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Volume 41, Number 3May/June 1990

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The New View From Space

"Our eyes are a mirror for the earth…."

Written by Arthur Clark
Photographed by Sayed Khalid
Additional photographs courtesy of Riyadh Daily

The right stuff" came to Riyadh last November when 55 astronauts and cosmonauts, and two of their honored guests, met there to put to practical, earthly use the unique vision they'd gained from space.

Many of the space travelers were heroes in their own right - possessors of what writer Tom Wolfe called "the right stuff" - but their "mission" in the Saudi Arabian capital, at the Fifth Planetary Congress of the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), was far broader than the space efforts of any single nation.

Among the topics they discussed: how to bring the bounties of space down to earth in the fields of communications, remote sensing and laboratory science - and in particular, how to use them to meet the threat posed by planet-wide environmental ills. They also talked about a subject of very personal interest: how to save the lives of space travelers whose missions go awry.

"Space for Earth" was the theme of the Planetary Congress, brought to Riyadh through the efforts of Prince Sultan ibn Salman ibn Abd al-'Aziz, a lieutenant colonel in Saudi Arabia's Royal Air Force, who won his astronaut's wings in June 1985 as a payload specialist aboard the US space shuttle Discovery (See Aramco World, January-February 1986). The prince is a charter member of the five-year-old ASE and served on its executive committee.

Prince Sultan told Aramco World that the organization is a fresh voice that could help bring change in the world, thanks to the public's strong "faith and trust" in space travelers. "We have seen our home from a far distance," he said, noting that their view allows spacefarers to transcend confining political boundaries, the better to face issues of broader concern.

"It really strikes you at mid-mission. The earth becomes smaller and continues to get smaller. It's a most incredible sight," the prince said of his feelings during his eight-day Discovery trip. "The boundaries of separate nations, the boundaries that are pounded into your head in geography class, just don't exist."

Speaking about the insight - and the attendant responsibility - that space flight seems to have bestowed on many of its veterans, Prince Sultan said, "Our eyes have become the mirror through which the earth looks at itself."

And what he and his colleagues in Riyadh see on our planet's face is environmental degradation, spreading and clearly visible from high overhead. To help Earth avoid ecological catastrophe, the congress recommended that both crewed and automatic environmental monitoring stations be rocketed into orbit to serve as a perpetual early-warning system.

Citing the depletion of the earth's ozone layer and the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Indian astrophysicist Yash Pal, the conference's keynote speaker, warned that humanity's gross misuse of the planet's resources might collapse into 30 years the changes that "used to happen in 10,000 years." He called for "space monitoring and education to combat pollution," and pointed out that delay invites disaster.

"We won't be able to cope. Millions of people will be involved" in a possible future ecological crash, he warned, "with enormous numbers of deaths. Islands will be wiped out, cropland will become desert and floods may become more serious."

"Space is not a panacea," he said, "but space should be brought into the race to save the planet." As a start, he suggested orbiting satellites to collect solar energy, covert it to electrical power in the form of microwaves, and beam it to earth - thus supplying power without the pollution that results from burning fossil fuels.

Pal told Aramco World that, although he had feared humans would not be able to change their ways in time to meet modern challenges, he had detected a change.

"Suddenly, in the last three or four years, people have woken up," he said, and become ready "to progress even farther, to move away from what has become almost a mad kind of world. This new planetary communication, planetary consciousness and planetary responsibility is the only way of thinking that will be able to save us from the extremes of a nuclear winter or an environmental summer."

American astronaut Rusty Schweickart, one of ASE's founders and head of its American chapter, told the conference that the environmental crisis was worsening. "When I first flew [in 1969], there were no oil slicks and relatively few fires," he said. "Several years later there were several slicks, and many fires throughout the tropical regions of the planet."

But he too believed there was "a growing awareness around the planet, in both the developing and the developed world, of the massive environmental challenges facing us." Space systems would be a key way of "monitoring our actual performance as nations, industries and individuals," he said, "as we attempt to bring our behavior into line with the rest of the natural environment."

Schweickart's Soviet colleague Vladimir Titov, who shares the record for the longest space flight - 366 days - and who lectured at Riyadh's King Fahd College of Security about preventing crime with space technology, said that countries - and even individual cars and ships - which pollute the environment could be identified from space.

"I have seen cities covered with smoke," he said. "This really makes me fearful for the future of the cities. When you work in them, you can't see the smoke, but from space you can."

Along with its push for an environmental early-warning system, the Fifth Planetary Congress also urged countries now exploring space to work closely with the developing world to advance space technology and to share discoveries.

Three-time US space-shuttle veteran Charles Walker called space "the greatest laboratory that exists for seeking knowledge. It is up to men and women of conscience," he said, "to make [its] technology and applications available to all nations and peoples who want them for peaceful purposes." For example, larger and more perfect protein crystals have been grown in space than have been possible anywhere else, Walker said; he believes they could lead to "treatment of diseases now untreatable." Walker also suggested that "faster and less energy-hungry computers" might result from experiments in the gravity-free environment of space.

A space-rescue capability was also the subject of an appeal for cooperation among spacefaring nations at the congress. Participants said the increasing frequency of manned space flights, and the psychological toll of disaster on the nations and the crews, made an international space-rescue program imperative.

Fourteen people have died so far on space missions, ASE members pointed out, seven other astronauts have experienced close calls, and individual space programs have been immobilized for as long as 32 months after accidents.

James Lovell, an ASE member who flew on two Apollo missions, had one of the close calls. In 1970, the moon-bound three-man craft he commanded was rocked by an explosion 56 hours and nearly 330,000 kilometers (205,000 miles) away from earth. Jane's Space/light Directory tells the story: "At first it was thought that, even by using the lunar module (LM) as a lifeboat to tow the crippled spacecraft home, only 38 hours of power, water and oxygen were available - about half as much as would be needed.... Firings of LM's descent engine were ... accompanied by heart-stopping moments.. .when the astronauts, tired and chilled, made mistakes...."

On a Soyuz mission 13 years later, Vladimir Titov and a comrade escaped only 90 seconds before their launch vehicle blew up on the ground. They used a launch jettison system for the first time in history, landing four kilometers (2V2 miles) away from the blast. Titov joked in Riyadh that he held the record for "both the world's shortest and the world's longest" space flights, but his mood became serious when he contrasted his good fortune with that of the crew of the Challenger, which was not outfitted with post-launch escape devices.

Another congress highlight was a Riyadh-based teleconference linking the Saudi capital with three cities in the United States through a seven-satellite hookup operated by Saudi Arabian Television. Prince Sultan, the Saudi astronaut, moderated the event, in which a seven-man panel fielded questions from journalists and students in Riyadh and at the Hayden Planetarium in New York, Tech-world in Washington, D.C., and the Fairbank Science Center in Atlanta.

In a sense, the congress was an outline of how people might work together for a better life on the planet as a whole. And ASE members maintained that astronauts hold enough public confidence to make their voices heard.

"Mankind is attracted to what we do: discovery, going a bit forward, stepping out," said Reinhard Furrer, one of two West Germans who took his country's payload aloft in the us Spacelab D-l in 1985. "As long as we do not have a war in space or weapons in space, people will listen."

Speaking against a background of epochal change in Europe - the Berlin Wall had begun to crumble only days before the congress convened - Furrer said the ASE had helped show that international cooperation on issues of grave importance is feasible. "We started talking before the blocs opened up," he said. "We were able to speak, to develop friendships and set up the organization despite the fact that some in our home countries didn't like it."

Cosmonaut Igor Volk, who spent 12 days in space in 1984 on a Soyuz-Salyut mission, conceded that the ASE had "no real political or financial power" to use in furthering its work. "But, on the other hand, first comes the word. One of our missions is to wake people up and show them what they haven't seen before."

Said Prince Sultan, "Our message will reach politicians either directly, or indirectly through the people."

The congress's message was relayed from Riyadh to the world by the Saudi Press Agency. The BBC, The Times of London, and Tass and Izvestia from the Soviet Union also covered the meetings, along with other correspondents and broadcasters from Europe, the United States and the Far East. But the message was also carried across Saudi Arabia - in a single afternoon - by 38 ASE members themselves.

Schweickart, for example, jetted to Jid-dah on the kingdom's west coast to lecture to the Saudi Meteorological and Environmental Protection Agency; Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon in 1969, spoke to students in Dhahran on the east side of the country; Aleksei Leonov, deputy chief of the Soviet Union's cosmonaut training center, talked to audiences at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran along with three American astronauts.

"The lectures were an important part of the planetary congress," noted Dr. Abdal-lah Dabbagh, director of the Research Institute at the university. "They provided the opportunity for valuable exchanges of information in face-to-face meetings." Dabbagh, no stranger to applying space technology on earth, headed the Saudi team responsible for the scientfic experiments carried out by Prince Sultan on his Discovery mission.

The seed that eventually became the Association of Space Explorers was planted in California in 1981, when a meeting between Schweickart and Soviet cosmonaut Georgi Grechko was privately suggested. Grechko, the veteran of several Soyuz missions, wanted to talk about parapsychology, but Schweickart, who flew on an earth-orbit Apollo mission in 1969, saw the chance for something bigger. In Moscow on a lecture visit the following year, Schweickart met with several cosmonauts, and plans went ahead to form an organization "to bring together all who have flown in space and to encourage the exploration and the use of space exclusively for the benefit of all."

Founders were united on several points from the beginning: All feared for the quality of earth's environment; all agreed that the organization should be nonpolit-ical, the better to support the cooperative development of space for humanity. At the ASE's first congress, held in 1985 in a chateau in Cernay, France, with the theme "The Home Planet," French oceanographer and environmentalist Jacques Cousteau was the keynote speaker.

Twenty-five space veterans from 13 countries attended that first congress; in Riyadh, about 20 ASH. members each came from the United States and the Soviet Union. Other nations represented included France, Mexico, Hungary, West Germany, East Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, The Netherlands, Romania and India, besides host country Saudi Arabia.

Yash Pal, the Fifth Congress's keynote speaker, received an ASE award in Riyadh in part for a project that he masterminded in the 1970's. It provided instructional television, via satellite, to 5000 isolated villages in India. Pal has since played a main role in his country's space research program and served on a number of national and international science committees, including the United Nations Advisory Committee on Science and Technology for Development.

The other honored guest - and ASE award recipient - at the congress was British science-fiction writer and visionary Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010: Odyssey II and more than 40 other books still in print. He is also the inventor of the geosynchronous communications satellite, of which scores have been launched since he first described the concept in 1945. Clarke, who has lived in Sri Lanka for the last 30 years, arrived in Riyadh from England, where he had been created a Commander of the British Empire by the Queen. He took a vigorous part in the free-wheeling discussions that illuminated - and sometimes heated - the halls of the congress.

The topics ranged from space weapons to the possibility of a joint US-Soviet manned mission to Mars, and from the truth of reported landings by extraterrestrials in the Soviet Union to the likelihood of vacations in space.

Schweickart told a teleconference questioner that he wanted "to see the perceived necessity of military activity in space reduced to zero by increased understanding between nations." He said monitoring systems in space should be used "to maintain and preserve peace" on earth.

For his part, Leonov said the Soviet Union "fully rejected" the militarization of space, and he too called for a space-based monitoring system. He said the cost of a mission to Mars would be "a tiny fraction of what is being spent on space weapons," and that a joint flight could lift off as early as 2005. "Cosmonauts and astronauts think it is a very good idea," he added.

Buzz Aldrin,.recalling his moon walk 20 years earlier, said, "It is my hope that it will not be another 20 years before people from many nations on the earth will be going to the moon, and to Mars as well."

Clarke, who has written about such long-distance travel - a round trip to the Red Planet would take about two years - called a US-Soviet mission to Mars "very likely." Sporting a windbreaker emblazoned with the title of his last book, 2010, and bedecked with Soviet and American flight patches, Clarke said that, although no new technology would be required to go to Mars, "a lot of systems need to be made reliable."

As for visitors from outer space, the outspoken Clarke said, "I have seen about six 'unidentified flying objects' and each had a natural explanation. All these stories are hoaxes, jokes, without an atom of truth. The idea that, for decades, governments have concealed secrets is nonsense: Secrets would be kept by the scientific community for about as long as it takes to send a fax."

But it was Yash Pal who best summed up the "Space for Earth" message of the Fifth Congress with a story. In early November, just before the congress opened, he said, a cyclone packing winds of more than 200 kilometers an hour (125 mph) and whipping up five-meter (16-foot) waves struck India's east coast. Twenty-five people were killed. A nearly identical storm in 1977 struck the same area and killed 10,000 people. What was the difference?

In 1989, an Indian satellite, providing communications services to thousands of remote villages and equipped with a powerful storm-monitoring and disaster-warning system, was in orbit overhead, Pal explained. In 1977, the skies above India were empty.

Aramco writer Arthur Clark is based in Dhahran. He is not related to Arthur C. Clarke, but is the brother of another contributor to this issue.

This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the May/June 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1990 images.