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. Continue reading