"2001: A Space Odyssey": Are We There Yet?

Upon its 1968 release, 2001: A Space Odyssey presented a daring vision of future space travel that has been a topic of conversation among scholars, scientists and movie fans ever since. Earth-orbiting Hiltons, PanAm passenger space shuttles and zero-gravity toilets, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke promised, would be just some of the accoutrements that people would take for granted in 2001. Their vision was grounded in the optimism of the times, and it would be enhanced by the 1969 moon landing.

In 1968, the Space Age was in its ascendancy, filled with opportunity and promise. Certainly, the engineers and scientists of the day did not expect all of their lofty goals to be completed by the early 1970s, if indeed ever; but, paraphrasing a 1967 Popular Mechanics article, the foundations for all these things — a lunar research laboratory and astronomical observatory, a space station for servicing and maintaining satellites — existed by the late 1960s and they were expected to have been well under way by the end of 1972. So what went wrong?

A major fallacy of that era's vision is that it assumed that space travel, artificial intelligence and other great innovations of the day — prodded along by the need to beat the Soviets in the race to the moon — would continue to develop at a breakneck pace. Literature from that era supports this belief. By the mid-1960s, we had already launched weather, navigation and communications satellites into space. Popular Mechanics in February 1967 predicted that by 1972 we would have a radio telescope on the moon and an Earth-orbiting, self-sustaining space station. In June of 1968, Popular Science went so far as to say that "things would be more fantastic than [2001: A Space Odyssey] shows. Today's scientists may be overconservative in their predictions and overpessimistic about what we can accomplish" by 2001.

Some of the events that have refocused our technological goals since the idealized visions of the 1960s are the Apollo 13 and Challenger disasters, Vietnam, the end of the Cold War, and the development of information technology such as the Internet. As a result, we have not yet colonized the moon; the International Space Station is cramped and uncomfortable, and no hint of extraterrestial intelligence has yet been found — unless we count the mysterious microscopic formations inside the Martian rocks examined by Pathfinder in 1997.

The possibilities of manned space travel may have been strongly hinted at both in the movie and by the 1969 moon landing, but in our 2001, the focus is clearly on unmanned space exploration. Recent interplanetary missions such as Galileo (Jupiter), Cassini (Saturn), the Lunar Prospector and the Mars Pathfinder, consist of compact spacecraft specializing in precise and delicate tasks such as analyzing rock and atmospheric samples. These projects are both economically feasible and expendable, with their minimilistic, onboard electronic attributes focused entirely on sending digital information back to Earth. While no unmanned probe could ever have the romantic and emotional effect that the moon landing had, creating an environment for interplanetary human travel is both staggeringly expensive and scientifically unnecessary.

In our contemporary, information technology-based vision of the near future, scientists conceive of "manned-equivalent" missions to Mars and beyond. Rather than deal with the staggering expense, logistics and dangers of sending a human crew to Mars or Jupiter, in a manned-equivalent mission the human crew would reside on Earth in a simulated sensory environment while a completely mechanized probe remotely performs their physical actions. The 1997 Mars Pathfinder operated like this on a simplistic level by following carefully scripted "high-level directives" from Earth-based controllers. With manned-equivalent missions, space exploration can then be reduced to technological barriers such as robotic and electronic vision development, rather than human barriers such as safety and emotional concerns.

2001: A Space Odyssey will always be more about the past and the future than about the present. The expansionist vision of the film really reflects an early-1960s, pre-Vietnam idealism which challenged contemporary minds to look forward and innovate. With the intercession of the Vietnam War, the film became a utopia for a disillusioned generation, and, as our national priorities changed, so too did our focus on gallantly sending men to other worlds.

In the 21st century, our journey seems to be inward — toward a greater understanding of our own world and its elements. The search for cosmic truths is being accomplished from the driver's seat of our own planet, employing biotechnology to genetically engineer food, nanotechnology to build ever-smaller machines, and quantum physics to understand how to push photons ever more efficiently through cyberspace. The film was right in at least one respect: we are preoccupied with technology, sometimes to the detriment of our humanity, sometimes to our utmost benefit.


Michael Tanenbaum