Arthur C. Clarke, satellites – and democracy
In October 1945 an article titled ‘Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can rocket stations give world-wide radio coverage?’ appeared in the leading communications buffs’ technical journal, Wireless World. It was written by Arthur C. Clarke, at that time a fairly unknown writer.
Today, Clarke is best known for ‘2001 – a space odyssey’, which he wrote as a book while Stanley Kubrick was making the film. But he deserves also to be remembered for the Wireless World paper.
There had been earlier speculation about the possibility of artificial satellites but Clarke’s contribution was to see the potential for global telecommunications. His thinking on this developed during the Second World War, when he was a radar specialist with the Royal Air Force. He speculated about how the technology behind Germany’s powerful V-2 rockets might be used for peaceful purposes after the war. He argued that with further development, rocket technology could be used to send satellites into space and that, if stationed at the right distance from the Earth’s centre, the satellites would be geostationary relative to the planet’s rotation and could be used to relay communications to points across the globe.
He worked out the distance required for this at 42,000 kilometres from the centre (or 36,000 kms above sea level). Today, that distance in space is known as ‘the Clarke Orbit’.
Clarke was born in England in 1917 and died in Sri Lanka in 2008. (He migrated to Sri Lanka in 1956). He was an amazing human being: science writer, science fiction writer, physicist, mathematician, inventor, futurist and undersea diver and explorer. He was also a great optimist who saw science as a way of empowering humanity.
Clarke wrote of the geostationary satellite that ‘it would remain fixed in the sky of a whole hemisphere and unlike all other heavenly bodies would neither rise nor set’. A thing of beauty as well as function.
As is so often the case, the dividing line between science fiction and science fact was soon breached, and in 1957 the first artificial satellite was sent into orbit by the Soviet Union. I remember as a child standing in the street at night with my parents and neighbours in Melbourne hoping to gain a glimpse of the ‘Sputnik’.
In 1962, the US launched ‘Telstar’, which was the first active, direct-relay communications satellite relaying television, telephone and high-speed data communications.
Today, 70 years on, there are more than 1,300 operational satellites orbiting the Earth and the technology has advanced enormously. Yet we take them for granted.
They have become vital to our lives: in humanitarian efforts, television, Internet access in remote areas, telephony, navigation, international business and finance, meteorology, environmental and climate monitoring, safety, land stewardship, economic development in poor countries and space science.
And they are also vital to democracy and democratic aspiration.
Satellites and democracy
Satellite television signals can go directly to our homes and we can see events as they happen on the other side of the world. During 2011, I used to get up at 4.30 each morning to watch the live relays from Tahrir Square showing Egypt’s unfolding democratic revolution. Individuals in the crowds were interviewed randomly by reporters and I could see and hear their explanations for the risks they were taking, and their new-found hope in the absence of fear.
It is very hard for tyrants and dictators to control a populace that has access to global telecommunications. In Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath regime, satellite dishes were prohibited. After the regime’s overthrow in 2003 they flourished, and today are a big retail business there.
Earlier this year in Iran, the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance sought to crack down on satellite dishes, which had become popular as a source of overseas entertainment and unfiltered foreign news. Six thousand dishes were confiscated from citizens’ rooftops, daubed with slogans such as ‘Enemy of Islam’ and ‘Enemy of the Family’, and then transported to a stadium and destroyed.
Yet, according to the Minister for Islamic Culture and Guidance: ‘Wherever we collect the satellite dishes from rooftops, two days later the dishes are returned. It seems that we only create business for the dish installers’.
The satellite telecommunications potential, foreseen and promoted by Clarke in 1945, is unstoppable and in the final analysis beyond the control of governments.
Ten years ago, 16% of the world’s population accessed the Internet. Today it is 40% - and growing. Satellites are the key to extending access to remote areas of the planet.
Satellite manufacture is entering a new phase with mass production in the near future. Google has a plan to build 180 satellites that will bring the Internet to the remote and poor parts of the planet.
A more ambitious venture, involving Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Airlines, seeks to put 648 small light-weight satellites into orbit in the coming years to ensure that there will be affordable Internet access for the four billion humans currently without it. The entire world will be connected via the ‘OneWeb’ project.
Yes, there are downsides. But there is no downside to the capacity of satellites to bring education to the remotest places, and thereby help empower people to work out their own solutions to problems. And there is no downside to the free flow of ideas (which is why even in the democracies we must fight to keep the Internet unfiltered by governments).
None of this would surprise Arthur C. Clarke, who would undoubtedly see it as reason for his confidence in a brighter future for humanity.