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2001 - Then and Now

by John G. Cramer

Alternate View Column AV-107
Keywords: Kubric, motion, picture, movie, year, 2001, space, station, artificial, intelligence, moonbase, space, exploration
Published in the July-2001 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact Magazine;
This column was written and submitted 2/4/2001 and is copyrighted ©2001 by John G. Cramer.
All rights reserved. No part may be reproduced in any form without
the explicit permission of the author.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 motion picture 2001 depicted a world in which our country had an operating moon base and a huge rotating space station.  We have solved the problem of building artificially intelligent machines.  We were mounting nuclear-powered manned missions to the planets.

The reality of the year 2001 is upon us, and we notice that it is very different from the movie.  There is no mooonbase, no Pan Am rocket space-liners, no Hilton Hotels in orbit, no manned missions to the planets, no cold-sleep hibernation, no intelligent computers.  Perhaps it’s time to ask how Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick could have been so wrong in their predictions, or perhaps to ask where we took the wrong path between 1968 and 2001.

The film 2001: A Space Odyssey was a work of genius and deep ambiguity.  The film works at many levels.  At the literal level, we watch as man-apes are “uplifted” by alien intervention, converted from vegetarian losers on the edge of extinction to neo-carnivores, inventing weapons and warfare as we watch and beginning the trajectory that will give them control of the planet and propel them into space and beyond. We watch near-contemporary humans on the verge of the next uplift step..  There are also allusions to Homer's The Odyssey and to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's focus on the next stage of human evolution, the coming of the ubermensch.

The cinematic imagery of 2001 is also memorable.  As a physicist, I often witness myself and my colleagues confronting a new theoretical concept or a new experimental result, struggling to make sense of it.  As I watch, I recall Kubrick’s man-apes, crouched before the black monolith, tentatively reaching out to touch it, then jumping back; reaching out again and again, a bit more secure each time.

Perhaps because I'm a physicist who writes SF, last December as the year 2001 was about to begin I was contacted by newspaper and TV journalists and interviewed about the difference between 2001 the film and the reality.  This experience led me to some thoughts on this question, which I want to share with you.  Since this had its inception in interviews, I’ll use that format.

Q:  Why is the present manned space program so different from the one that Clarke and Kubrick envisioned?

Some of you may recall that after the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon in 1969, there was an amazingly abrupt decrease in public enthusiasm for manned space flight.  I have a theory about what happened.

I believe that a principal sociological force driving the manned space program of the 1960s was territoriality, the basic human urge to explore and occupy new territory.  I think the man-in-the-street expected the Apollo astronauts to go to the Moon and claim it as our territory.  Neil Armstrong was supposed to step out of the Lunar Lander and say "I claim this territory in the name of the United States of America."

When instead, all he said was the scripted lines about a “giant step for mankind”, the aftermath was like air escaping from a balloon.  The entire space program deflated very rapidly when the taxpayers discovered that the Moon Race was not about claiming the Moon as a territory of the United States of America.  The pattern of exploration and territorial expansion we had learned in history class had not occurred. Moreover, in 1969 the Vietnam War was in full swing, diverting money and attention away from the space program.

Kubrick's movie was written and filmed well before the Apollo 11 landing.  In 2001, there was not only an international space station, but there was a US-owned base on the Moon.  That moon base was clearly a part of our claim of the Moon as territory.  In the movie, our politicians had not shied away from claiming the Moon.  We were actively competing with the Soviets for our part of the lunar landscape, keeping them away when we did not want them to land, etc.

The movie differs from present reality because the policy makers of the Nixon Administration decided to sidestep the territorial issue.  In this way, they maintained more control over a space program that they had inherited from a previous administration and for which they has little enthusiasm. (Note that the protagonists in my hard SF novel Twistor do claim the territory they discover.)

Q:  How does the space station in 2001 compare with the one NASA is building?

I think NASA’s whole space station concept is flawed.  Contrary to the impression you might have received from the public relations boys, a space station is not a good science base and is not needed for a stepping-stone to space.  It doesn't take much more energy to go all the way to the Moon than it does to go to the Space Station.  It's merely an expensive detour, designed to keep NASA's standing army of engineers and bureaucrats fully employed.

In the early 1990s when Congress was considering the funding of the space station, all of the scientific and engineering professional societies opposed it as having minimal scientific value.  It was clear to the science professionals that one can do better science in space using an unmanned platform that doesn't have astronauts clunking around on it.

Clarke and Kubrick showed more insight than NASA in this respect.  In 2001 the space station is an airport-like place of hotels, restaurants, phone booths, customs officials, and short-term visitors.  The real science in 2001 is being done at the moon base, and this has led to an unexpected discovery, the monolith.

Q:  Why doesn’t NASA’s space station rotate to make artificial gravity?

It’s primarily a matter of size and cost.  A toroidal space station with a small radius and a high spin rate would have very large Coriolis force effects, as discussed in my column on artificial gravity (Analog Feb-87).  The astronauts inside would experience severe disorientation every time they turned or nodded their heads.  To avoid such problems, a space station that rotates for artificial gravity must be large, with a minimum diameter of 100 meters or so.  NASA is keeping the cost down by not building a space station that large, and is keeping things simple by not using spin gravity.

If you really wanted to build a Kubrick/Clarke-style rotating space station at a low cost, the scheme suggested by the Lawrence Livermore Lab some years ago might be the way to go.  They suggested an inflatable space station that could be collapsed, boosted to orbit, and the pressurized with air.  A torus would be a natural shape for such a structure, which after inflation could be spun to produce artificial gravity.  Then the construction crew could simply climb inside and do whatever additional construction was necessary in the Earth-normal gravity and a shirtsleeve environment inside.

Q:  What could put us back on a track toward the space accomplishment of 2001?

I think that we should immediately cease building any kind of space station.  Instead, we should be building a moon base, so that we can occupy it and begin to learn how to live, work, and do scientific research off the planet.  I find it uncomfortable to contemplate that we still have all of our Eggs in this single pretty blue Basket, and that our Solar System has the unfortunate habit of throwing large rocks at it.

Q:  Might a different version of recent history have led to achieving anything resembling the Kubrick/Clarke vision of 2001?

It's hard to know how things could have been different.  The Vietnam War certainly diverted us off the path toward space exploration.  Moreover, at its beginning NASA was put together from military bureaucrats and test pilots who had little appreciation of what science is or how it is done.  The injection of a strong scientific mission at the very beginning of NASA might have set things on a better path.  In a previous AV column, (Analog, Mid-Dec-88) I discussed Freeman Dyson's vision of how the Apollo Program might have been done with much more of a scientific component.

The other problem with the historical development of the U.S. space program is that everything costs too much.  As long as that is the case, you will not see the kind of large-scale developments that Kubrick and Clarke envisioned.  Over the years NASA has invested almost nothing to advance propulsion technology beyond chemical rockets.  One unfunded alternative, discussed in one of my columns (Analog Aug-87), is laser-sustained propulsion.  It is a technology that could replace large expensive rocket boosters and lower the payload-to-orbit the price tag.

Q:  How far are we from cryo-hibernation for long-duration space travel, as used in the Jupiter Mission?

Cryo-hibernation turns out to be more difficult than Kubrick and Clarke had imagined, but it's possible that some bio-medical breakthrough could make it feasible any time.  However, if you think about it, the cryo-hibernation technology was probably more useful to Kubrick in making the plot work and keeping the character-count down than it was for the actual Jupiter Mission.  It would have been easy enough to do the mission with a fully populated ship, but that would have been distracting to the movie audience.

Q:  How far are we from a reasoning computer like the HAL 9000?

Artificial intelligence also turns out to be a much harder problem than Kubrick and Clarke imagined.  We have expert systems that can make educated guesses and neural networks that can learn through "training".  These show some rough similarities to truly intelligent systems, but they are very far from true reasoning.

I have a speculation about this.  Nature is very good at taking something that works and making it bigger, e.g., the giraffe's neck and the elephant's trunk.  Why then, when so many animals have brains, did it take so long to evolve an animal with a brain as big and smart as ours?  I think what took so long to evolve was not the big brain but the mechanism that stabilized it and kept it sane.  Our brains run on the hairy edge of instability, which is why there are so many humans with mental problems and why so many smart people have emotional stability problems.

Computer-based neural networks show the same symptoms.  When you make them too big, they go unstable and don't work.  As far as I know, computer researchers actively working on artificial intelligence have not yet mastered such stability problems.  Therefore, I think HAL 9000 type systems are a long way off.  And when we have them, they will probably have just the kind of stability problems that HAL had in the film.

Q:  How far are we from contact with other intelligent species?  Or have they already contacted us?

I think alien contact is far more unlikely than Kubrick and Clarke imagined, because there's probably on the average less than one intelligent civilization per galaxy.  My columns on Fermi's Paradox (Analog Jan-86) and on the Rare Earth Hypothesis (Analog Sep-2000) both address this point.  The alien contact  in my novel Einstein's Bridge avoids this problem by using intelligent aliens in an entirely separate universe, who come looking for us using wormholes.  They sniff us out because we are doing high-energy physics, a sure sign of intelligence.

Q:  Is our world better or worse than the one depicted in Kubrick's movie?

In many ways, today's world is better.  2001 implicitly extrapolated the Cold War politics and paranoia of the 60s to the present.  Kubrick and Clarke did not forsee the end of the Cold War or the meltdown of the Soviet Union.

Today, if we lack moon bases and manned exploration of the Solar System, we have a calmer world, with none of our brainpower and wealth diverted into unproductive contests with international communism.  Probably because this burden has been dropped, in the last decade our economy has blossomed with amazing productivity and innovation.  I believe that soon we will be able to afford to venture out from the Earth again, first to the Moon and then to Mars.  We will begin to place some of our Eggs in other Baskets.

SF Novels by John Cramer:  my two hard SF novels, Twistor and Einstein's Bridge, are newly released as eBooks by Book View Cafe and are available at : .

AV Columns Online: Electronic reprints of about 177 "The Alternate View" columns by John G. Cramer, previously published in Analog , are available online at:

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 This page was created by John G. Cramer on 01/29/2002.