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For the last few years I’ve been watching (off and on, as the episodes become available) the enthralling Apple TV+ series, For All Mankind. The show started off as an alternative history of the early days (1950’s and 1960’s) of the US/Soviet race to the moon. By season three, we’re now in the 1990’s, the private sector (shades of Elon Musk) has joined in the race, Mars has been reached and new challenges ensue.
Usually, my early childhood books take me on an exploration of the world of today. In this case, the reverse is true – my current thoughts return me to these books. In 1961, my brother gave me a Christmas present of Arthur C. Clarke’s The Exploration of Space. The book was first published in 1951; my copy is from 1955. The book is aimed at answering the basic questions “the intelligent layman asks about the new science of ‘astronautics'”. Mr. Clarke writes extensively about the science behind interplanetary travel and especially how Mars would be the logical jumping off planet for explorers from planet earth.
For a book published in 1951, to my layman’s mind, the encapsulation of what was known about the planet back then seems surprisingly current today. I suppose that aside from yet more powerful telescopes that have come onstream, much was already known by the mid-way point of the 20th century and little that is really new has been discovered since. In fact, one almost feels this book provided much of the source material guiding the making of the tv series. According to Wikipedia, The Exploration of Space was actually used by Wernher von Braun to convince President John F. Kennedy that it was possible to go to the Moon.
There have been 48 missions to Mars, beginning in 1960 with the USSR, carried out mainly by the USA, with the first one touching down in 1976. Here are three wonderful related infographics from Visual Capitalist:
Clarke’s book provides several key facts (for space explorers, that is) about the red planet:
The sense is that the oxygen is locked up in the deserts and water can be accessed from the ice pockets. (Thus, the storyline in this third season – how to overcome the low pressure and access water through feats of engineering.) Some of the scenes in the series would seem duplicates of some of the illustrations in the book:
Other illustrations are more fanciful (perhaps for a future season):
Any aficionado of science fiction will recognize Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) as one of the most impactful of the late 20th century authors of this genre, the other three being Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. (Some only list Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein as the “Big Three”, but I’d include Bradbury and Ferdinand Pohl as well.) I was a big fan of SF literature in my teens and 20’s (especially Heinlein); less so now, but I still do appreciate the craftmanship, incredible imagination and world creation involved, something that is also part and parcel of the fantasy genre.
Wikipedia (my second favorite source of information) describes Clarke’s writing as follows:
“His work is marked by an optimistic view of science empowering mankind’s exploration of the Solar System and the world’s oceans. His images of the future often feature a Utopian setting with highly developed technology, ecology, and society, based on the author’s ideals. His early published stories usually featured the extrapolation of a technological innovation or scientific breakthrough into the underlying decadence of his own society.”
To most people, Clarke is best-known as the author/creator of the Stanley Kubrick 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film is loosely based on a 1948 short story by Clarke called The Sentinel. I’ll never forget seeing the film when it first opened (the summer of 1968). I was on officer training in Chilliwack, B.C. when the film played (in cinerama!) at the 2077-seat Capitol Theatre on Granville Street in downtown Vancouver (http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/11053/). Like so many movie theatres of this era, it was demolished in 1974 in that huge form and replaced by six smaller screens. (Apparently only one cinerama theatre still exists, in Dayton, Ohio.)
Naturally, I went to see the film and remember being awestruck by the visuals and storyline (a trip to Jupiter rather than Mars). Although initially criticized and little understood (it was certainly not a fast-paced action thriller), it became a hit, a winner of many industry awards, greatly influenced later movie makers (e.g. Spielberg and Lucas) and is now considered to be one of the world’s movie classics.
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:
“The film is noted for its scientifically accurate depiction of space flight, pioneering special effects, and ambiguous imagery. Kubrick avoided conventional cinematic and narrative techniques; dialogue is used sparingly, and there are long sequences accompanied only by music. The soundtrack incorporates numerous works of classical music, by composers including Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss II, Aram Khachaturian, and György Ligeti.
“The film received diverse critical responses, ranging from those who saw it as darkly apocalyptic to those who saw it as an optimistic reappraisal of the hopes of humanity. Critics noted its exploration of themes such as human evolution, technology, artificial intelligence, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, winning Kubrick the award for his direction of the visual effects. The film is now widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential films ever made. In 1991, it was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.”
In honor of the film’s 50th anniversary in 2018, the CBC listed 12 interesting facts, special effects tricks and Canadian connections to the film. Among this list was Clarke’s demand that it be as scientifically accurate as possible. When one thinks back to his 1951 book on space travel, one can well understand it, for his knowledge of and interest in the field was immense.
For a more recent exploration of the science of space travel, I’d recommend Space at the Speed of Light by astrophysicist Dr. Rebecca Smethurst (Ten Speed Press, 2019; only 144 pages and available on Amazon). I recently became aware of this book through a terrific daily web/blog site named delancyplace.com to which I subscribe. I’d call delancyplace a more academic version of Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader, in that it’s full of fascinating facts and history but on a higher plain and would note that it’s also a charitable organization (kudos to them!).
Here’s a link to an excerpt from this book about travel to Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Alpha Centauri, and the concluding paragraph:
“Unless we manage to come up with another, more efficient, and faster way of powering spacecraft, it’s not going to be an easy task to get a human being to abandon their friends and family by signing up for a one-way trip to the far reaches of the solar system and beyond. If we ever do want to explore beyond the safety of our Sun’s gravitational sway with interstellar travel, we’re going to need better technology and some extremely intrepid explorers. I wonder, reader, if you were given the chance to go today, would you?”
Cover Photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash