2001, A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, titans of the film and science-fiction worlds, respectively, collaborated on the filmscript for 2001, A Space Odysssey. I could say lots about the (great) strengths and (greater) weaknesses of this movie, but I'll skip all that. I'll talk instead about Part 2 of this 3-part movie, which depicts spaceflight as it was forecast to exist in the year 2001. To put this in context, the film was released in 1968, not long before the first Moon landing.

The Space Station as envisioned in 2001, A Space Odyssey.
In retrospect, the vision was ludicrously off the mark. Space shuttles with 2-plus-2 seating and flight attendants, a space station with hotel ameneties, a manned mission to Jupiter in a spacecraft the size of an ocean liner — nothing remotely like that has happend. Frankly, it seemed quite a bit of a stretch at the time (I remember it well!). But the progress between the first, tiny artificial satellite in 1957 and an imminent Moon landing in 1968 had been so huge and rapid that even to skeptics like me, this science-fiction vision didn't seem to be totally out of touch with reality.

The Space Station interior as imagined in 1986.
But it was. There's a handful of diehard space enthusiast who still claim that this vision is the way it should be — that the fact that we don't have luxurious, routine spaceflight today proves that somebody betrayed their ideal. It's due to government incompetence, a loss of nerve, vision, leadership — that's what they claim. But anybody who analyzes the issues dispassionately will quickly realize that it's the 1968 vision that's at fault. No doubt if it were a really high priority we could have a considerably larger manned space presence than we currently do. But it would still be a lot closer to what actually exists now than to the fantasies of 1968.

The interior of the International Space Station as it exists in reality.
Tony Flanders
As usual, it's all about money. For spaceflight to exist on the lavish scale depicted in this movie, the cost of putting material into low-Earth orbit would have to be reduced by a factor of hundreds at least, and more likely thousands. At current cost, given today's technology or anything likely to be developed soon, the entire industrial capacity of the world wouldn't suffuce to build a Hilton Hotel in space.

There's a lesson here, which I'll save for another blog. But maybe before pushing any farther on this scifi-and-spaceflight theme, I should return to my core comptence: visual observing of the night sky.

18 thoughts on “2001, A Space Odyssey

  1. Pete

    The film 2001 was trying to predict spaceflight 30+ years in the future. Given the progress made from 1960 to 1968, it must have been reasonable to extrapolate both space technology and computing technology at the same rate progress had been made up until then.
    That it got it so wrong merely reflects the optimism of the times (and a certain naivety about the costs), when “we can do anything” was the order of the day – as opposed to our current attitudes of shuffling around, staring at our feet.

  2. Carl

    Don’t get too caught up on the specific date given in the title – “2001″ isn’t so much a prediction about the year. The date is – no coincidence – millennial. That’s what Kubrick & Clarke wanted to communicate. Focusing too much on the date is like dismissing “1984″ now that it, too, is post-date.

    The film points to a NEW ERA in humanity that comes with first contact. Now, even if you want to get literal with the date in the title…and can bear to set aside the optimistic view of the progress of spaceflight (a common error in mid-century, most sci-fi writers assumed the predominant tech by 2000 would be rocketry), the vision of computers has inspired a generation. Check this from the MIT Press:

    The dominant tech today, of course, isn’t rocketry – it’s computers. We don’t quite have the HAL 9000, but cybernetics are now woven into the fabric of our lives. That, too, is millennial regardless of the date this turn took place.

  3. David

    If anyone betrayed the dream of 2001-like space travel, it was the American people. We know that so many people were already bored of spaceflight by the time Apollo 13 launched that the crew’s half-hour program from mid-flight wasn’t even aired on any network. If going to the moon can’t hold our attention for more than 2 years, then it is little wonder that the center of tech advance over the last part of the 20th century was not in rocketry. Had we had enough interest to maintain the rapid advances of space tech in the 60′s as we have done with computer tech, then the vision of 2001 would not be out of reach.

    When I think of the computer I had 10 years ago (a $1500 desktop with 333 MHz processor and 6 GB hard drive) vs. what I will look at for my graduating daughter this spring ($900 laptop with 2.3 GHz and 250 GB hard drive, or 7x more power in half the size at 60% of the price), and compare either with the computers that carried astronauts to the moon, we could have been at least very much closer to 2001 than we are.

    Perhaps when the private sector takes over the space project, we will see the exponential growth of technology that computers have enjoyed?

  4. Astronerd

    The reason we do not have a manned moon base and an outpost on Mars is a lack of money.
    The reason for the lack of money?
    Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The amendments to Social Security that created Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 created a cost of 3 billion dollars per year, which amounts to 20 billion in 2009 dollars. Ten years later, a couple years after the last manned moon landing, 485 billion in 2009 dollars. That’s almost half a trillion!

    In 1970 the NASA budget for Apollo was cut back to just under 5 billion in 2009 dollars. We were running out of money.

    The Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security boondoggle sucked up all discretionary funds that might have allowed us to make many of the predictions in “2001, A Space Odyssey” a reality.

  5. Jim

    Astronerd laments the cost of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but these are a but a tiny fraction of the funds (and American blood) poured into senseless wars and “military actions” and defense spending over those decades. Much of this shoveled out into the sands of countries who hate us, because we can’t enact a long-term rational solution to our energy needs. Find some other horses to flog. We’ve wasted over a trillion in Iraq alone, in a decade.

  6. Michael

    To Astronerd: if your existence depended on Medicaid, Medicare and/or Social Security you would not see it as a boondoggle. My mother, for one, would not now be alive without Medicare. Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security are in fact crowning achievements of our democracy. I thank God their existence didn’t or doesn’t depend on small, selfish minds like yours.

    The United States spends over $650 billion yearly for the military, including support of bases in countries like Germany that are perfectly capable of defending themselves. A small portion of that vast expenditure could have made all the concepts in 2001 come true.

  7. Tony Flanders

    To set the record straight, expenditures on Social Security and health are not a tiny fraction of military expenditures. On the contrary, welfare and military spending have been roughly comparable over the past half century, and which one is bigger depends largely on how you do the accounting. Veteran’s programs, which are vast, can legitimately be counted under either heading. But there’s no chance that spaceflight could possibly match either one, for a very good reason. Although welfare and military expenditures may be misguided in some cases, they reflect urgent needs. Without these, vast numbers of people suffer and/or die. But there is no urgent need to put people in space. It may be noble, useful, inspiring, and so on. But by no reasonable definition is it urgent.

  8. Anthony Barreiro

    David — My understanding is that Moore’s law applies to bits of information, not atoms of matter. Exponential growth in computing power has been possible because the fractional cost in material and energy has been trivial. Interestingly, we’re now starting to bump up against the *physical* limits of silicon as an information processing medium, and Moore’s law is thus starting to slow down.

    And to Astronerd — Your argument is the sort of heartless cluelessness that gives amateur astronomy a bad reputation. Would you really rather have senior citizens living in poverty and dying of preventable diseases, if it meant you could see TV pictures of humans in spacesuits playing golf on Mars?

    Tony, thanks as always for your thoughtful blog posts.

  9. Frank J. Cernik

    The dream of “2001, A Space Odyssey” was partly dependant upon the use of nuclear power to drive the spacecraft. The Orion Pan-Am spaceliner would have had a much lower $/mass unit cost to orbit. Discovery used nuclear power to reach Jupiter(or Saturn in the book).
    However, the Anti-NuCuLar power faction had the ability to kill the development of true nuclear powered spacecraft. They almost prevented Cassini from reaching Saturn because of the plutonium on board in the RTG’s!
    It is true that the real original concept of the Orion spacecraft consisted of tossing atom bombs out of the back of the ship and letting the blasts lift the million-ton ship via a big shock absorber! (a technique eliminated by the Above-ground Nuclear Test Ban.) The NERVA type power plant could have worked to get craft off the ground into orbit as well, but nuclear fell out of favor as an environmental hazard.
    We will only be able to visit the outer planets by robots until we are able to use the power of the atom to get there! Nuclear cannot remain a bad word in space. Surprisingly enough, environmentalists are starting to recognize nuclear as a “green” form of energy compared to coal, or oil shale, or tar sands (no carbon footprint).
    Of course space has unlimited power available for use on Earth, once we have a significant industrial base there, i.e. Gerard O’Neill’s solar Powersats.
    Maybe 2001 will just be a few decades late in coming!

    Clear Skies!

  10. Mike Finkelstein

    I suspect Dr. Clarke knew that what he had been imagining would not, could not happen by 2001. But Kubrick & MGM wanted people to go see it, so it was “Marketing” that dictated the name of the movie. Don’t forget, Clarke’s original short story on which the movie was based was called, “The Sentinel” and no date was referenced. But the year 2001 was within the reachable lifespan of a good portion of the potential audience while “2501″, a more reasonable assumption as to when the wondrously imagined depiction of spaceflight as convenient as current airline transportation, wouldn’t have been as catchy a name and couldn’t have attracted as large an audience.

    Regardless of the inaccuracies, 2001 is still one of the greatest movies ever made. The moment when the ape raises his arms in triumph and launches his weapon (the bone) into the air and then there is the cut to the orbiting satellite (also a weapon) still gives me goose bumps.

  11. Richard Sauder

    I believe the 2001 dreams failed to become reality because of the same reason the British/French Concorde was grounded.

    It never made a nickel of profit and always needed to be subsidized on every flight.

    Just because some project may be possible from an engineering point of view does not mean that it should be implemented. That is an engineer talking.

    If something costs more than it is worth, forget it.

    Sending a human crew to Mars or other planets is unreasonably expensive and hazardous. Remember Apollo 13? Even the smallest failure on a trip to Mars would likely mean the death of the crew.

    Entertaining the notion of traveling to even the nearest star indicates a great gulf of ignorance regarding the scope of the project. Not the least of which is a GREATLY increased human life span. And, some way of remaining sane, being cooped up in a space craft for years.

    Get a grip! On reality, that is.

  12. Grant Martin

    In “Budgets”, above, Tony Flanders states, “… there is no urgent need to put people in space.”

    Well, maybe there is, or rather, may be. The earth has been hit hundreds of times by very large, crater-forming objects — meteorites, asteroids, comets, what have you — many of them large enough to cause massive extinction events as seen in the fossil record. There is no logical reason to believe we will not be hit again. Even a “smallish” impact can be devastating to our species.

    We have an urgent need to put people in space for two reasons: one, to deflect the oncoming impactor. Two, to have some of our species in another location to survive a really massive extinction event, in case a large impact cannot be avoided. Anyone have some ideas?

  13. Richard Sauder

    Reply to Grant Martin:

    (1) Do you REALLY think that any space based defender could possibly save the earth from an oncoming asteroid? Sounds like Star Trek to me.

    (2) Having some of our species in another remote location sounds great – if you are talking about computer data. Would you be willing to spend the rest of your short life getting cancer on Mars so that your great, great great grandchildren might launch their ancient rocket to bring someone back to a trashed earth after an asteroid impact? If you are thinking we should retreat to the stars for safety, remember that Voyager I, a 733 KG probe, the fastest spacecraft now on the way to the stars would require over 75,000 years to reach the nearest star – even if it was aimed there, which it is not.

    It is probably best to forget about human space travel except for stunt missions. Actually, the Apollo missions came under that category because there was no sustained support. They were essentially a series of 6 “once and done” trips. We haven’t been back to the moon since.

    The planets are beyond 500 times the moon’s distance and the nearest star is about 100 million times as far.
    Enough said?

  14. Tony Flanders

    Grant Martin says, “The earth has been hit hundreds of times by very large objects — many of them large enough to cause massive extinction events.” This is true, and there’s little doubt that several more events like this will take place in the next billion years. But our species has been around more than 100,000 years without spaceflight, and the chances of a species-endangering cosmic event in the next 100,000 years are negligible. “Urgent” usually means a time frame of day, months, or years, not geological epochs.

  15. Grant Martin

    Hey, I’m just trying to give NASA a credible mission. About urgency — a mission to divert an oncoming object doesn’t have to save the human race to be deemed successful. For instance, let’s say the Tunguska object that hit in 1908 had landed on Manhattan rather than Siberia. Millions of people would have been killed, and our economy would have been decimated. If it had hit in the middle of the Atlantic, it would have caused a huge tsunami with even more disastrous consequences. We know these objects are coming; we just don’t know when or where. Right now, we have the ability to detect one coming, but we haven’t developed the means to do anything about it, even though we have the technology. We are sitting ducks. It wouldn’t take a huge investment to develop the rockets needed for this specific mission. Frankly, I have a hard time thinking of a better application of our space and astronomy technology.

  16. Harry R. Betz

    I am just a lowly part-time algebra instructor at a local community college. I have students who struggle in my elementary algebra class because they really don’t want to be bothered with the effort of truly thinking. They seem to want bread and circuses, as in ancient Rome, or our modern equivalents: pizza delivery and s-cubed: sports, soap-operas, and sitcoms. They only want to be comfortable n the present, entertained, and not really interested in mentally exerting themselves to contribute to the future. This will probably be considered a totally radical statement on my part: there should be absolutely no price tag associated with space exploration and manned space travel, even if it means the welfare and defense budgets end up at near zero.

  17. Harry R. Betz

    I am just a lowly part-time algebra instructor at a local community college. I have students who struggle in my elementary algebra class because they really don’t want to be bothered with the effort of truly thinking. They seem to want bread and circuses, as in ancient Rome, or our modern equivalents: pizza delivery and s-cubed: sports, soap-operas, and sitcoms. They only want to be comfortable n the present, entertained, and not really interested in mentally exerting themselves to contribute to the future. This will probably be considered a totally radical statement on my part: there should be absolutely no price tag associated with space exploration and manned space travel, even if it means the welfare and defense budgets end up at near zero.