Satelloons Over Manhattan

It’s been a while, too long, since I’ve had a good, old-fashioned satelloon post around here, and wow, is this one.

Arthur C. Clarke & Stanley Kubrick looking through the Questar on the terrace of Kubrick’s CPW penthouse, 1964, image: Kubrick deutsches filmmuseum catalogue via:

On March 31, 1964, Stanley Kubrick wrote to Arthur C. Clarke in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka, obv), asking to meet to explore the possibility of working together–and for advice on buying a larger telescope than the Questar model he already had. Clarke responded immediately, and added a visit with Kubrick to his New York City itinerary just three weeks later.

As Michael Benson recounts in his new book, timed to the 50th anniversary of the premiere of the film 2001, Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece, it went pretty well. AND THEN SOME:

After shaking hands on their deal, or at least their intention to negotiate one, Clarke and Kubrick repaired to the patio. They had established a real rapport over the past month, and any guardedness had long since dropped. Both were excited and didn’t mind showing it. It had been a beautiful late-spring day, with temperatures reaching 75 degrees, and was now a perfectly mild evening, with a crescent Moon hanging in a slight haze several degrees above the southeastern horizon. Thankfully the building’s heating system had been switched off weeks before, and the ash-spewing chimney was now silent. To the south, all of Midtown Manhattan was spread out before them, its lights twinkling.

Suddenly they noticed a brilliantly bright, unwavering point of white light rising above the horizon in the southwest.

I’ve looked for 11 years, but have not found a photo of Echo 1 passing over New York yet. Here’s Chicago, tho, c.1960

Radiant as a navigational beacon, it climbed steadily in the night sky. Clarke had seen the Echo 1 satellite from Ceylon many times, but this object seemed far brighter. After about five minutes, it had climbed to the absolute zenith of the sky–and there it appeared to stop. A sense of awe and exhilaration filled both of them. “It’s impossible,” Clarke sputtered. “At its closest point, an artificial satellite has to be moving at its maximum apparent speed!” A thought flashed through his mind: “This is altogether too much of a coincidence. They are out to stop us from making this movie.”

Belatedly, they hastened indoors, grabbed Stanley’s new Questar, and hauled it up a set of metal stairs to a higher perch on the building’s roof. The object still appeared to be almost vertically overhead. Fumbling with knobs, the tripod planted on roof tiles, Clarke managed to get it into the telescope’s field of view. It remained, however, simply a brilliant point of white light, with no visible dimensions. They took turns viewing it as it gradually descended toward the northeast, passing through Ursa Major–the Great Bear–before finally winking out in the horizon’s haze. The whole episode had lasted no longer than ten minutes. “That’s the most spectacular of the dozen UFOs I’ve observed in the last twenty years, Clarke said, his voice wavering.

Descending excitedly back into the living room, they located the New York Times and paged back to the Visible Satellites table the paper had started printing a few years before. In the early 1960s NASA had launched a pair of gigantic inflatable satellites meant ot serve as passive reflectors of microwave and communications signals. Echo 2, launched into a polar orbit on January 24, 1964, was 135 feet in diameter and surfaced in bright reflective aluminum. But no transit was given for it at nine o’clock at night–though the slightly smaller Echo 1 was listed as passing overhead at eleven and then again at one in the morning.

Although Clarke had tried to persuade Kubrick that most UFOs had a rational explanation and shouldn’t be taken as evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, Kubrick had reserved judgment. Now that he’d actually seen one, however, he felt vindicated. As for Clarke, he was genuinely shaken. The most confounding thing, he observed, was the object’s apparent motionlessness at the zenith. This defied all logic. It simply wasn’t how any satellite should or could behave.

At eleven they went back on the roof and had an excellene view of Echo 1, which rose exactly as predicted, looking almost identical to what they’d seen previously. It didn’t stop at the zenith, however, but just kept motoring along, inscribing a seemingly perfect, geometrically straight line across the heavens. “So Stanley had seen his first artificial satellite,” Clarke wrote, “and was duly impressed. The nine o’clock apparition, however, still remained a complete mystery.”

[I can’t see what page this is from, but the Clarke quotes also show up in Neil McAleer’s 2012 biography, Visionary: The Odyssey of Sir Arthur C. Clarke. They might be from Clarke’s memoirs.]

This 2014 account, on the 50th anniversary of the incident, on Simone Odino’s exhaustive fanblog puts the encounter three weeks later, on May 17, near the end of Clarke’s New York trip and the end of the beginning of the 2001 brainstorming/pitch phase–and during a full moon. [Except that according to, the moon was barely halfway to full on May 17.]

Odino also says that after reporting the UFO sighting to the Air Force, Kubrick and Clarke were told the NY Times’ satellite orbit chart was incorrect, and had omitted a 9 o’clock pass over Manhattan.

Kubrick lived at 84th and Central Park West, and I’d think the Beresford two blocks south might have eaten up a chunk of the southwestern horizon, but maybe not. Though I’ve seen them published in other newspapers of the time, I cannot find any visible satellite schedules in the NYT, and certainly not on the day in question. Never mind, here it is. On the weather page.

Visible Satellite forecast, New York Times, Sunday, 17 May 1964, p. 95 (of 506, the ads!)

In any case, mere weeks after the release of Dr. Strangelove, which featured a riotous caricature of Nazi rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, who came up with the idea for the communications satellite, freaked out watching Echo 1, the first visible human object in space, which had been proposed as a propaganda mission by Von Braun, as they worked on the concept for 2001. I, like Clarke, am shook. [huge shoutout to Fred Scharmen, @sevensixfive for his heads up/retweet of @humanoidhistory]