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2001: A Politically Charged Space Odyssey

Posted By Gordon Prather On 01/06/2001 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

If you are of a generation that can remember that stunning moment in the Apollo Project, when all of us here on the Blue Planet got our first glimpse of “earthrise” — as seen by men on the moon — perhaps you decided to spend the first several hours of the new millennium watching with Robert Osborne, once again and in awe, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The movie, says reviewer Tim Dirks, “is a landmark, science fiction classic, an epic film containing more spectacular imagery than verbal dialogue. It is a profound and astounding film (a mysterious Rorschach film-blot) and a tremendous visual experience. Viewers are left to experience the non-verbal vastness of the film, and to subjectively reach into their own subconscious to speculate about its meaning. The first spoken word is almost a half hour into the film, and there’s less than 40 minutes of dialogue in the entire film.”

“In the opening image,” Dirks goes on to explain, “the camera pans upward from the pock-marked surface of the Moon in the foreground. The perspective is from behind the moon. In the distance is a view of the Sun rising over the Earth-crescent in the vastness of space. The image shows the heavenly bodies of the Earth, Moon, and Sun in a vertically-symmetrical alignment or conjunction. [Later in the film, it is revealed that a monolith was buried on the Moon, possibly at the moment of this 'magical' conjunction.] The opening trinitarian chords [C, G, and again C] of Richard Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra accompany and welcome this striking shot of orbital and visual alignment. The credits then follow.”

Though made a generation ago, the film is still visually stunning and holds up well, technically, partially because, unlike later pure sci-fi efforts such as Star Wars and Star Trek, Kubrick’s film seriously attempted to depict things as they really could be early in the 21st century. That is, if we had really continued to press the success of the Apollo program at ever-increasing funding levels for the rest of the 20th century, and had established a Space Station halfway between here and the moon, and were conducting mining operations on the moon, and had found a monolith buried there, and had then launched a manned mission to Jupiter to find out what in heaven’s name these monoliths were all about — then Kubrick’s film could almost be taken for a documentary.

In 1964, when Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke were writing the movie script — which was based on one of Clarke’s short sci-fi stories — nobody had yet walked on the moon. Kubrick and Clarke sought to project a technological future that was just far enough away to be believable, yet close enough to be attainable. They were so successful that their vision of the future became, to a certain degree, self-fulfilling.

In particular, it is remarkable how similar the technical details of the Kubrick-Clarke vision track NASA’s plan, produced in 1992, for a manned mission to Mars. According to the so-called “Ninety Day Report,” produced in response to the Space Exploration Initiative of the Bush-Quayle administration, a 1,000-ton interplanetary spaceship would be built by astronauts at the space station. It would be powered by nuclear rockets and fly to Mars in perhaps six months. Upon reaching Mars, the astronauts would enter a Mars excursion module, stay on the surface for about a month, and then blast back into orbit to rendezvous with the rest of their spaceship. Then they would fire the spaceship’s rocket and head for Venus, where that planet’s gravity would slingshot the spacecraft back to Earth.

One reason the Ninety Day Report Mission to Mars was never implemented was its price tag ($500 billion) and, even in Congress, that’s not pocket change. But a much more important reason may be that by the time the Ninety Day Report was completed, the Soviet Union had collapsed. The Cold War — and with it the real rationale for the Space Race — was over.

By the time the Clinton administration came to town, the Bush-Quayle Space Exploration Initiative was as dead as the Soviet Union. However, Clinton-Gore’s NASA administrator, Dan Goldin, did push for faster, cheaper and better unmanned robotic missions such as the Mars Pathfinder. And there was talk of cooperating with the Russians in space to do some things — such as building a real, manned space station — that we had been trying to do in competition with the Soviet Union.

So, the human Mars exploration group at Johnson Space Center designed a cheaper version of the SEI Mission to Mars, known as the Reference Mission, which was estimated to only cost about $50 Billion. No one expected it to actually get approval and funding any time soon, but it was and is a serious planning effort by a bunch of serious bureaucrats.

Now there has also been some speculation that former senator and Apollo Astronaut Jack Schmitt — a strong advocate of manned space exploration — might be named NASA administrator and that a Bush-Cheney administration might try to resuscitate the Bush-Quayle Space Exploration Initiative. But now that the Soviet Union is no more, and there is no prospective enemy to “race into space,” why would Congress — on behalf of the American people — commit hundreds of billions of dollars to send man into space? What could possibly be the rationale? The question brings us back to the metaphysics of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Although subject to many interpretations, in one interpretation of the story line, after finding the monolith on the moon, all mankind goes on a 21st century odyssey, just as all mankind went to the moon with Neil Armstrong. Seeking to unravel the mystery of the monolith, Odysseus is “sent by the gods,” in a “stout raft” to Jupiter and after “many woes,” is received there by “the kin of the gods,” transformed into embryonic “new man” and eventually is returned to his native land.

In this interpretation, there exists a Supreme Being, who has initially seeded the planets of the universe with the “makings” of life and/or intelligence. On each planet — including our moon — the Supreme Being has placed a black monolith — sort of a node for the celestial Internet — which can be activated if something develops on the planet to the point where it can “log on.”

For most of Kubrick’s tale, there is a competition — but not a U.S.-Soviet Union competition — between “intelligence” itself and “life” itself. After all, the bacteria in your gut are life forms, every bit as alive as you are, but presumably not as intelligent. They can’t “log on.” On the other hand, the computer HAL, which is definitely not alive, seems to be far more intelligent — in every sense — and more capable than the men in spacesuits. What’s worse, HAL seems to have a better idea of what the Odyssey is all about. Why not just send HAL to Jupiter?

The answer is that HAL — intelligence — can’t be trusted to fulfill the mission for mankind — life. HAL kills all but one of the men in an effort to turn their Odyssey into his. But, in the end, one of the men defeats HAL, and that is apparently the way the Supreme Being — or at least MGM — wanted it to turn out.

Absent a U.S.-Soviet space race or a HAL-Mankind fight to be “received by the kin of the gods,” the usual sci-fi rationale for manned space travel is — at least, initially — materialistic. Some material is discovered on another planet — say Kryptonite on the planet Krypton — that is desperately needed by mankind on Earth, but doesn’t exist on Earth. So the only way to satisfy our desperate need for Kryptonite is to send Sigourney Weaver or Sean Connery and a cast of thousands to Krypton with pickaxes and shovels.

Even Kubrick’s Odyssey begins that way. Mankind had already devoted some huge fraction of the Earth’s available resources to mining some material substance — apparently unbelievably valuable — discovered to exist on the moon. So valuable is that material that Pan Am has regular scheduled “shuttle flights” from Earth to an absolutely immense space station (still under construction) and from the space station to the central hub of a vast mining operation on the moon.

Kubrick needed there to already be extensive mining operations on the moon in order to make plausible man’s finding the monolith there. And if Pan Am already had shuttle flights to the moon in 2001, then it became plausible that man was capable of going the much greater distance to Jupiter to find out what in heaven’s name this celestial Internet was all about.

Still, it isn’t obvious — even in the film — how this Odyssey to Jupiter could ever have been approved by “The Council.” After all, an expedition to find out who or what the monolith — that began to emit a god-awful screech when touched by a council pooh-bah — was communicating with on Jupiter, could have surely been carried out much better, faster, safer and much, much cheaper by an unmanned space exploration vehicle. Why not leave man, the immense space ship and HAL at home, at least at first? Put a mini-HAL on a computer chip, put the chip and some sensors and a video cam in a space ship the size of a breadbox and send them off to Jupiter to scout things out.

Of course, “2001: A Space Odyssey” was only a movie, made more than 30 years ago and wouldn’t have been much of a movie if Odysseus had stayed home in Houston, watching videos from mini-HAL. But now it really is 2001. No one has discovered any compelling reason to even go back to the moon. There is a space station, but it is only about 240 miles from earth rather than 125,000. There is a space shuttle, which can just make it up to the space station, but it isn’t run by Pan Am.

Nevertheless, there are already demands that we resume spending zillions of dollars on manned exploration of space. There’s not much chance Congress will allow that. Unless, of course, someone finds a big black monolith somewhere on the Earth that gives out a god-awful screech the moment the president’s science adviser touches it. Anyone seen anything like that, recently?


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