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 from the poachers who have 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
Arthur C. Clarke owned the first computer I ever saw, a Commodore PET 2001. It had a small trapezoid-shaped monitor fixed on top of a white box, an integrated keyboard, and a cassette recorder for mass data. Blue text scrolled across the screen giving us the exact position of Venus at that moment. “Meet Junior HAL,” said Clarke. He’d named his PC after the sentient computer controlling the Jupiter bound spacecraft in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he co-wrote with Stanley Kubrick. Indeed, many of the PET’s design features were inspired by 2001.
I was sixteen years old, visiting my parents in Sri Lanka during a break from boarding school, and had used the pretext of an astronomical problem I was struggling with (Sidereal Time) to look up my childhood idol’s phone number (in the book), give him a call (which he answered himself), and invite myself around to his house (the very same day).
“Right,” said Clarke, “let’s see if Junior HAL knows what he’s talking about.” We stepped outside on to a terrace. The array of satellite dishes in his yard was impressive for the day; Clarke probably had the best privately-owned comms system in the world in 1979. He was, after all, the godfather of comms, a Space Race utopian who in 1945 dreamed up the idea of the communications satellite.
He picked up his Celestron C8 telescope and moved it to the centre of the terrace, which was dazzling in the midday equatorial sunshine. “These terracotta tiles were laid in line with the celestial equator. Makes it easier to position the telescope.” He punched in Venus’s coordinates. The telescope’s built-in motor drive hummed and the instrument swivelled to a new position. “Here, see for yourself,” said Clarke. I peered into the eyepiece and, sure enough, Venus was dead centre, quarter phase, like an earthenware teacup. “The motor drive will stay locked on the planet’s position for days,” smiled Clarke. “Now lets see if we can find Venus with the naked eye.”
|With Arthur C. Clarke at Kennedy Space Centre, August 1994|
Fifteen years later, and 9,000 kilometres away, at my office in Primrose Hill, I was trying to cope with the eleventh-hour news that the gorillas had been dropped by NASA from its Mission to Planet Earth, three months before launch day. The space shuttle Endeavour was due to launch with a spaceborne imaging radar on board, which would have given us a rare glimpse through the mist of the gorilla habitat. We had been gearing up for a tremendous PR coup for the gorillas. Then a letter arrived from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, revoking our participation.
|The mountain gorilla habitat from space|
The strategy paid off. We were reinstated. Endeavour launched at 7:05 am on April 9, 1994. Once the spacecraft was in orbit we were able to follow its progress via hourly reports sent by the shuttle crew to a NASA newsgroup on the Internet. And then, as planned, on its 58th orbit of Earth, flying belly-up with its payload door open, Endeavour aimed the radar-imaging equipment at the Virunga Volcanoes and acquired the first ‘data set’ of the gorilla habitat.
Astronaut Rich Clifford, who was on board at the time, recalls how the imaging radar could “see” through the obscuration, the gorillas in the mist.
When Paramount Pictures were in the early stages of adapting Michael Crichton’s Congo, they sent associate producer Mike Backes to the Remote Sensing Center at Rutgers University in New Jersey to see the 3D digital map of the gorilla habitat we were developing. After meeting the director of our research centre in Rwanda, he said to me, “That guy looks like he could pull an arrowhead out of his leg with his teeth.”
Mike Backes captured the zeitgeist of the New Media Age. He wore chic rimless eyeglasses, black silk shirts, and sported an ultra hip chrome dome that glowed with extraordinary brain power. I saw all of his movies and played all of his video games. When he appeared on the cover of Wired, I began reading the magazine religiously, carried issues around for months - coffee-stained tokens of the times, as meaningful to me as a Vonnegut novel or a Zeppelin album.
Backes, who co-wrote the movie Rising Sun with Michael Crichton and supervised display graphics on Jurassic Park, promised to tap his friend and collaborator for a donation. One evening, while I was relaxing at home with my wife Jillian in our north London council flat, the phone rang. My teenage step-daughter Imogen, who had an extension in her room, answered. “Er, Greg,” she said, standing at the living room door with an irrepressible grin on her face, “it’s Michael Crichton on the phone.”
He had called to pledge a $25,000 donation to protect Mt Tshiaberimu, a remote ecosystem in an isolated part of Virunga National Park in Zaire. Just 60 km2 in size, the mountain forest was home to a tiny population of gorillas, thought to be a unique sub-species, that had all but been forgotten by conservationists. This appealed to Crichton, who funded the project for the next 4 years, during which time the gorilla population grew from 16 to 21.