Arthur C. Clarke
The Promise of Space
Berkley, Paperback, 1985.
12mo. xv+316 pp. Introduction by Arthur Clarke, September 1967 [xi-xv].
First published, 1968.
1. Imaginary Voyages
2. From Fantasy to Science
3. "Nothing to Push Against"
4. Power for Space
5. Escape from Earth
6. Other Orbits, Other Moons
7. The Price of Speed
II. AROUND THE EARTH
8. Moonrise in the West
9. Opening Skies
10. First Harvest
11. Man in Orbit
12. Islands in the Sky
III. AROUND THE MOON
13. Voyagers to the Moon
14. The Birth of Apollo
15. The Vehicle
16. The Mission
17. The Moon
18. The Uses of the Moon
19. The Lunar Colony
IV. AROUND THE SUN
20. The Trillion-Mile Whirlpool
21. Paths to the Planets
22. Children of the Sun
23. The Outer Giants
24. The Commerce of the Heavens
25. Tomorrow's Worlds
V. AROUND THE UNIVERSE
26. Other Suns than Ours
27. Across the Abyss
28. To the Stars
29. Where's Everybody?
30. Concerning Means and Ends
In the Introduction to this fabulous book, Arthur Clarke states that it replaces all his previous volumes on the subject, namely the fairly technical Interplanetary Flight (1950) and the deliberately non-technical The Exploration of Space (1951, Revised Edition 1959), both covering very much the same material of astronomy and astronautics, as well as the collection of "philosophical and cultural speculations" The Challenge of the Spaceship (1959). This is quite true. If you are not a Clarke completist and want but a single book of his about the past and the future of space exploration, this is the one to have.
(Not mentioned in this introduction is the important collection of speculative essays Voices from the Sky, first published in 1965 with the telling subtitle "Previews of the Coming Space Age", but it too is largely superseded by The Promise of Space.)
First published shortly before the Apollo 11 mission, when Clarke was 50 and very much engaged in the making of 2001 with Stanley, The Promise of Space is also his last non-fiction book entirely dedicated to space travel and space exploration, combining exemplary popular science with breathtaking futuristic speculations in the typically Clarkian manner. It may well be that, together with Profiles of the Future (1962, revised 1973, 1982, 1999), The Promise of Space is one of those books by Arthur Clarke that may be recommended to any intelligent layman who is not altogether indifferent to pictures bigger than his own personal world and time periods longer than his own life. Besides, if by some unfortunate circumstances you have never come across to any non-fiction by Arthur Clarke, these two volumes are just about the most perfect place to start.
Since I have little more to say about this book than ''Read it!'', and that little I have already said in my attempts for reviews of the abovementioned books, I will briefly address here another interesting (at least for me) issue: repetitions. They are to be expected, and are indeed openly acknowledged by Arthur in the Introduction, but they shouldn't be made too much of. There are several chapters which have conspicuously identical titles with parts of The Exploration of Space (''The Moon'', ''The Rocket'', ''Other Suns than Others'', ''To the Stars'', ''Concerning Means and Ends''), but though the subject is of course the same, the treatment is significantly different. This is the case even with the first chapters of both books which, despite the different titles but again as acknowledged as in the Introduction, are the most highly repetitious part: apart from the last few paragraphs, the whole of ''The Shaping of the Dream'' is reprinted as a part of ''Imaginary Voyages'', though the latter is extended with new material. But the repetitions are often much more subtle than that - the final chapter, for instance, incorporates paragraphs from the essay ''The Challenge of the Spaceship'' and the last part of Interplanetary Flight (1950) - but, at any rate, it doesn't make much sense going into detail about them. Last but not least, ''Where's Everybody'' is an entirely different essay than the one with the same name in The Challenge of the Spaceship.
The essential difference between this book and the aforementioned earlier ones is that here, at last, Clarke could concentrate on questions such as ''What'' and ''Why'', rather than ''How'' and ''If'' which in former times were used for defending space flight against its incredulous opponents. The background of astronautics, from escaping the Earth's gravity to the principle of rocket propulsion, is certainly solid enough, but the accent here is on space exploration. By the time of the first edition, the Space Age had already began in the earnest: a lot of space in the book is dedicated to the history of those heady for the astronautics times. The main question that we, more than forty years later, should answer is this: what happened? Why the enormous progress of the 1960s in terms of space exploration has so drastically been scaled down in the following decades? Is this a natural decline? Is there a way out of it? Were all those glorious achievements between April 12, 1961, and July 20, 1969, merely a by-product of the political tension between two super powers? Although it is up to us, with the benefit of hindsight, to supply some plausible answers to these tough questions, Clarke was not at all unaware of them back in the late 1960s and he by no means shies away from suggesting some answers:
A list of the outstanding events in the first half decade of manned space flight (page 107) gives a good idea of the remarkable rate of progress. The nationalities involved have been carefully omitted; if any reader finds it hard to remember who did what, it may occur to him that, perhaps, it may not be as important as he had imagined.
[This table on page 107 is one those beautiful ones that are both highly informative and extremely illuminating. I still find it hard to believe that just a little over eight years passed between the first man in orbit and the first man walking on the Moon - but no fewer than ten major achievements lie between these epoch-making dates. And what of that Moon landing...]
If human beings were logical entities, controlled by reason instead of emotion, these or similar ideas would probably have been developed in an orderly manner, rendezvous techniques would have been perfected, and we would have been ready to land on the Moon some time around the end of the century. But once again politics and astronautics combined, with results that no historian could ever have predicted. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy announced that a manned lunar landing ''in this decade'' was a prime national objective of the United States.
The verdict of history may well be that the United States made the correct decision, even if from dubious motives.
But is it, really? I very much hope so. I should like to believe that there are other reasons - say, financial ones - for our space quest to have become kind of stuck in the last decades. For if the reason is lack of incentive, this would certainly be fatal. The whole thing may well have started as a political competition, but the deeper, and far more significant in the long run, motive must have been the eternal urge of the human beings to explore the world, its ultimate frontiers and our true place in it. Or is this just a wishful thinking? Arthur would certainly say that it isn't. I hope he was right and the current lull is a natural one that has an end some time in the future. I hear that NASA is planning the first lunar observatory for 2024 - 55 years after the first landing! - but better late than never, that's for sure.
One interesting continuity problem, by the way. The first edition of this book was published in April 1968, more than a year before that ''small step for the man but a giant leap for mankind'' occurred, yet the first Moon landing is mentioned several times in past tense. There is no indication in this Berkley edition that the book was revised after the first edition, yet this certainly happened, though, most probably before the end of 1971 as the epoch-making Mariner 9 mission is not mentioned at all. In this respect the book, of course, is dated but this, needless to say, does not in the least diminish its value: there is a good deal of history inside, but it is never the main theme. As for the first Moon landing, it is covered in great detail (''The Mission'') and, together with the previous three chapters that chronicle the history of our remote lunar reconnaissance, makes one of the most fascinating parts of the book. I can imagine few things more awesome than Saturn V and even fewer more awe-inspiring than manned landing on the Moon.
Just like the table of contents, the writing style here is a hybrid between the wonderfully readable and amusing popular science of Exploration of Space and the far more technical (to be read ''quantitative'') analyses of Interplanetary Flight. This concise but powerful, yet lively and engaging, writing style has become a kind of Clarkian trademark actually. You might just be surprised how absorbing some dry subjects like celestial mechanics or the subtleties of rocketry may be in the right hands. As for Clarke's speculations about the future (which are not ''predictions'', mind you), they are as science-based, stirring, visionary and inspiring as always. Together with its comprehensiveness, probably the most fascinating aspect of this book is the subtle combination of sophisticated pop-science and dazzling vision of our future as a space race. That, at any rate, is one of our possible futures.
The book contains no fewer than 25 figures, most of them updated versions of the ones in the older books. Several of them do require a good deal of mental exertion, yet none of them, especially in combination with the beautifully lucid text, would be incomprehensible to the intelligent layman. Be it the principle of rocket propulsion or the changing of Earth's gravitational field with the increasing altitude, or that marvellous analogy about escaping our gravity by climbing a 4000-miles deep crater, the figures do add to the magic of the text.
I would like to finish with a note about different editions. Having mentioned figures, I have to say that they are generally poorly reprinted in this Berkley edition, although for the most part they are at least acceptable. In this respect, an old hardback copy would, I guess, be preferable. If you insist on paperbacks, be sure to get the one published by Pyramid Books in 1970. I don't know about the quality of the figures, but even if it's not much superior, there is an ample compensation: 64 photographic plates, none of them, alas, reprinted in the Berkley edition. (Also, I suppose, the Pyramid edition includes the important lunar revisions; but this is sheer speculation.)
Anyway, whatever the edition, reading this book is a journey you'll never forget. Let me finish - this time for real - with quoting the last two paragraphs, even though I have already done so in another review. Clarke seldom resorted to rhetoric, but when he did, he usually produced some of the most compelling purple prose that I, no admirer of such writing in general, have ever read. These words were originally published as long ago as 1950, as the last paragraphs of Interplanetary Flight. Not for nothing did Arthur reprint them virtually unchanged 18 years later in The Promise of Space. Nor have I quoted them twice for nothing another 43 years later. If anything, these words are more relevant today than ever before:
The dream of flight was one of the noblest and one of the most disinterested of all man's aspirations. Yet it led in the end to that B-29 driving in passionless beauty through August skies toward the city whose name it was to sear into the conscience of the world. Already there has been half-serious talk concerning the use of the Moon for military bases and launching sites. The crossing of space may thus bring, not a new Renaissance, but the final catastrophe that haunts our generation.
That is the danger, the dark thundercloud that threatens the promise of the dawn. The rocket has already been the instrument of evil and may be so again. But there is no way back into the past; the choice, as Wells once said, is the universe - or nothing. Though men and civilizations may yearn for rest, for the dream of the lotus-eaters, that is a desire that merges imperceptibly into death. The challenge of the great spaces between the worlds is a stupendous one; but if we fail to meet it, the story of our race will be drawing to its close. Humanity will have turned its back upon the still untrodden heights and will be descending again the long slope that stretches, across a billion years of time, down to the shores of the primeval sea.