Nation: The Best Is Yet to Come

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No science writer in modern times has done more to capture the excitement and significance of space exploration than British-born Arthur C. Clarke. Author of more than 40 works of fiction and non-fiction (2001: A Space Odyssey, Rendezvous with Rama), the prolific futurist has also had the pleasure of seeing some of his imaginative ideas come true, including the establishment of worldwide communications satellites, which he forecast in 1945. Clarke, who is chancellor at the University of Sri Lanka at Moratuwa, last appeared in the pages of TIME a decade ago, when man was about to take his first steps on the moon. Here he assesses the future:

When Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the Sea of Tranquility, the science-fiction writers had already been there for 2,000 years. But history is always more imaginative than any prophet. No one had ever dreamed that the first chapter of lunar exploration would end after only a dozen men had walked upon the moon.

Yet it was not the first time that ambition had outrun technology. In the Antarctic summer of 1911-12, ten men reached the South Pole, and five returned. They used only the most primitive of tools and energy sources—snowshoes, dog sleds, their own muscles. Once the pole had been attained, it was abandoned for nearly half a century. And then, in the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year, men came back with all the resources of modern technology. Aircraft and snow cats carried the new explorers swiftly and safely over the frozen hell where Robert Falcon Scott perished with his companions. For 20 years now, summer and winter, men and women have been living at the South Pole.

So it will be with the moon. When we go there again, it will be in vehicles that will make the Saturn 5—for all it's staggering complexity and its 150 million horsepower—look like a clumsy, inefficient dinosaur of the early space age. And this time, we will stay.

In 1969 the giant multistage rocket, discarded piecemeal after a single mission, was the only way of doing the job. That the job should be done was a political decision, made by a handful of men. As William Sims Bainbridge pointed out in his 1976 book The Spaceflight Revolution; a Sociological Study, space travel is a technological mutation that should not really have arrived until the 21st century. But thanks to the ambition and genius of Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev, and their influence upon individuals as disparate as Kennedy and Khrushchev, the moon—like the South Pole—was reached half a century ahead of time.

We have bequeathed the solar system to our children, not our great-grandchildren, and they will be duly thankful. At the very least, this gift will enable them to look back on such transient crises as energy and material shortages with amused incredulity.

For the resources of the universe that is now opening up are, by all human standards, infinite. There are no limits to growth among the stars. Unfortunately, there is a tragic mismatch between our present needs and our capabilities. The conquest of space will not arrive soon enough to save millions from leading starved and stunted lives.

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