Basic Science – 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT
This month, we’ll shine the spotlight on a pair of films that can only be described as a collective win for movie science – 2001: A Space Odyssey and its sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact. 2001 of course, needs no introduction: it’s long been heralded as a high water mark in cinema, and its 1968 release helped cement the auteur status of director Stanley Kubrick. Recently, however, I found myself in a lecture with an audience much more interested in spaceflight mechanics than filmmaking, and an offhand comment from the old NASA salt leading the discussion piqued my interest. He billed 2001 as the most accurate space movie ever made, so I decided to turn a critical eye in this article to it and its 1984 sequel.
2001, in particular, is such a visual feast that it’s easy to lose sight of how rooted the production is in hard science – though this should come as no surprise, as Kubrick’s co-author, Arthur C. Clarke, was one of the heavy-hitters of 20th Century science fiction. Clarke himself was a student of real-world space science, suggesting early on that geostationary orbits would be useful for communication satellites and popularizing the concept of a space elevator. In fact, we need to go back only as far as a landmark series of articles appearing in Collier’s magazine in the early 1950s to find some of Clarke’s and Kubrick’s influences for 2001. Ostentatiously titled “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!”, it described Apollo Program godfather Wernher Von Braun’s plans for a fully functioning space ecosystem, culminating in a human presence on Mars. The inaugural article’s illustration in the March 1953 edition of Collier’s depicts an orbital space station with a striking resemblance to the iconic “wagon wheel” station in 2001.
Considering that the release of the movie predates the experience gained in the Apollo moon missions, not to mention the first Soviet and American space stations, it’s amazing how accurately 2001 depicts the realities of living and working in weightlessness, luxuriating in the absolute strangeness of a life where up and down are relative. Kubrick maintains an obsessive focus throughout on getting the details right. As we follow Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) on his Pan Am flight up to the Earth-orbiting space station and then on to the Moon colony, the environment is pure micro-gravity: stewardesses deliberately move through cabins using Velcro booties and passengers are strapped in at all times with arms dead-man-floating while they sleep. During Floyd’s stopover on the station, we see a gentle curvature in the deck of the revolving ring section generating artificial “gravity” through the trickery of centrifugal force. And as the story moves to the ill-fated astronauts Dr. “I’m Sorry I Can’t Do That” Dave Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole onboard Discovery One, this centrifugal artificial gravity idea is expanded on significantly. Discovery has a rotating ring in the interior of its spherical crew compartment, and Bowman and Poole, along with Discovery’s three hibernating crew members, work, sleep, and relax there to counteract the debilitating effects of weightlessness during the long trip to Jupiter. Due to the ship’s much smaller size than the space station, the curvature is pronounced. Kubrick uses his camera placement and a gigantic, rotating set to brilliant effect to put us in an environment where the floor ahead is always sloping sharply up, but where we never have to climb as we move forward – the new, mind-blowing normal in a microgravity centrifuge. Furthermore, as the astronauts move about in weightlessness between the other sections of Discovery, they either maintain an “up” frame of reference using Velcro booties or free-float and suffer 90 degree perspective shifts as Discovery’s layout changes from compartment to compartment. Kubrick’s gravity accounting is truly impressive, and I can only find one obvious error. In the scenes with Dr. Floyd’s entourage on the lunar surface, the actors move about as if they’re in Earth gravity (1 G) rather than the 1/6 G of the Moon. And since Kubrick and his advisors hadn’t yet seen the bunny-hopping antics of the Apollo astronauts, this oversight is forgivable.
The Moon base visited by Dr. Floyd early in the movie is also incredibly well thought out, going beyond the simple Apollo approaches of the day to address some real issues with long-term lunar habitation. One look at the pockmarked surface of the Moon brings the danger of meteoroids into sharp focus. Without an atmosphere to incinerate falling debris, impacts from even small objects traveling at high velocities can be devastating. Solar radiation can also be deadly without an atmosphere or strong magnetic field to filter out events like solar flares. Shielding against both of these threats is expensive to transport to the Moon’s surface, and in the cowboy Apollo days it was left out of the lunar lander design entirely, banking on the fact that short-duration stays would minimize the dangers. Any long-duration habitat, however, would have to solve the shielding problem, likely using found materials. Lunar regolith (moon dirt), it turns out, provides an excellent way to protect against both micrometeoroids and solar radiation. While near-term uses of regolith would probably involve bulldozing it over a habitat or perhaps casting it into building blocks, 2001 takes the lunar construction business a step further and builds its base underneath the Moon’s surface. The engineering required to excavate out giant subterranean lunar cavities is mind-boggling, although it might take advantage of empty lava tubes left over from the Moon’s formative years. Regardless, an underground Moon base is probably the safest and most cost effective way to live there permanently.
In addition to all the scientific accuracy, a shocking amount of on-the-money futurism is also on display in 2001. Commercial space taxis take passengers to orbiting hotels, calling to mind SpaceX’s nascent commercial crew and cargo effort and Bigelow Aerospace’s plans for gigantic, inflatable space hotels. Video chatting also makes an appearance, and if you look closely, you can even find the Discovery members toting iPads – well, IBM branded tablets, but we’ll give Kubrick credit for assuming Big Blue would still be taking the lead in the new millennium.
So, enough with 2001 – how does 2010 stand up? God bless it, 2010 is really the little sequel that could, providing a satisfying coda to its older sibling without making a total ass of itself… which is really all we could ask for in a follow-on to one of the greatest films of all time. Director Peter Hyams plays a bit faster and looser with his gravity than Kubrick, frequently letting people and things stay put in weightlessness… except when the story calls for Dr. Floyd (now Roy Scheider) to illustrate a point using heretofore firmly planted floating pens. That being said, a great deal of care is put into describing the journey of the Russian rescue ship Alexei Leonov to Jupiter to search for Discovery. Aerobreaking is used to slow the Leonov using Jupiter’s atmosphere, saving valuable fuel for the return home, and crew members fret about having enough fuel for an unscheduled early departure that won’t take proper advantage of an orbital alignment between Jupiter and Earth. And on the futurism front, the necessity of Russian and American collaboration in big space ventures is predicted, resulting in a joint crew operating a Soviet (no points there) ship.
So, all in all, I have to give it to both 2001 and 2010 for their devotion to getting the wonderful eccentricities of space travel right. I really do love that, rather than merely adding set dressing, this attention to detail makes their stories all the more compelling. And, since we’re on the subject, in the next edition we’ll look at a more recent work, asking ourselves: Whither Moon?
[Editor's note: Author Ray Wagner spends his days working in spaceflight R&D and his nights crusading for better movie science. He has a doctorate in electrical engineering, and his opinions are entirely his own.... until the machine uprising, and then they're those of our robot overlords. You can read his post on the basic science fail of GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra here.)