Spring 2008 Issue

Searching For The Ultimate DX

Remembering Sir Arthur C. Clarke

By Dr. H. Paul Shuch, N6TX


The author visiting Sir Arthur in his Colombo home, January 2000.

The official obituaries have already been written most eloquently. This is a personal remembrance of Arthur Charles Clarke—science-fiction author extraordinaire, advisor to The SETI League, life member of AMSAT, and the world’s second greatest communications engineer—who passed away on March 18, 2008 at the age of 90 of complications arising from post-polio syndrome.

Although Clarke had a direct influence on my entire career, and we corresponded from time to time, I did not actually meet him until January 2000. It was a memorable meeting (more about that later). The first Clarke science-fiction novels I read (in high school) included Childhood’s End and Prelude to Space. However, it was his brief article “Extraterrestrial Relays” in the monthly radio journal Wireless World that had the most profound early impact on me.

In 1961 I was a high school student and a radio ham, and the youngster sitting in the back of the room at Project OSCAR meetings watching my mentors design and build the world’s first non-government communications satellite. I remember thinking, “This is what I want to be when I grow up.” We had read Clarke’s seminal article, and (although OSCAR 1 was a low-orbiter) we were already thinking about the geosynchronous orbit that he “invented” back in 1945.

Fast forward to the early 1970s. I had become an aerospace engineer and was running a small Silicon Valley microwave company, developing receivers for the first geosynchronous Earth imaging and communications satellites. I had a small (16-foot, gigantic by today’s standards) satellite TV dish in my back yard, and read in Coop’s Satellite Digest that Clarke himself had a similar dish perched on the balcony of his Colombo residence.

That Clarke lived in Sri Lanka bore a certain technological irony. Because the Earth’s center of mass is not at its geographical center (ours is a lumpy planet), even perfectly circular satellite orbits tend to decay over time. From the Clarke Belt, if active station-keeping is disabled (or if the satellites run out of the hydrazine fuel burned by their thrusters), the birds tend to drift to the “low” point in their orbit, a stable resting point over the Indian Ocean. This satellite graveyard was well in view of Arthur’s 5-meter dish, so I like to think that the dormant geosats were all going home to papa.

In 1979 (by now an engineering professor), I happened to be in Hawaii touring the Comsat telemetry, tracking, and control (TT&C) station on the north end of Oahu. My host showed me a brief PR film called “Pathways to the World,” narrated by none other than Arthur Clarke. There was a scene showing him standing under his dish, and I thought this would be a great thing to show my students. I asked the Comsat people how I might obtain a print of the film. “Do you have access to an Intelsat terminal?” I was asked. I did indeed (my old homebrew 16-foot dish and C-band receiver). I was given a satellite name, and a transponder number, and a time about a week hence. When I arrived home on the mainland, I aimed my dish and tuned my receiver appropriately and videotaped “Pathways to the World.” How’s that for appropriate use of Clarke’s technology?

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