This article appeared in the Winter 2000-2001 edition of the local astronomy club's publication, "Inside Orbit."

Space Science vs. Space Science Fiction

By Kevin S. Jung and James W. Ashley

As of the first publication of this article, the 3rd Millennium is less than one month away. January 1, 2001. We will never see it again. It’s a one-shot deal for all of us who are alive today.

But is the upcoming 21st Century what we were expecting as we grew up? Certainly we didn't think about it much, or even think about it in passing. It was so far away, and something to ponder “sometime.” Mainly our thoughts were trained on other subjects that pertained to the times at hand.

The years of the middle of this century; the 1950’s… the 1960’s… Remember the promise that the future held back then, visualized by both scientists and authors of science fiction? Flying cars, permanent domed colonies on the moon, travel to other stars. Much of this was to have taken place at the end of the 20th Century or beginning of the 21st. Scientists had the “vision of the future” and the sci-fi authors had the “vision of alternate realities.”

As we approach 2001, it’s natural to compare our “reality” to that of the classic (and from our perspective) greatest science-fiction movie of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Where does fact differ from fantasy?

We can skip the start of the movie (as we can yet only speculate on its factuality). We start our comparison with the future depicted in the movie: Nonchalant trips into near earth space; orbiting space stations; leisurely voyages to the moon; sinister discoveries beneath the lunar surface. This all happened in the year 1999 (movie time).

Yes, we have a space station in orbit right now. The first crew of the International Space Station (ISS) boarded in November of 2000. It is, however, a far cry from the spoked, dual-wheeled mega-station of Clark and Kubrick’s vision. Have we traveled to that station? Yes, but hardly routine. The missions to earth orbit by the NASA shuttles and the various Russian craft are plagued with the problems that normally come with complex technologies, as well as human foibles. Disaster in space is rare, but is a real possibility and does occur. We are nowhere near “space plane” trips into orbit for fun and recreation. That is still in our future, one that is beyond our vision at this moment in our existence.

One of the things we do have that is depicted in the film is the electronic media Dr. Floyd makes use of as he’s waiting on the station. Also, the wireless call to his daughter (actually played by Stanley Kubrick’s daughter) via the videophone is a reality. Not much else on that space station is. Our astronauts in ISS do not have that kind of space or other luxuries surrounding them. It is (at this time) a hard struggle for humans to exist in space. They may be in shirtsleeves most of the time, but their pressure suits aren't far away, just in case of the unforeseen accident.

Travel to the moon? The Aries spacecraft that Dr. Floyd took to the lunar surface was a marvel of sophistication and technology: wide spaces, luxuriant accommodations. The passengers and crew worked and traveled in an environment comparable to one of our passenger airliners.

We have, in all effect, abandoned the moon. Man has not left Earth orbit since December of 1972. The crew of Apollo 17 was the last humans on the moon, and the last to leave for the relative comfort of Earth’s orbit. Who knows when we will return to the moon, to explore its riches and wonders? Again, it does not appear likely during our lifetimes. One could go on describing the way this outstanding motion picture depicted space travel and habitation; from the moon bus to the infrastructure at Clavius base, to the Discovery spacecraft on its way to Jupiter (Saturn in the book). However the story, written as it was during the middle of the century, was forced to comment on things possible but by no means necessary.

So where does this leave us in the context of the film? Well, there is no Clavius Base, and certainly no excavation in the crater Tycho uncovering a large, black monolith. To get to the point of having an extensive base on the moon (a shirtsleeve environment, no less!), along with most of the other things depicted in the film, we would have to start now in order to have it by 2030. And even though we have progressed far in our technology, we as a civilization still do not have a computer like HAL. In Clarke’s “reality,” HAL became operational on January 12, 1992, when in fact computer scientists are just now trying to understand heuristics as it pertains to designing computers that think (reason) for themselves. However, it is becoming fashionable to speculate on the significance of artificial intelligence, in some reports have it that such things may be possible in the next 30 years. Of course, manned excursions to the planets and beyond, as in the film, still seem today like science fiction.

One aspect of 2001: A Space Odyssey remains appropriate and timely: It continues to inspire with its dramatic flowchart of how things could be. This is the power of the gifted science fiction writer. Plans for something not too unlike this tableau were on the drawing board at the time Apollo was scrubbed. The only differences being not of technological know-how, but of economy and motivation. Perhaps the aerospace engineers of the first International Subcommittee for Solar System Colonization will look back on the film as a source of their vision and ours.

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