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Space Age Prophet: How Much Did Arthur C. Clarke Get Right?

Just how accurate were Arthur C. Clarke's predictions of the future?

Space Age Prophet: How Much Did Arthur C. Clarke Get Right?
Arthur C. Clarke. ITU Pictures/Wikimedia Commons

On March 19th, 2008, British scientist, inventor, futurist, explorer, and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke passed away in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Clarke left behind a very distinguished career and life. In addition to his prolific collection of published works, Clarke was also a pioneer in telecommunications, spaceflight, and science communication.

During World War II, Clarke served in the Royal Air Force as a radar specialist and was involved in the early-warning radar defense system - a crucial element to the Allied war effort during the Battle of Britain. After the war, Clarke completed his studies and wrote extensively about space exploration, eventually becoming president of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS). 

For these accomplishments, Clarke was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and was named a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (FRAS). In 2000, he was also knighted, becoming a Knight Bachelor in honor of his "services to literature." 

But Clarke is perhaps best known for his contributions as a science fiction author and the predictions he made about the future - which earned him the nickname "the Prophet of the Space Age." He is also considered one of the "Big Three," which refers to the three most influential science fiction authors of the late 20th century - Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Robert A. Heinlein.

But just how accurate were Clarke's prophetic visions? Between all of his writings, he offered many glimpses of the future, all of which were rather astounding in nature. But throughout, Clarke also offered predictions about the technologies humanity would come to rely on and how these would enable us to go farther, look deeper, and accomplish things we never thought possible.

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A prophet for our times

In 1968, Arthur C. Clarke became a household name thanks to the release of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In addition to being the co-writer of the book, he was also the science advisor to filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who wanted to create a realistic depiction of humans in space. The film and book were inspired by two of Clarke's earlier short stories.

These included Clarke's 1951 short story "The Sentinel," about the discovery of an alien artifact on the Moon; and his later short story "Encounter in the Dawn" (1953) that tells the tale of aliens coming to Earth and encountering primitive hominids who (we learn by story's end) go on to become the great ancestors of the Babylonians.

The film also contained many predictions Clarke had for the future of spaceflight, which were masterfully rendered by the movie's illustrators and set designers. The classic musical score didn't hurt either! The sets included orbiting pinwheel stations, space planes, a lunar colony, deep-space spacecraft, cryogenic suspension, and artificial intelligence (the HAL 9000).

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Clarke detailed these concepts further in the film's novelization (which was released concurrently with the film) and his other works. But it didn't start (or end) there. During his career, Clarke made (literally) hundreds of predictions, many of which were collected and published in book form in 1962, in a work titled Profiles of the Future.

Included in the book was Clarke's "Chart of the Future," a timetable of his predictions up to the year 2100. For example, in terms of space exploration, Clarke predicted spaceships, the lunar landing, and labs in space by the mid-70s. By the 1980s/90s, he predicted humans would land on Mars (and other planets), followed by colonies in the 2000s and interstellar probes by the 2020s.

He also predicted communication satellites by the mid-80s, AIs by the 1990s, and a "Global Library" by 2005. He held that scientists would develop efficient batteries in the 1970s and 80s, fusion power by the 1990s, and wireless energy by the early 2000s. Also, by the early 2000s, he anticipated the rise of exobiology (study of life in the cosmos), genetic cataloging, and genomics.

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Granted, not all of these predictions materialized, at least not within his proposed timeframe. But even where he was wrong, Clarke did foresee many trends and developments that would eventually become (or are in the process of becoming) reality. As Clarke himself explained in the Foreword of the millennial edition of the novel 2001: A Space Oddysey:

"2001 was written in an age which now lies beyond one of the great divides in human history; we are sundered from it forever by the moment when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out onto the Sea of Tranquility. Now history and fiction have become inexorably intertwined."

So let's see how Clarke's predictions stack up over time in order of accuracy, starting with what proved to be prophetic, and end on what he was way off about!

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Satellite communications and the internet

One of Clarke's earliest and most accurate predictions had to do with how spaceflight would lead to the creation of satellite communications. His first recorded mention of the idea was in an October 1945 article titled "Extraterrestrial Relays: can rocket stations give worldwide radio coverage?" - that appeared in Wireless World.

In this article, Clarke described a series of artificial satellites deployed in geostationary orbit (GSO) to relay radio signals. By 1957, the first artificial satellite was launched (Sputnik 1) that carried an onboard radio transmitter. The following year, the U.S. deployed the first purpose-built communications satellite as part of Project Score.

By the 1960s, the first commercial communications satellites were launched, and by the 1980s, the industry had expanded greatly. Long before this, Clarke predicted the social and economic effects of having constellations of communication satellites in orbit. He shared this vision in a 1964 BBC Horizon documentary, where he described what civilization would be like in the year 2000:

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"I think it will be completely different. In fact, it may not even exist at all. Oh, I'm not thinking of the atom bomb and the next Stone Age. I'm thinking of the incredible breakthrough which has been made possible by developments in communications.

"Particularly, the transistor and, above all, the communication satellite. These things will make possible a world in which we can be in instant contact with each other, wherever we may be. Where we can contact our friends anywhere on Earth, even if we don't know their actual physical location."

According to the Online Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space, which is maintained by the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), there are currently 7,853 satellites in orbit of Earth. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which keeps an active tally of operational satellites, 3,372 of these satellites were active as of Jan. 1st, 2021.

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This is expected to increase exponentially in the coming years, thanks to the growth of the satellite internet market, CubeSats, and cheaper launch services. Because of the role he played in their development, Arthur C. Clarke is often credited with the invention of communication satellites. In his honor, the term used to describe a large belt of satellites in GSO was also named a "Clarke Belt."

Clarke's description of telecommunications was also eerily reminiscent of the internet, which was something else he predicted decades before the fact. In 1974, during an interview with ABC News, Clarke spoke to an Australian reporter (and his son) about the future of computing. The setting, which helped frame Clarke's futuristic predictions, was the local computer lab.

Amid the massive and thunderous machines, Clarke explained what computers would look like by the time the reporter's son became an adult: 

"The big difference, when he grows up - in fact, he won't have to wait for the year 2001 - is that he will have in his own house, not a computer as big as this. But at least, a console, through which he can talk to his friendly local computer and get all the information he needs for his everyday life.

"Like his bank statements, theatre reservations, all the information you need in the course of living in our complex, modern society. This will be in a compact form in his own house. He'll have a television screen, like these here, and a keyboard, and he'll talk to the computer and get information from it. He'll take it as much for granted as we do the telephone."

Thanks to personal computers (PCs), internet connections, cloud computing, and search engines, people today live in a world almost entirely like what Clarke described. Our household machines can hold all of our personal information, the Global Library is very much real, and we do take these things entirely for granted.

Verdict: Highly accurate

Spaceplanes and commercial liners

As noted before, that scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey also made a point of including a commercial space plane that had the name of a real-life airline, Pan American, on it. While the real-life Pan American company ceased operations in 1991, the message was clear. Clarke predicted that space planes and commercial flights to space would be a reality by the turn of the century.

In the space plane category, Clarke was certainly onto something. In the early 1970s, even before the Apollo Program wrapped up, NASA was busy contemplating its next moves. To reduce the costs of going to space, they decided to develop a new launch system that was partially reusable. This led to the Space Shuttle Program, which operated until the last of the shuttles were retired in 2011.

The Soviets also developed a reusable space shuttle known as the Buran, but it never saw service. Since the Space Shuttle Era, multiple space planes have commenced development, such as the Boeing X-37, the Chinese Chongfu Shiyong Shiyan Hangtian Qi ("experimental reusable spaceplane"), and Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser.

While such services were not available around the time of the millennium, there were rumblings that they might be someday. Between 2000 and 2004, the three current giants of the commercial space industry - Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic - were all founded. These companies were all launched with the vision of increasing access to space by commercializing launch services.

While the focus of SpaceX and founder Elon Musk has been mainly on the development of reusable launch systems that can make humanity an "interplanetary species," both Bezos and Branson have pursued the creation of a "space tourism" industry. On July 11th, 2021, Virgin Galactic conducted the first fully-crewed flight (which included Branson) with their VSS Unity spaceplane.

Then, on July 20th, 2021, Jeff Bezos flew to space as part of the first crewed mission using a New Shepard spacecraft. By 2023, says Musk, SpaceX will be conducting the first crewed flight using its fully-reusable Starship launch vehicle, which will carry Japanese entrepreneur and art collector Yusaku Maezawa and seven artists on a flight around the Moon (aka. the #dearMoon campaign). 

In summary, these particular predictions did not come true in 1999 or 2001. But Clarke did predict trends that were materializing around that time. Today, commercial spaceflight that could involve spaceplanes is rapidly taking shape!

Verdict: Getting close!

Orbiting space stations

The image of a spinning space station in Earth orbit was more than an inspired piece of science fiction and set design. The concept was actually something that scientists and futurists had been contemplating for some time. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky made the earliest recorded example in a treatise titled, "The Exploration of the Universe with Reaction Devices" (1903).

To address humanity's future in space, Tsiolkovsky indicated that a space station could simulate gravity by rotating in space. In the 1950s, Colliers Magazine featured a spread with contributions by Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley ("Man Will Conquer Space Soon!") that contained a description of a rotating pinwheel station that would act as a staging point for spacecraft headed to Mars.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clarke and Kubrick presented a rotating space station that serves as a gateway between the Earth and the Moon. In the sequence, we see the NSF Chairman Heywood Floyd flying aboard a commercial Pan American space plane to Space Station V, then boarding a spacecraft that takes him to the US lunar colony.

While none of these things existed in 1999 (or 2021, for that matter), we are well on our way to developing them. For instance, space stations have come a long way since Clarke's predictions appeared on the silver screen. In 1971, the Soviet Union launched its first orbiting space station, Salyut 1 (DOS-1).

Between 1971 and 1986, the Soviets would deploy a total of eight space stations. The same design informed the creation of DOS-7 and DOS-8 ("Zvezda"), which became the core module of the Soviet/Russian Mir space station (1986 to 2001) and a service module aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

NASA also dedicated itself to developing space stations, starting with Skylab (which remained in service from 1973 to 1979). In 1998, NASA, Roscosmos, and other space agencies began collaborating on the assembly of the ISS, which is expected to remain in operation until 2025 (barring future extensions).

Similarly, China launched its own space stations as part of the Tiangong ("Heavenly Palace") program. To date, three Tiangong space laboratories/stations have been launched, each larger and more complex than the last. Once complete, the current Tiangong Space Station will consist of three modules and will have roughly one-fifth the mass of the ISS.

Soon, NASA plans to create the Lunar Gateway, an orbiting habitat that will allow for regular access to the surface of the Moon. The proposed timeline calls for the deployment of the core modules between 2024 and 2028. Similarly, commercial space industries are looking to create their own orbiting facilities for research, tourism, and recreation.

In 2016, the Gateway Foundation proposed creating a "Von Braun Wheel" (the Gateway Spaceport) in Earth orbit. With the help of their space construction spinoff Orbital Assembly, the Foundation is currently planning on building a smaller version of the concept (the Voyager Station) as early as 2025.

Based on these estimates, space stations that resemble what Clarke predicted for 1999 could be here by the 2030s. So... off by a few decades, but we're making progress!

Verdict: Not quite, but getting closer.

Lunar colony

Clarke also predicted that humanity would achieve the dream of creating a lunar settlement before the 20th century was out. This was clearly based on the progress of the Apollo Program, which was well-underway during the mid-1960s when he and Kubrick were collaborating on the script for 2001: A Space Odyssey.

However, the post-Apollo era did not turn out the way many futurists and visionaries hoped. Rather than establishing a base on the Moon and mounting crewed missions to Mars, the world's space agencies began to shift their focus to long-term stays and cutting launch costs - i.e., in space stations and space planes.

Since the mid-2000s, NASA has been working on a plan to return to the Moon and pave the way to Mars. By 2017, these efforts culminated in Project Artemis, which entailed the completion of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, and the creation of the Lunar Gateway and a Human Landing System (HLS).

While the main focus of Artemis has been the return of astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024 - something which may not be likely (according to a recent NASA audit on spacesuit readiness) - the long-term goals include the creation of an Artemis Basecamp on the lunar surface. The European Space Agency (ESA) has also been planning to construct a Moon Village in the southern polar region with international partners.

Earlier this year, China and Russia announced that they were partnering to construct their own lunar outpost. They further announced that they were seeking international partners for this endeavor. While the timetables on all of these outposts are subject to some guesswork, all the plans call for the completion of these facilities between 2030 and the 2040s.

While such bases could be the first step towards creating a lunar colony populated by civilians (and funded by commercial enterprises, like lunar tourism), the realization of a permanent human settlement on the Moon is still pretty far off. Perhaps it will be possible in the latter half of the 20th century, but not anytime soon.

Verdict: Not yet, at least for a while.

Sentient machines

A major element in 2001: A Space Odyssey was how artificial intelligence emerged by the 21st century and became an important part of scientific research and space exploration. This was personified with the HAL 9000 (a one letter variation on the initials IBM), the AI responsible for running the spaceship Discovery (the setting for the third part of the movie).

The character and the ultimate fate of HAL have left an indelible stamp on popular culture. Between the eerily-soothing voice, the iconic red eye, and the way he eventually turns on the crew for the sake of "the mission" (or possibly out of self-preservation), the trope of the AI that goes mad has remained fixed in the public imagination.

But it was Clarke's prediction that computers would be capable of surpassing humans by the turn of the century (to the point that they were "error-free") that concerns us here. In this respect, Clarke's vision of an AI capable of handling complex tasks predicted the development of machine learning, a field of AI that emerged just a few years before the film and novel's release.

Also, supercomputers which, like HAL, have now emerged capable of imitating human speech and even interactions (like IBM Watson). That being said, developments in machine learning would prove to be slow and did not become truly feasible until the 2010s. In addition, modern supercomputers are still not capable of abstract thought or reasoning.

Clarke and Kubrick also envisioned the HAL 9000 being similar in profile to computers of their day, which occupied entire rooms and had wall-sized memory cores. In reality, computers would get continuously smaller between the 1960s and 1980s, at which point integrated circuits became the mainstay and would lead to the development of the personal computer (PC).

So while computers have emerged that are light-years beyond anything that existed in the 1960s, we have yet to create an AI capable of surpassing humans in every respect (or being "error-free").

Verdict: Not yet, and unclear if we ever will.

Crewed missions to deep space

In 2001: A Space Odyssey and his many works of fiction, Clarke predicted that the 21st century would see human astronauts flying to destinations beyond the Earth-Moon system. In the film, the third act takes place aboard an interplanetary spacecraft known as The Discovery, which carries two pilots, a crew of specialists, and is administered by the aforementioned HAL 9000.

In the novel, the ship is destined for Jupiter's moon Europa (or Saturn's moon Iapetus). Given the time it will take to make the transit, the crew must be in a state of cryogenically-induced suspended animation for most of the journey. Unfortunately, in this respect, Clarke's predictions were pretty off the mark.

Once again, Clarke predicted the progress humanity made in the Space Race thus far would continue. Instead, after the final Apollo mission reached the Moon in 1972, no missions would venture beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for over fifty years. Without exception, all missions that traveled beyond the Earth-Moon system were robotic.

Neither 2001 nor 2021 saw any crewed missions go to deep-space, and no solid plans exist for any. Both NASA and China have announced plans to send crewed missions to Mars by the 2030s, but these remain tentative at this point. As for missions that would venture to the outer Solar System (like in 2001), there's no telling when something like that might occur.

Verdict: Not even close.

Meeting Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ETI)

But of course, the big-ticket item in 2001: A Space Odyssey (and the subsequent novels Clarke wrote in the Space Odyssey series) was the prospect of contact with extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). This theme appears in other works by Clarke, such as Childhood's End and Rendezvous with Rama; in all cases, involving an ETI that is far more advanced than ourselves.

While many believe that ETIs have been to Earth and influenced human development (the Ancient Astronaut theory), there is no hard evidence to support these claims. Although, the recent release of the "UFO Report" by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has been interpreted by some as confirmation that ETIs are visiting Earth all the time.

If famed Harvard Professor Abraham Loeb is correct, humanity may have witnessed an extraterrestrial probe passing by Earth in 2017. This was none other than the mysterious object known as 'Oumuamua, ' which defied classification and is still the subject of considerable debate and controversy.

Recently, Prof. Loeb and his colleagues launched Project Galileo. Inspired by 'Oumuamua and the release of the UFO Report, this project is the first scientific attempt to characterize unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) and unidentified objects in our Solar System. Will they find any evidence of ETIs visiting Earth? Who knows?

In the end, all efforts made in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) have come up empty so far. Scientists in the field are confident that with the right kind of comprehensive surveys (like Breakthrough Listen) and ongoing advances in the study of exoplanets, it is just a matter of time before we find evidence of life out there.

Nevertheless, we have yet to provide any hard evidence that there are other examples of intelligent life in the observable Universe, and there's no way of knowing if we ever will. At this rate, humanity may very well go to its grave, having never resolved the Fermi Paradox!

Verdict: Nope, and it's unknown if we ever will.

Before he passed away, Clarke left the world with a huge body of literature that addressed humanity's future. Over time, he was forced to revise many of his more famous ones, mainly because of who priorities and budgets shifted in the post-Apollo era and because of technological revolutions that came from unexpected places.

But as Clarke himself said in the prologue to the novelization of 2001: A Space Odyssey: "[P]lease remember: this is only a work of fiction. The truth, as always, will be far stranger.”

This statement, more than anything else Clarke said, proved to be 100% accurate.

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