2001: Retreat from the Space Odyssey

At the fortieth anniversary of space travel, why has humanity stopped reaching for the stars?

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

Watching 2001: A Space Odyssey in the year 2001, the fortieth anniversary of manned space travel, is at the same time uplifting and depressing.

Many of the innovations shown in the film were, and still are, attainable. But the world that the film depicts has been indefinitely postponed, by a diminished sense of what humanity can achieve amid the stars.

Unusually for a film, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 leaves more to the imagination than the book of the same name by Arthur C Clarke. Those who like their explanations clear-cut will turn to the book and its sequels, 2010, 2061 and 3001, for literal explanations of the film’s more mysterious events. I prefer the film, not just because it is rich with fictional enigma, but because it manages to root this enigma in scientific fact.

Despite the enigmatic elements of 2001, the film contains as much realism as it does fantasy – ‘realism’ not in the sense that the real 2001 turned out the way that the film depicts it, but in the sense that much of the technology in the film was (and is) scientifically feasible. Kubrick took his futurology very seriously, conferring with scientific advisers over every depicted detail, guessing the accurate colour of the Earth (colour footage of which from space was unavailable in 1968), and showing how artificial gravity (AG) could be generated through rotation (1).

After the film’s initial ‘Dawn of man’ sequence, the viewer is presented with 45 minutes of almost uninterrupted futurological speculation. To the sound of Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube waltz, we see commercial Pan-Am space flights, an orbiting hotel, an enormous, wheel-shaped manned space station, and instantaneous one-to-one videophone communication (presented as a domestic norm).

As an evocation of the progressive character of space technology, the sequence has no parallel in present-day cinema. Spacecraft in film today tend either to be mere props (the Star Wars films) or oppressive environments (the Alien films).

All of the technologies shown in 2001’s Blue Danube sequence seemed within reach in 1968. But they bear little resemblance to anything orbiting Earth today. As the astronomer Henry Joy McCracken has pointed out, ‘a commentator writing in the distant days of 1957 would have found it unbelievable if he had been told that by the end of the millennium the solar system would be largely unexplored (with the exception of the odd robot probe like Pathfinder), and that the human exploration of space would be limited to repair missions in low Earth orbit’. (2) What went wrong?

The first manned space station, Salyut 1, was launched by Russia only three years after the release of 2001. The US space station Skylab followed in 1973, and 1986 brought the launch of Mir, the largest ever space station, the first to be inhabited for over a year, and the first to be cohabited by Russian and US cosmonauts (3).

But Mir was allowed to deteriorate over the course of the 1990s. It became a laughing stock (nicknamed ‘Starship Lada’) and was eventually deorbited in 2001, providing a grotesque counterpoint to Kubrick’s vision of the twenty-first century. The Space Frontier Foundation (4) condemned the decision to deorbit as ‘an unnecessary waste of a still useful and historic building in space’ (5).

In 1995, hopes for an advanced space presence were diverted from Mir to International Space Station Alpha (ISS) (6), arguably the largest and most complex international scientific project in history, still being constructed at the time of writing by 16 collaborating countries and aiming for seven-person crew capability by 2006. The original designs for the ISS shared the same inspiration as 2001’s fictional space station: a 1952 wheel-shaped design by rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun (7).

But the reality has fallen short of the dream. The US government has dramatically scaled back the funding and ambitions behind the ISS project (8), removing crucial elements and leaving scientists in doubt about the space station’s usefulness (9). The ISS is looking increasingly like Mir in drag, and support for it is flagging.

A joint survey by the BBC programme Tomorrow’s World and the International Space University (ISU) in December 2000 revealed that 61 percent of the scientists questioned believed the ISS to be a ‘waste of money’ (10). This utilitarian attitude toward space exploration is not uncommon today – the ‘Why explore space?’ section of NASA’s website tellingly lists ‘inspiration’ last, after ‘knowledge’, ‘applications’, ‘technology’ and ‘economics’ (11).

What about Kubrick’s vision of paid space travel as a leisure activity? Since the end of the Cold War, and the incentive that it gave governments to invest in the space programme, the commercial sector would seem to be a natural place to seek support for space travel. The most basic prerequisite for leisure space travel is a reusable launch vehicle (RLV) for repeated there-and-back trips. Unfortunately, funding and research has been insufficient to develop a new RLV since the space shuttle first launched in 1981 (12). Space shuttle journeys remain prohibitively expensive for the leisure sector.

Even those millionaires who can afford to be space tourists today, aboard rockets rather than RLVs, are being denied the opportunity. This year NASA denied permission to their former engineer Dennis Tito, now a 60-year-old investment tycoon, to travel to the ISS on a Russian rocket and become the first space tourist. This was despite the fact that Tito had undergone all of the requisite training, had the support of the cosmonauts inhabiting the ISS, and was happy to pay the Russian space exploration programme $20million for the privilege (a sum that the beleaguered programme could most certainly do with) (13).

In his depiction of videophone communication, Kubrick was inadvertently closer to the way that the twenty-first century panned out. This technology is little more than a casual observation in 2001, dwarfed by the wonders of space travel, but in reality it is telecommunications and not space travel that has become the pre-eminent part of the technology sector.

As the Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach points out in a retrospective piece on 2001, ‘the singular piece of engineering that most preoccupies our minds is not some rocket ship, but rather the anarchic, chaotic, almost unfathomable computer matrix called the internet’ (14). Humanity’s sights are no longer extroverted, set upon the stars; but introverted, preoccupied with the channels we use to communicate with each other on Earth.

Ironically, the least realistic of the technologies depicted in 2001 is the one that the film has become universally associated with. I am referring to HAL 9000, a computer so advanced that it speaks with the fluency of an adult and projects the impression of conscious thought and feeling. Computer processing power has improved in leaps and bounds since 1968, but a computer capable of conversing at an adult level in spoken English, and making the sophisticated decisions made by HAL, remains a distant prospect.

Even if Kubrick overindulged his imagination with HAL, commentators do the director an injustice by assuming that HAL possesses ‘artificial intelligence’. None of the scientists shown discussing HAL in 2001 commits themselves to the belief that the computer feels genuine emotions. When HAL becomes erratic and turns upon the ship’s crew, its behaviour need not be a symptom of sentience – other valid explanations include a malfunction, a human programming error or an inability to process the parameters of its extraordinary mission.

HAL’s behaviour in the film is commonly interpreted as a cautionary tale against ‘smart’ technology, but this is an illogical conclusion. Surely, the only moral of HAL’s breakdown is that we should develop better technology that doesn’t malfunction? Besides, fans of 2001 are too easily humbled by HAL. They forget that a human scientist using human ingenuity eventually outwits the computer.

The most inspiring thing about 2001 is its resolute conception of progress. Human development is depicted in the film in semi-fictional terms, with a mysterious force assisting humanity’s evolution from apes into humans and from humans into something higher. But the distinction between apes and cosmonauts, represented in the film by a jump-cut from a hurled bone (a primitive tool) to a spacecraft (still a tool, just a more sophisticated one), is entirely down to human effort and achievement.

The alien intelligence may be the fictional catalyst, but the film’s message is that humanity has made immense progress from where it once was, and can make immense progress again.

That remains as worthy a conviction in 2001 as it was in 1968. As the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw argues, ‘the year 2001 didn’t then seem that implausible for what was shown on screen. Since then, we’ve lost interest in dreaming about the stars, and this movie’s towering humanism and optimism are a devastating rebuke to our dull, incurious attitude to the universe’ (15).

All is not lost, however. If a filmmaker in 1968 successfully inspired us to conquer space, then perhaps a filmmaker can inspire us again. I quote James Cameron, director of Titanic and The Terminator:

‘We’re never gonna reach some utopian plateau where everything is solved so we can kind of with lordly confidence look around for worlds to conquer as some kind of hobby….We’re really at a turning point: we either go forward or we go back….In an age when the horizons have grown near, when the lands of mystery are as close as the travel channel, when everything seems known and tired, when all the wildernesses are conquered, the human soul is starved for challenge.’ (16)

Read on:

The end of the space race?, by Sandy Starr

Challenging Columbia, by Norman Levitt

(1) Artificial Gravity was first conceived of as early as 1911. Werner von Braun’s design for a wheel-shaped space station, the inspiration for the space station in 2001, had artificial gravity as a consideration. For more information, see Artificial Gravity: current concerns and design considerations by Tamarack R Czarnik
(2) Why have we still not walked on Mars? by Henry Joy McCracken
(3) See Building on what we know: the history of space stations by Marianne J Dyson
(4) Space Frontier Foundation website
(5) Press release by the Space Frontier Foundation, 23 March 2001
(6) Click here to download a copy of the ‘International Space Station Fact Book’ in .pdf format
(7) The design was originally published in Colliers magazine in March 1952, as part of a series of articles illustrating the imagined near future. Present-day computer graphics have recently been used to create a faux 1960s documentary, Man Conquers Space, imagining that the visions presented in Colliers had actually been realised and filmed. Find out more about Man Conquers Space here
(8) See US module faces the axe, Space.com, 28 February 2001
(9) See The science of Space Station Alpha: following budget cuts will it remain world class?, Space.com, 7 March 2001
(10) Joint survey by Tomorrow’s World and the International Space University on BBC Online, December 2000
(11) See Why explore space?, on the NASA website
(12) See Space 2001 by Julian Borger, Guardian, 6 January 2001; and The History of the Space Shuttle, on the NASA website
(13) See NASA ban prompts cosmonaut boycott, Guardian, 21 March 2001; and Astronauts say millionaire tourist is welcome, New York Times, 1 April 2001
(14) ‘2001 ain’t what it used to be’, Washington Post, 31 December 2000
(15) Guardian, 30 March 2001
(16) James Cameron, Address to the International Mars Society, August 1999

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Topics Politics