the man-apes were the first to look
steadfastly at the Moon.”
- Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
As a child of the rocket age, born shortly after the first manned flight, like many others in my generation I grew up thrilled by the promise of space. It wasn’t easy keeping track of the Apollo missions, sequestered as I was by my father’s work to Africa, though I didn’t fail to see Neil Armstrong’s first fuzzy steps on the Moon. Such was the remoteness of Nigeria, that by the time 2001: A Space Odyssey reached us it had already been trumped by samples of Moon rock. Better late than never. And I was not the only Star Child to fall under the spell of that seminal movie. Imagine my excitement, then, when in 1994 I received an invitation from Nasa to attend a Space Shuttle launch, with Arthur C. Clarke.
18 August 1994, Launch Day: Dawn breaks over Cape Canaveral and the Space Shuttle Endeavour, floodlit and fuming in the distance, is ready for lift off. The rocket is poised to release a gigantic column of energy as it lifts off from from the Florida coast, hence our viewing site is located 5 kilometers from the launch pad. I am seated on a cold aluminum bleacher, one of a dozen stacked up along the lakeshore. An American flag hangs limp in the muggy Floridian morning, as leviathan cumulonimbus clouds painted by the first light of day hover menacingly on the horizon.
Two digital displays keep track of the countdown, and between them a large television monitor reveals a hub activity at the flight command centre in Houston, over a thousand kilometers away, while the PA system relays the running commentary from launch control at Kennedy Space Center. “We have a go for auto-sequence start; Endeavour’s on-board computers have primary control of all the vehicles critical functions.” The countdown begins. “T-minus 20...T-minus 15 seconds...12...11...10....” The fuse is lit, sending a billowing cloud of rocket exhaust from the base of the vehicle. It’s a moment like no other I’ve ever experienced. I can hardly believe I’m actually witnessing a Space Shuttle launch, and as a guest of the American space agency, NASA, no less. But I very nearly didn’t make it there at all.
It was less than a year earlier, shortly after taking up my position as director of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in London, that I first learnt of an opportunity to include the gorillas in Nasa’s Mission to Planet Earth. No, they weren’t about to put apes back in orbit. Rather, the joint initiative with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) aimed to fly a series of missions on the Space Shuttle Endeavour, with a Spaceborne Imaging Radar on board, known as SIR-C, which would be directed at our planet to gather data that would further our understanding of the “total Earth system and the effects of natural and human-induced changes on the global environment.”
The Virungas, the Mountain gorilla habitat that straddles the borders of Rwanda, Congo and Uganda, is famously shrouded in mist, and had therefore been tentatively selected as one of the environmental ‘hot spots’ at which Endeavour would aim the cloud-penetrating radar during its first mission.
Did I say tentative? With only two months to go before the launch, we received a disappointing letter from Dr Ellen O’Leary at JPL. “Unfortunately, we are unable to acquire data over the Karisoke area in Rwanda, nor does it appear that the site will be covered by other data takes in the area.” No sooner had we started preparing for this unprecedented application of space technology, and the greatest PR coup the gorillas had ever known, than we were abruptly dropped from the mission, with no explanation. I asked myself, “Who do I know who could turn a decision around at Nasa?”
The first time I met the renown British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, was in Colombo, Sri Lanka, his adopted home. I was seventeen, and had used the pretext of grappling with an astronomical problem to look up his number (in the book), give him a call (which he answered), and go around to his house (that very same day). I remember being extremely nervous as I pressed the doorbell at 25 Barnes Place. How would I act in the presence my greatest living hero? Would I hear strains of Richard Strauss’s Also Spracht Zarathustra, the theme music to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and cower like a shy man-ape in the presence of the monolith?
A small brown mortal, dressed in an oversized white cotton shirt and black trousers, one of Arthur’s many butlers, met me at the gate with a smile, and then led me through the compound to the large two-storey house. The array of satellite dishes in the yard was impressive for the day; Arthur probably had the best privately-owned communications system in the world in 1979. But then, he was the father of modern telecommunications. As far back as 1945, in a article he published in Wireless World, entitled “Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage?,” he had discovered that if you put a satellite 35,900 kilometers up into space, on the plane of the equator, what is known as geostationary orbit, it will remain fixed over its earthly position. This simple observation led to the invention of the modern communications satellite.
“Welcome to my ego chamber,” said a tall, balding man, standing at the door to his office. His accent was broad Somerset, though many mistook it to be American. He was dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and yellow floral sarong, and wore a pair of large tortoise-shell spectacles atop his smiling face, yet his yes twinkled with uncommon acuity. It was significant that he was standing on his own two feet at the time, because in a few short years Arthur Clarke would be struck down by post-polio syndrome, and confined to a wheelchair.
His ‘ego chamber’ lived up to its name. Though best known for his sci-fi novels, Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Rama, and 2001: A Space Odyssey (with Stanley Kubrick) to name but a few, Arthur Clarke spent decades promoting real space travel, and the walls were lined with as many works of non-fiction as fiction. In his writing, Clarke sought to transcend Cold War politics, which had fueled the space race, by reminding us of the awesome potential of the rocket age. Accordingly, there were as many photographs of him posing with cosmonauts as there were with astronauts.
On his desk, atop a grey box, was a small television screen, spewing lines of green text across a black background. Until then I had never seen a personal computer, and a decade would pass before I’d see another. “That’s Junior HAL,” he laughed. He’d nicknamed his PC after the infamous on-board computer that runs amok in 2001. HAL’s tag had been arrived at by simply taking the initials IBM and shifting the letters back one place in the alphabet. Now the joke was on Arthur, as Junior HAL was indeed an IBM computer.
“So, what’s this astronomy problem you’re grappling with?” he asked, with a beaming smile. I felt like I was in the presence of a divine oracle, a seer of the far-flung event horizons, of future science and mind-blowing concepts, witnessing his remarkable magic in person, and was duly speechless.
Fifteen years later, and nine thousand kilometers away, at my office in London, I had a good deal to say, as I tried to come to terms the news that the gorillas had been excluded from NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth. I knew if there was one person who could turn around a decision at NASA, it was Arthur C. Clarke. I put the call through to Sri Lanka, and once again he answered. He said he would be delighted to help, and quickly sent a fax off to his most senior contact at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in California, Deputy Manager of Astrophysics and Fundamental Physics Missions, Dr William McLaughlin:
“Help! Please contact Ellen O’Leary of SIR-C Mission...Re Correspondence concerning planned survey of Rwanda - it’s vital to the Dian Fossey Gorilla but now looks like being cancelled. I hope it can be re-instated - it would be wonderful publicity for JPL/Nasa!”
He and I were about to embark had on a bold endeavour, apropos of the Space Shuttle in question, which had been named after the ship that took Captain James Cook on his first voyage of discovery, HMS Endeavour. Nonetheless, boldness was what was required to protect the critically endangered gorillas in those troubled times.
Writing months later in Spaceflight magazine, Dr McLaughlin recalls, “I became aware of the need for imaging, with SIR-C/X-SAR, the habitats of the mountain gorillas upon receiving, prior to the April flight, calls from Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka and Greg Cummings (UK Director of The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund) in England. They wanted to have sequences included in the mission plan to accomplish this goal. Indeed, the SIR-C/X-SAR team responded and included the images of Central Africa on a non-interference basis with the primary mission. (My role proved peripheral. I mention it only to indicate how, literally, I became aware of the developing drama.)”
The drama paid off. We were reinstated on not just one, but two missions, albeit on a “non-interference basis.” The first was STS-59, launched at 7:05 am on April 9, 1994. Though we were thousands of miles away from the launch, each of us working with gorillas was adrenalized. It was the early days of the Internet, yet once in orbit we could monitor the mission via hourly reports sent directly from the Space Shuttle to a Nasa newsgroup. And then, as planned, 3 days into its flight, on its fifty-eighth orbit of Earth, flying belly-up with its payload door open, Endeavour aimed the radar-imaging equipment at the Virunga Volcanoes, and SIR-C acquired the first ‘data set’ of the gorilla habitat.
Astronaut Rich Clifford, who as on board at the time, recalls the operation. “Radar imagery of the gorilla enclave in Rwanda during the STS-59 mission proved the value of the Spaceborne Imaging Radar in monitoring and evaluating earth’s resources. Visual observations of the enclave during the mission were usually obscured by clouds or darkness. The imaging radar could ‘see’ through the obscuration and thus valuable information was obtained.”
“Delighted Endeavour is doing its thing!” wrote Clarke.
By now something quite unforeseen was unfolding on the ground in Rwanda. On 6 April the president’s plane was shot down, setting off a campaign of wanton massacre. In those first few days, no one was sure what to think of the chaos. The only news coming out of the country was from expatriates fleeing the violence. Minutes passed like days, while colleagues remained trapped in the mayhem. Meanwhile Endeavour orbited overhead, unaffected by events on the ground. I was torn between euphoria and dread. It was an emotionally trying time. We all felt so helpless, and some of us were ashamed of the focus of our work.
Whatever the dramas in London, nothing compared to the human suffering being endured in Rwanda. It may have been incongruous to pursue such an arcane issue as gorilla conservation during such a harrowing time for the Rwandese people. But my argument was that, as trivial as they may seem in the midst of genocide, in the years to come the Mountain gorillas would be a boon to the efforts to rebuild that country. I was right.
When Endeavour landed at Edward's Air force Base on 20 April, hundreds of thousands of Tutsi men, women and children had already been killed. Ostensibly, this meant Nasa possessed images of the Rwandan killing fields. At first they refused to give us anything, fearing they may be accused of espionage. But, after already moving heaven and earth to pull this off, we weren’t about to back down now. Once again, Clarke stepped in: “I’m sure if this information is released properly, it will bring the best possible publicity to Nasa/JPL!” And, once again, Nasa acquiesced.
“We are happy to report that data were successfully acquired on two passes over the site, on Orbit 58 and Orbit 171. Images have been processes at JPL for the first data take and will be transmitted to the research team at Rutgers for analysis… We look forward to attempting to image the Karisoke site on our second flight in August.”
By the time Endeavour was ready to launch again four months later, the genocide was over, and the world had learned about the full horror of what had gone on in Rwanda in just 100 days. Nasa was thankful they no longer had to deal with the controversy. And by then the value of including the gorillas had already been proven, not least by the flurry of media attention they generated for the missions.
In recognition, they invited Arthur C. Clarke and me to view the launch at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral that August. Clarke had co-anchored NBC’s televised coverage of the historic Apollo 11 Moon mission there 25 years earlier, but never witnessed a shuttle lift off. Hence the promise of having a space age prophet as a spectator at Endeavour’s launch was truly enticing for Nasa, who requested his participation in the post-launch press conference.
Clarke too was excited. “I’ve also faxed the Nasa administrator and my shuttle friends saying I hope to see them at the Cape for the 18 August launch!” Appropriately, my first encounter with him after fifteen years was in Kennedy Space Center’s Room 2001. It was around 4 am on the morning of the launch, and we were preparing to transfer by bus to the viewing site, a few kilometers away. Clarke was wearing a navy blue Space Shuttle cap, and matching t-shirt showing a picture of the Milky Way galaxy with an arrow pointing to our location in its outer spiral arm, and the words “YOU ARE HERE” written above it. Passes and tickets were shown to security before boarding the bus. To get anywhere near the launch complex at Cape Canaveral, we had all been subjected to thorough background checks.
After a short drive we arrived at the site, where we were then shown to our bleachers which faced a wide body of water that separated us from the launch pad. Clarke sat in a section reserved for VIPs, while I found my place among the mortals. There, all lit up on the horizon, was a vehicle built for titans. It took my breath away. That balmy Thursday in August was shaping up to be the best day of my life!
Presently, the countdown is underway, and the Space Shuttle Endeavour is about to blast off. Astronaut Tom Jones, who was on the space ship, recalls the moment.
“At T-6 seconds, Endeavour’s three main engines rumbled into life. I was strapped into my center seat on the middeck, just to the right of classmate Jeff Wisoff, as we felt the orbiter rumble and shake under the thrust of a million pounds of liquid-fueled thrust. Out the hatch window I could see the gantry apparently sway — it was actually Endeavour ‘twanging’ under the thrust. I mentally counted: 5…4…3…2…1…waiting for the giant kick from the boosters’ ignition. Instead, the Master Alarm blared in our headsets as the three main engines fell silent. Instead of liftoff, we were left swaying atop the orbiter as the launch team announced an abort – an automatic shutdown due to some as-yet unknown problem.”
All I hear over the PA is, “We have main engine cutt-off!” It would appear that fate has once again dealt us a cruel blow. I watch as the puff of smoke momentarily emitted by the boosters drifts slowly across the lake on an offshore breeze, and imagine contained therein is all our aspirations. Launch control soon verifies the engines had shut down at T-1 second, due to an overheating turbo-pump. “Its discharge temperature had violated redline limits;” recalls Jones, “Had we launched with that violation, we might have lost an engine right after liftoff, sending us into a very hairy Return to Launch Site abort.”
Every cloud has its silver lining. In one of his regular ‘egograms,’ Clarke explains what happened next. “After the abortive countdown, I attended a press conference run by JPL and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund at which the superb radar coverage of the Rwanda gorilla habitat, made on the previous Endeavour flight, was shown.“ The prophet of the space age was undaunted, and gave a masterful presentation, championing the fusion of his two great passions: space and wildlife. The result, once the shuttle finally did manage to take off a month later, was another radar image of the Virunga habitat, which contributed greatly to the conservation of the Mountain gorillas.
The End of An Era
The 19th of March, 2008 was the day the space age ended for me, the day I lost my friend of thirty years. "With the passing of Arthur C. Clarke we in the space community have lost yet another legendary pioneer of early spaceflight," said Nasa Administrator Mike Griffin.
During his ninety years on this planet, whatever he was doing or writing, Clarke never failed to inspire people of the promise of space. “The inspirational value of the space program is probably of far greater importance to education than any input of dollars,” he said after the Moon Shot. “A whole generation is growing up which has been attracted to the hard disciplines of science and engineering by the romance of space.”
Earlier this year, Endeavour too met its end. Space Transport System number 134, was the unsentimental name given to the orbiter’s last flight. Nasa decided to halt its shuttle programme because the vehicles were too costly to maintain, believing a more affordable approach to getting astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) could be achieved by contracting out their transport to private companies.
After docking at the ISS to install a 7-tonne magnetic spectrometer, where the crew received a message from Pope Benedict XVI, telling them he admired their courage, Endeavour completed its final mission with a smooth landing at the Kennedy Space Center at 6:34 am on June 1, 2011. In its nineteen-year flight career, the orbiter had flown nearly 200 million kilometers and altogether spent almost ten months in space. Bold Endeavour!
Now grounded, along with the entire fleet of extraterrestrial lorries that for 3 decades had dutifully served Nasa’s space transport needs, and the space station empty, it would seem more than just the romance has gone out of space flight. Nasa argues they have simply entered another “human spaceflight gap,” as they did between the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions. Mike Wall, writing on Space.com, says, “The next 50 years should bring a sea change, with commercial companies taking over near-Earth operations and freeing NASA and other space agencies to send astronauts to asteroids and Mars.”
For me, the romance of space is encapsulated in that incredible time in my life, when I got to help determine the mission plans of two decisive Space Shuttle flights, and work with my hero, Arthur C. Clarke, to achieve it. That bold endevour, and indeed the abiding promise of space, is best summed up by Clarke himself, in the enduring parable he wrote about gorillas and the space age:
“It has been said that the most valuable prize the Apollo astronauts brought home was the famous photograph of our beautiful blue world, like a fragile X-mas tree ornament hanging in the empty blackness of space. It taught us to respect and cherish our home planet, and to care for its natural heritage.
“Orbiting satellites - the tools of the space age - now allow us to study the surface of our planet in detail which has never been possible from the ground. We can observe the growth of crops, deforestation, pollution and many other processes that are impacting the environment.
“To give one dramatic example,radar carried on the Space Shuttle has produced the first detailed maps of the habitat of the mountain gorillas in Africa - a feat previously impossible, because, as Dian Fossey’s famous book title indicated, gorillas live in a mist which only radar waves can penetrate. The new maps allow rangers, equipped with hand held GPS (Global Positioning Systems), which also depend on satellites, to locate themselves accurately, and to protect the few hundred remaining gorillas form the poachers who haver mercilessly exterminated them.
“I am particularly pleased to have been associated with the efforts of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund of the UK in this enterprise, which may seem ironic in view of Rwanda’s horrendous human tragedy. Yet, when men are behaving worse than beasts, perhaps there is some hope for our species, if some of its members are prepared, against almost impossible odds, to protect these harmless, gentle cousins of ours.”
- Arthur C. Clarke, August 1994