Tag Archives: Arthur C. Clarke

594. Into Orbit

Fifty years ago last Saturday, Apollo 10 left for the moon. As you read this, depending when you click in, they are/were part way there. The mission’s big events will have their anniversary Wednesday, and that is when the main post will come.

Meanwhile . . .

From the fifties onward, there were dozens of books by people like Arthur C. Clarke and Wily Ley that explained in great detail how  we would go to space. I read most of them — at least every one I could get my hands on. There were a lot of people like me then. A lot of them spent the last decades working for NASA.

Now our knowledge of the universe is vastly greater, and most kids today know more than the best informed knew then. Still, some basic things get missed, because “everybody already knows them”.

Actually, they don’t. Here is an example, which I need to get out of the way before I talk about Apollo 10 on Wednesday.

Imagine, a rocket leaves Cape Canaveral with rocket engines flaming. The engines only burn for a  fairly short time, for reasons of efficiency; then the rocket coasts upward into orbit.

Right. And wrong. There is one more important thing that happens, but rarely get mentioned any more. A second critical burn has to happen at the high point of the initial orbit (apogee).

A rocket heading for orbit leaves the pad vertically, but it immediately begins to roll over. It needs to gain altitude to get above the atmosphere, but it also needs to gain velocity horizontally, so its upward path is a precisely programmed curve that begins vertically and ends horizontally (i.e. tangent to the surface of the Earth). This tangent is reached long after the rockets have ceased firing, at apogee, roughly half way around the Earth.

Caveat: everything in orbital mechanics is more complicated that the explanation you will get from someone like me. Nevertheless, this should be close enough for our purposes.

Let’s assume that the orbital insertion burn did not happen at apogee. Our craft would have achieved enough speed to reach its orbital altitude, but not enough speed to remain there. It would immediately begin to descend.

Think of a high fly ball to center field — up, then down again. Same Earth, same gravity, same result.

Such a rocket leaving Earth would burn up on reentry. If it were launched from an airless body like the moon, it would end up in an elliptical orbit with its low point very near the surface.

Instead, if all went well and the secondary burn took place when the rocket had reached its orbital altitude, it would change from a sharply elliptical orbit to a more nearly circular one. This is the normal way things get done.

You’ll need to have this in mind when we look at Apollo 10’s “dress rehearsal” on Wednesday.


578. That Odd Spiral

This is the track of Sputnik, the first satellite launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome at latitude 46 degrees north. Launches from Cape Canaveral followed paths that were more flattened out because they were launched from 28 degrees north.

The orbital path shown above was to be found in thousands of publications at the dawn of the space age. Everyone carried the image in their heads, but today I had a hard time finding it on the web. My how times change.

Every space geek in 1960 would have known everything in this post, but then Star Trek came along. Kirk and Spock, and especially Uhura, went at warp speed and walked around on the floor like it was a sound stage in Hollywood. No weightlessness there. Then Star Wars came along and all veracity went out the viewplate.

There were a lot of very basic principles of physics that governed the space program, which Hollywood had to ignore.

Let’s begin on the ground. The Earth rotates eastward at a certain number of miles per hour. (We are channeling 1960 here. None of the published reports on space used the metric system back then.) Any geek with a pencil could figure out rotational speed by dividing equatorial circumference (25,000 miles to any 1960’s space fan, forget the decimals.) by the length of the day. !042 miles per hour eastward at the equator.

A spacecraft in low Earth orbit flies at 17,500 miles per hour. Actually that varies, but that was the figure in all the space enthusiasts books at the time. If you launched a rocket eastward, you started with about 1000 mph of free speed. If you launched westward, it would cost you 2000 mph of extra speed. You wouldn’t gain the natural advantage, and the rocket would be going 1000 mph the wrong way as it sat on the ground.

Everyone launched eastward.

There was actually another reasonable option, launch north or south. We’ll look at that choice at the bottom of the post.

Actually you don’t get all of that speed advantage. The circumference of the Earth is less as you move northward, lowering the eastward speed. If a United World wanted to choose the most advantageous place for a spaceport, it would be at high altitude somewhere on the equator. That happened frequently in science fiction.

Neither America nor Russia had a far southern point suitable for a space port. America’s best choices were Texas and Florida — the same two states Jules Verne pointed out in From the Earth to the Moon. Florida had the added advantage of having the Atlantic ocean to eastward, which provided a place to drop first stages and failed rockets, without landing on anybody’s house.

Russia built in the desert at the same latitude as Portland, Oregon, but they always chose secrecy over other factors.

Launching eastward is an exaggeration, of course. Straight east from either site won’t work; launches had to be aimed south of east to bring the center of the orbit into line with the center of the Earth’s gravity.

You might think that a launch from Canaveral would return to Canaveral after one orbit, but that isn’t true. The Earth is rotating eastward, so a spacecraft launched from Canaveral will pass over a spot about a thousand miles west of Canaveral on its first return. And so forth. Which is why the cosmonauts were a thousand miles off target after one extra orbit in yesterday’s post.

All this gives us that odd spiral at the top of the post.

In fact, you could launch a spacecraft into orbit from any point on Earth as long as its orbital path circled around the Earth’s center of gravity. Further south is simply more efficient.

You could even launch satellites due north, and we do, from Vandenberg Air Force Base on the west coast of California. Such satellites also spiral around the Earth, but they cover every part of the Earth eventually. Weather and spy satellites use this orbit.

Southeastward launches from Canaveral and Baikonur don’t cross over the far north or the far south.

What about a satellite exactly circling the equator? In low Earth orbit, it would circle the Earth about every 90 minutes. The moon, a quarter of a million miles further out, circles the Earth in 29 1/2 days. Clearly, even for math challenged enthusiasts, the further out the satellite, the slower it travels in orbit. At some distance from the center of the Earth, it would take a satellite one day to circle the Earth. Seen from Earth, it would appear to hang in one spot above the equator.

Everybody should know that, because that is how communication satellites work. The first person to recognize the fact and calculate the distance was Arthur C. Clarke, known even to non-SF readers from 2001, a Space Odyssey. The connection between science and science fiction has always been close.

542. Characters

Characters in science fiction are . . . different. Let’s look at a few.

I have little interest in sterling characters who fight for the right, without a blemish or a flaw. That’s a good thing actually, since no one else does either. My only exception is Kimball Kinnison (of the Lensman series). That’s him overhead, walking with his buddies Tregonsee and Worsel.

I have no interest in literary characters who live their little lives and make novels out of the trivialities of existence. Here is a test; if a book seems to only have readers because it is required in college literature classes, maybe you should just go read some science fiction.

I like people — and characters — who do their job and a little more; who don’t think that the sun rises and sets in themselves, but who are also not passively afraid to assert themselves.

I don’t like villains who are deeply and intractably evil. I make use of such characters if I need them, but I keep them off stage. They are boring, seen up close.

I like my villains to be like my other people, rational and a little bigger than life, but affected by a flaw of character or aligned to the wrong side. They are usually selfish, but good heroes always have a bit of selfishness as well.

An interesting hero is necessary; an interesting villain is a nice bonus.

I don’t expect other authors to have similar taste, and some of my favorite books have characters I would not have chosen to write. Genly Ai comes to mind. If you don’t recognize him, he is the character through which we experience Ursula le Guin’s the Left Hand of Darkness. It is a fine book, and he does the job her story requires of him, but he is a bit of a cypher. I like Sparrowhawk better, and that is probably a big part of why I like A Wizard of Earthsea better.

And then there’s Alvin (or any other character that Arthur C. Clarke ever wrote). The City and the Stars, in either of its incarnations, (See 332. and 333.) is a mind expanding tour of the universe, but its protagonist is dull, dull, dull.

Zelazny’s characters are universally smart assed, universally delightful, and hard to tell apart.

Heinlein’s characters are all Heinlein.

424. Arthur C. Clarke and Russia

(Written last Thursday) This morning’s news brings new revelations about what Russia is doing to America through the internet. Or are they new? Didn’t Arthur C. Clarke warn us all that this was coming back in 1960 in his short story I Remember Babylon? Of course he did; Arthur has always been ahead of the curve.

I Remember Babylon? is actually dated and struck me as a bit naive when I first read it, but you might want to check out Arthur’s prescience as he gives you today’s headlines 57 years before they happened. After its original appearance in Playboy, the story was reprinted in Tales of Ten Worlds, available in your local used bookstore or on Amazon.

333. Arthur C. Clarke: The Big Re-write

This is a follow-on to yesterday’s post.

There is an intellectual challenge in comparing Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night to his The City and the Stars. I could easily see someone writing a thesis in an English Literature program comparing the two in great detail. That would certainly make more sense that a thousandth thesis on Joyce’s Ulysses.

Clarke’s first version of the work, written, published, and praised, just wouldn’t let go of his mind. I get that; it happen to me twice. (The won’t let go part, not the published and praised part.) My second serious novel, Valley of the Menhir, came to me as a fragment and grew piecemeal over four decades. Cyan rolled along smoothly, and was almost finished (at about half it’s present length) when I ran into a problem I couldn’t solve without destroying the basic structure of the book. It sat in manuscript for years before I realized a way out of my dilemma.

Of course Against the Fall of Night was already out there, but the idea that a book could nag at a writer for years and finally cause a rewrite — even after it was published — makes perfect sense to me.

Truthfully, however, these two novels are the same story. Clarke would not agree, but I think he stood too close to both his works to judge. There are differences between the two, of course, and Clarke considered them significant. They don’t seem so to me.

In the introduction to Against the Fall of Night, Clarke said:

Between 1937 and 1946, at least five versions, of ever increasing length, were developed.

He also said this, which we already noted yesterday:

. . . undoubtedly, much of the emotional basis came from my transplantation from the country (Somerset) to the city (London), when I joined the British Civil Service in 1936. The conflict between a pastoral and an urban way of life has haunted me ever since.

Many people before Clarke had written to that theme without creating anything as lasting as the city Diaspar. Many people after Clarke recycled Diaspar, under many names in many novels. The movie Logan’s Run comes to mind. Yesterday I spent an hour in a local used bookstore and saw several forgettable (and actually forgotten) novels where the hero escapes from or is exiled from a sealed city and finds himself in a sylvan, or at least archaic, world.

I am glad to have reread The City and the Stars, and to have read Against the Fall of Night for the first time, but I don’t think I could recommend either to a modern audience. The writing style is not stilted, but it doesn’t sing. The premise is good, but a modern reader will have seen it already in a hundred novels published since mid-last-century. Finally, Clarke fails in his stated prime intention. He does not give a sense of deep time. When he says that some aspect of Diaspar has lasted a billion years, he could have said a thousand years instead, and the feeling would have been the same. I don’t fault him for this; I think the task was an impossible one. A thousand years or a billion years are both the same size when measured against the only yardstick that matters — “Longer than I will live.”

Diaspar, glorious as it is in Clarke’s description, had stood for billions of years and then was utterly changed by one young man is what appears to be about a year. Such an effortless transition has neither resonance nor believability. What Alvin does is powerful and meaningful, and Clarke’s creation of Diaspar, Lys, the Seven Suns, and Vanamonde is worthy of praise. But the changes that happen come too easily for full satisfaction as a novel.

Both versions of the story of Diaspar were great books for their time. Nevertheless, a modern reader encountering them today might shrug and say, “This is all old stuff. I’ve seen all this before.” He would not realize that these two novels, through their many imitators, are the reason the ideas seem familiar.

This all reminds me of Jekyll and Hyde. Almost no one has read the original, unless forced to in a literature class, but everyone knows the story. So which is great — the imitators everyone has seen, or the original everyone has forgotten?

332. Arthur C. Clarke: The Two Diaspars

In 1949, Arthur C. Clarke wrote his first novel Against the Fall of Night. Four years later, he rewrote it, and gave it a new title, The City and the Stars. Clarke himself said that only about 25% of the first novel resided in the second. My arithmetic doesn’t add up with his. I see them as much closer to each other than that; in some ways, barely different.

If you want details, go to the Wikipedia article on the latter novel. There is a section of comparison between the two books where the differences are laid out, but I find them superficial.

I read Against the Fall of Night for the first time this month. The City and the Stars, on the other hand, was one of the first proper science fiction novels of my childhood, and a major influence on me.

I read it soon after I found the local public library. Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Norton and dozens of lesser science fiction writers were suddenly available, where I had previously only had Tom Swift Jr. to read. About then I was probably reading three books a week, and at least half were extremely forgettable.

This would have been about 1960 or 1961, when I was thirteen or fourteen. Clarke was my main man then. That seems entirely appropriate; I was just really learning to think, and Clarke was all head. By the seventies, I couldn’t read him any more. His prose doesn’t sing and his characters have neither heart nor cojones. They weren’t quite wooden, but they were at least cloistered.

Actually, most of all, they were extremely British. And so are these two novels. Here is a quote:

Since that far-off day, Man had explored the Universe and returned again to Earth — had won an empire, and had it wrestled from his grasp. p. 97

That’s from The City and the Stars, the one I read as a child. At that time my understanding of the twentieth century was shallow indeed. Reading it again fifty-some years later, it is clear that the novel is largely a product of its time and place. Clarke had just moved from Somerset to London and found the transition difficult. Hence the contrast between Diaspar the uber-city and Lys the sylvan paradise. Both books revolve around the elegiac feeling of a time when mankind had forged a stellar empire and then withdrawn to Earth when (as his main character believes) they were driven back from what they had conquered.

World War II had just concluded. It had driven a stake through the heart of the British Empire. India won its independence in 1947, and the fifties saw one after another of the old colonies become new countries. At home in Britain, it was a time of deep austerities as the British tried do rebuild their nation out of the ruins of war. 

America suffered during the war; I do not disparage her losses, but no one bombed our cities to rubble, nor destroyed our economy. The fifties in Britain were not like the happy days of hot rods, tract housing, TV, freeways, and kitchen appliances.

Reading Against the Fall of Night or The City and the Stars today, as an adult aware of twentieth century history, that background informs my reading much as it surely informed Clarke’s writing. In both novels, the closed city of Diaspar is the last bastion of mankind in an Earth gone to desert, in a universe on which man has turned his back. Alvin, the hero, is mankind’s last hope of recovery from those great losses. more tomorrow

255. Fire

dscn2539For writers – or anyone who is leading a thoughtful life – every day brings experiences that add to our understanding of the world around us. For the last half decade, my tutor has been fire.

I took the photo at the top of this post a few years ago, while standing in my front yard. The smoke was only about three miles away and my first thought was, this is finally it. Fortunately, it was on the other side of a lake that lies in the valley between my house and its location. We drove to a vantage point and spent an hour watching a scoop-equipped helicopter dropping down to the lake for loads of water, and dropping them on the fire. It took several days to put it out, so for a week we could not open any windows because of the smell of burning.

There have been weeks in late summer almost every year recently, when the smell of burning kept us indoors. You could blame our long-running drought, but that isn’t it. When there is little winter rain, things become unnaturally dry, and there is fire. When there is abundant winter rain, the grass and weeds grow tall and lush, and there is more fuel for the fires that still come.

Arthur Clarke wrote a story called Report on Planet Three, in which Martians, observing Earth through telescopes, concluded that life could not survive here because the atmosphere was so rich in oxygen that Earth might have open fires as a natural phenomenon! When I first read the story as a youth in Oklahoma, I found it humorous. Now that I live in the foothills of California, I say, “Yep, Arthur, you got another one dead right.”

A few years ago, a target shooter started a fire that burned into Yosemite. Three years ago, north of here, an illegal campfire was the spark. Two years ago, east of a foothill town I visit frequently, it was untrimmed trees rubbing against a power line. This year, someone pulled off the road into dry grass and his hot muffler started a thousand acre burn just a few miles from my home. That was the fire that caused me to write this post.

dscn4753Here is one of my favorite places. It is a vernal pond; man made, but fleeting. Right now it is probably filling with water, as it does every fall. It will look this beautiful until spring – maybe.

In the coverage of the fire this year, a newscast showed a reporter standing on a black top road. One side was untouched; the other was fire blackened. It was the point at which the fire had started, and I recognized it as the place I park when I go to the pond. I couldn’t tell whether the reporter was facing north or south, so I don’t know if my favorite place was saved, or destroyed. I haven’t yet had the heart to drive up and find out.

In my writing, I have brought nuclear war to Earth in two different fictional universes. It’s easy. I don’t see many movies, but everyone sees their trailers on TV. Massive, ubiquitous destruction prevails. A kid with his own camera and computer could illegally produce his own apocalyptic vision, using FX stolen from Blue-ray. Washington and New York have each gone up a dozen times in the last few years. He would have an abundance of destruction to call upon.

Bringing massive destruction over there is easy and cathartic. Dealing with even small destructions right here is another matter. I had no problem blowing up the Earth, twice, but I dread driving up to see if my favorite pond is still there.