olympus: A Garden on Mars (non-fiction)
1997: 3001: The Final Odyssey (novel)

All in all, 20 novels, 6 short story collections, 5 books with essays, and no fewer than 16 non-fiction books on subjects as different as moon colonisation and scuba diving. All this took some half a century to be written. But productivity is nothing in itself. If it's not backed up by substance it is worthless. I have not, of course, read all of the above, but I have read a great deal of it and I never cease to be amazed by the consistently high quality of the writing; there may be many repetitions, but there seldom is any nonsense, obscurity or puerility. My point is that Arthur clearly was a professional writer par excellence, a man who wrote not because he wanted to but because he couldn't help it, and that's why he spent virtually all his life writing (cf Somerset Maugham). In later years his productivity naturally diminished, but the quality remained as high as ever – if not higher indeed. Many times did he say, including in his ''scientific autobiography'', that The Fountains of Paradise (1979) was his ''latest last book''. Little did he know, in 1979, that he would write no fewer than six other novels, not to mention a great deal of various non-fiction.

To be a professional writer is of course no guarantee to be a good writer, let alone a great one, but it seems to me a pretty essential, though in itself not sufficient, condition. Arthur would definitely have agreed with Willie that you can't write well without writing a lot; even more so that masterpiece is much more likely to spring from the voluminous but uneven output of the professional writer than from the happy fluke of the amateur one.

Going back to Ascent to Orbit after this long and tedious digression, yet another precious feature of the book is the significant amount of autobiographical material included between the different pieces. Even though Arthur was neither a scientist nor a discoverer of the geostationary orbit, his scientific background was rather solid. In terms of education he never went farther than B.Sc. in ''Physics, Pure Mathematics and General Mathematics'' from the King's College which he attended for some two years (1947-48). It was during his first summer vacation that he wrote Prelude to Space – it took him some twenty days to do that – although his debut novel was not published until four years later. In his last student year he also attended an astronomy course in the University College, but to his dismay found it unbearably boring. Perhaps more importantly, between 1948 and 1950, in addition to being very active in the British Interplanetary Society, Arthur also worked as an editor in the journal Physics Abstracts. There he had the responsibility to make sure that everything of any value published in the field of physics during the last few years, and in any language including German and Japanese, should be extracted and made accessible to the British public. Though he had a multilingual staff at his disposal, the ultimate responsibility was his alone. He liked the work a lot, for it kept him abreast with the scientific literature in many fields that interested him such as rocketry and electronics, but in 1950 he refused the further contract he was offered. So much for being on a payroll.

The reason for this was Jim Reynolds, the chief editor of Temple Press, who had read Arthur's two papers reprinted here as ''Principles of Rocket Flight'' and commissioned the author to expand them into a book on astronautics, arguably the first one in English to discuss interplanetary flight from a more technical point of view. The rest is history and it is not a little amusing to reflect that Arthur's turning into a professional writer happened by something like sheer accident. He may well have continued to deal with abstracts and publish technical papers all his life, with fiction and non-technical non-fiction as a kind of hobby. But I guess it is highly unlikely that this would have happened at all. No matter the circumstances, such vocation for writing sooner or later compels career as a professional writer. Last and least, but still an interesting detail, it is worth noting that Arthur was 33 years old when he finally discovered that his forte is writing non-technical stuff, especially fiction. In a way it is inspiring to know that it's never too late – at least not in one's thirties – for a radical change of direction. I am reminded of Bernard Shaw who found his own forte, the writing of drama, when he was no younger than 36; then his first full-length and fairly successful play, ''Widowers' Houses'', was first produced.

It's also fun to note few obvious connections between some of the non-technical pieces and Arthur's fiction. The most conspicuous example, of course, is The Fountains of Paradise (1979) which explores the staggering possibilities of the space elevator, especially when a maniacal engineer is involved. In contrast, ''The Space Elevator: 'Thought Experiment', or Key to the Universe?'' is an excellent overview of the serious scientific literature on the subject up to the time when the novel was first published. It is quite comprehensive and discusses everything, from historical background and the little chaos with different names to engineering difficulties and the different dangers of linking a geostationary orbit with a certain point on the Equator. Even if nothing more than thought experiment, the space elevator is a most stimulating concept. And it does sound awfully plausible. Much more once improbable, indeed largely deemed impossible, things have become reality during the last century. One day the space elevator might just join them. It will certainly revolutionize space travel out of recognition, bypassing in a very elegant way its most difficult step (the escape from Earth). The paper reprinted here is of course ''dated'', for some progress toward the realization/refutation of the idea must, hopefully, have been achieved since 1981, but this hardly makes it less compelling. Arthur himself made abundant use of space elevator as late as 1996, in his real last book, 3001: The Final Odyssey, and there he frankly admitted he no longer could keep abreast with the vast literature on the subject.

Another example of futuristic concept which Arthur made a fine use of in his fiction (e.g. the short story "Maelstrom II") is the so called "lunar catapult", or in a more technical language "Electromagnetic Launching as a Major Contribution to Space-Flight". I can think of a very few more compelling reasons to colonize the Moon than building this awesome device. Imagine reaching space without burning any fuel! Sounds positively incredible and on Earth indeed it is. But on the Moon, with six times weaker gravity and virtually no air resistance, it does sound quite plausible; as the protagonist in "Maelstrom II" learned first-hand, it might be dangerous, too. Yet, even if this electromagnetic launcher is never used for manned missions, it can revolutionize sending parcels to Earth. This would surely save a great deal of money.

By way of light relaxation, there is the absorbing and thoroughly non-technical piece ''HELP! I Am a Pentomino Addict''. Arthur recalls how he was introduced and got completely hooked on this charming game, somewhat akin to its later computer cousin Tetris. The only difference is that in Pentomino your elements consist of five identical squares organised in 12 different combinations which resemble, more or less, 12 different letters. The aim of the game is quite simple yet it offers virtually inexhaustible opportunities. All you have to do is to arrange all elements into a perfect rectangle, and of course there must be no gaps inside. It is not quite as easy as you might think – and it is definitely intoxicating; so be careful. To add variety one can choose rectangles of different sizes (6 X 10, 5 X 12, or 4 X 15 units per side, for instance) or try the game with any number of elements less than 12. Arthur invites you to make your own Pentomino by cutting millimeter paper, or to buy the more durable plastic version, but nowadays you need neither: you can play it online for free as much as you want. But be careful. The game really is almost as addictive as Tetris or Sudoku. And just as much fun.

So, if you are a Clarke buff, be sure to have this volume on one of your more stable bookshelves. I assure you it is a most fascinating and rewarding, if not exactly light for the most part, reading. On the other hand, should you be a casual Clarke reader, you needn't bother. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Mar 7, 2012 |
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