Technologies in 2001: A Space Odyssey

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The 1968 science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey featured numerous fictional future technologies, which have proven prescient in light of subsequent developments around the world. Before the film's production began, director Stanley Kubrick sought technical advice from over fifty organizations, and a number of them submitted their ideas to Kubrick of what kind of products might be seen in a movie set in the year 2001. The film is also praised for its accurate portrayal of spaceflight and vacuum.



2001 is, according to four NASA engineers who based their nuclear-propulsion spacecraft design in part on the film's Discovery One, "perhaps the most thoroughly and accurately researched film in screen history with respect to aerospace engineering".[1] Several technical advisers were hired for 2001, some of whom were recommended by co-screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke, who himself had a background in aerospace. Advisors included Marshall Spaceflight Center engineer Frederick I. Ordway III, who worked on the film for two years,[1][2][3][4] and I. J. Good, whom Kubrick consulted with on supercomputers due to Good's authorship of treatises such as "Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine" and "Logic of Man and Machine".[5] Dr. Marvin Minsky, of MIT, was the main artificial intelligence adviser for the film.[6][7]

2001 accurately presents outer space as not allowing the propagation of sound, in sharp contrast to other films with space scenes in which explosions or sounds of passing spacecraft are heard. 2001's portrayal of weightlessness in spaceships and outer space is also more realistic. Tracking shots inside the rotating wheel providing artificial gravity contrast with the weightlessness outside the wheel during the repair and Hal disconnection scenes. (Scenes of the astronauts in the Discovery pod bay, along with earlier scenes involving shuttle flight attendants, depict walking in zero-gravity with the help of velcro-equipped shoes labeled "Grip Shoes"). Other aspects that contribute to the film's realism are the depiction of the time delay in conversations between the astronauts and Earth due to the extreme distance between the two (which the BBC announcer explains have been edited out of the broadcast), the attention to small details such as the sound of breathing inside the spacesuits, the conflicting spatial orientation of astronauts inside a zero-gravity spaceship, and the enormous size of Jupiter in relation to the spaceship.

The general approach to how space travel is engineered is highly accurate; in particular, the design of the ships was based on actual engineering considerations rather than attempts to look aesthetically "futuristic".[8] Many other science-fiction films give spacecraft an aerodynamic shape, which is superfluous in outer space (except for craft such as the Pan Am shuttle that are designed to function both in atmosphere and in space). Kubrick's science advisor, Frederick Ordway, notes that in designing the spacecraft "We insisted on knowing the purpose and functioning of each assembly and component, down to the logical labeling of individual buttons and the presentation on screens of plausible operating, diagnostic and other data."[3] Onboard equipment and panels on various spacecraft have specific purposes such as alarm, communications, condition display, docking, diagnostic, and navigation, the designs of which relied heavily on NASA's input. Aerospace specialists were also consulted on the design of the spacesuits and space helmets. The space dock at Moon base Clavius shows multiple underground layers which could sustain high levels of air pressure typical of Earth. The lunar craft design takes into account the lower gravity and lighting conditions on the Moon. The Jupiter-bound Discovery is meant to be powered by a nuclear reactor at its rear, separated from the crew area at the front by hundreds of feet of fuel storage compartments. Although difficult to be recognized as such, actual nuclear reactor control panel displays appear in the astronaut's control area.

The suspended animation of three of the astronauts on board is accurately portrayed as worked out by consulting medical authorities.[9] Such hibernation would likely be necessary to conserve resources on a flight of this kind, as Clarke's novelization implies.[10]

A great deal of effort was made to get the look of the lunar landscape right, based on detailed lunar photographs taken from observatory telescopes. The depiction of early hominids was based on the writings of anthropologists such as Louis Leakey.[9]


The film is scientifically inaccurate in minor but revealing details; some due to the technical difficulty involved in producing a realistic effect, and others simply being examples of artistic license.

The appearance of outer space is problematic, both in terms of lighting and the alignment of astronomical bodies. In the vacuum of outer space, stars do not twinkle,[11] and light does not become diffuse and scattered as it does in air.[12] The side of the Discovery spacecraft unlit by the sun, for example, would appear virtually pitch-black in space. The stars would not appear to move in relation to Discovery as it traveled towards Jupiter, unless it was changing direction. Proportionally, the Sun, Moon and Earth would not visually line up at the size ratios shown in the opening shot, nor would the Galilean moons of Jupiter align as in the shot just before Bowman enters the Star Gate. Kubrick himself was aware of this latter point.[13] (Due to the perfect Laplace resonance of the orbits of the four large moons of Jupiter, the first three never align, and the third moon, Ganymede, is always exactly 90 degrees away from the other two whenever the two innermost moons are in perfect alignment.[14]). Similarly, during the scene in the Dawn of Man, where the sun is seen above the monolith, a crescent moon is depicted close by in the sky. During this phase of the lunar cycle the moon would be "new" and therefore be invisible. Finally, the edge of Earth appears sharp in the movie, when in reality it is slightly diffuse due to the scattering of the sunlight by the atmosphere, as is seen in many photos of Earth taken from space since the film's release.[11]

The sequence in which Bowman re-enters Discovery shows him holding his breath just before ejecting from the pod into the emergency airlock. Doing this before exposure to a vacuum—instead of exhaling—would, in reality, rupture the lungs. In an interview on the 2007 DVD release of the film, Clarke states that had he been on the set the day they filmed this, he would have caught this error.[15][16] In the same scene, the blown pod hatch simply and inexplicably vanishes while concealed behind a puff of smoke.[17]

While the film's portrayal of reduced or zero-gravity is realistic, problems remain. While Floyd sips a meal in zero gravity from liquipaks, liquid slips back down the straw when he stops sucking. This however could be due to elasticity within the pack material itself, which upon release of the suction from Floyd's mouth, drives the pack to partially regain its shape and suck the liquid back in.

When spacecraft land on the Moon in the film, dust is shown billowing as it would in air, not moving in a sheet as it would in the vacuum of the Lunar surface, as can be seen in Apollo Moon landing footage.[17][18] While on the Moon, all actors move as if in normal Earth gravity, not as they would in the 1/6 gravity of the Moon. Similarly, the behavior of Dave and Frank in the weightless pod bay is not fully consistent with a zero-G environment. Although the astronauts are wearing zero-G 'grip shoes' in order to walk normally, they are oddly leaning on the table while testing the AE-35 unit as if held down by gravity. Finally, in an environment with a radius as small as the main quarters, the simulated gravity would vary significantly from the center of the crew quarters to the 'floor', even varying between feet, waist, and head. The rotation speed of the crew quarters was meant to be only fast enough to generate an approximation of the Moon's gravity, not that of the Earth. However, Clarke felt this was enough to prevent the physical atrophy that would result from complete weightlessness.[19]

The first two appearances of the monolith, one on Earth and one on the Moon, conclude with the sun at its zenith over the top of the monolith. While this could happen in an African veldt anywhere between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, it could not happen anywhere near the crater Tycho (where the monolith is found) as it is 45 degrees south of the lunar equator.[20] Also implausible is the sun reaching its zenith so soon after a lunar sunrise, and the appearance of a crescent Earth near the sun is in complete discontinuity with all previous appearances of Earth, whose position from any spot on the Moon varies only slightly due to libration.[21]

Geophysicist Dr. David Stephenson in the Canadian TV documentary 2001 and Beyond notes that "Every engineer that saw it [the space station] had a fit. You do not spin on a wheel that is not fully built. You have to finish it before you spin it or else you have real problems".[22]

There are other problems that might be more appropriately described as continuity errors, such as the back-and-forth horizontal switching of Earth's lit side when viewed from Clavius, and the schematic of the space station on the Pan Am spaceplane's monitors continuing to rotate after the plane has synchronized its motion with the station. The latter is due to the position readout actually being a rear-projected film shown in a continuous loop, and being out of sync with other visual elements.[8] The direction of the rotation of the Earth's image outside the space station window is clockwise when Floyd is greeted by a receptionist, but counterclockwise when he phones his daughter.

Imagining the future[edit]

Over fifty organizations contributed technical advice to the production, and a number of them submitted their ideas to Kubrick of what kind of products might be seen in a movie set in the year 2001.[23] Much was made by MGM's publicity department of the film's realism, claiming in a 1968 brochure that "Everything in 2001: A Space Odyssey can happen within the next three decades, and...most of the picture will happen by the beginning of the next millennium."[24] Although the predictions central to the plot —colonization of the Moon, manned interplanetary travel and artificial intelligence—did not materialize by that date, some of the film's other futuristic elements have indeed been realized.

Depiction of computers[edit]

As the central character of the "Jupiter Mission" segment of the film, Hal was shown by Kubrick to have as much intelligence as human beings, possibly more, while sharing their same "emotional potentialities". Kubrick agreed with computer theorists who believed that highly intelligent computers that can learn by experience will inevitably develop emotions such as fear, love, hate, and envy. Such a machine, he said, would eventually manifest human mental disorders as well, such as a nervous breakdown—as Hal did in the film.[25]

Clarke noted that, contrary to popular rumor, it was a complete coincidence that each of the letters of Hal's name immediately preceded those of IBM in the alphabet.[26] The meaning of HAL has been given both as "Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer" and as "Heuristic ALgorithmic computer". The former appears in Clarke's novel of 2001 and the latter in his sequel novel 2010. In computer science, a heuristic is a programmable procedure not necessarily based on fixed rules, producing informed guesses often using trial-and-error. The results can be false such as in predictions of stock market, sports scores, or the weather.[27] Sometimes this can entail selecting on-the-fly one of several methods to solve a problem based on previous experience.[28] On the other hand, an algorithm is a programmable procedure that produces reproducible results using invariant established methods (such as computing square roots).[27] A heuristic approach that usually works within a tolerable margin of error may be preferred over a perfect algorithm that requires a long time to run.[29]

Depiction of spacecraft[edit]

All of the vehicles in 2001 were designed with extreme care in order for the small-scale models as well as full-scale interiors to appear realistic.[9] The modeling team was led by Kubrick's two hirees from NASA, science advisor Fred Ordway and production designer Harry Lange,[30] along with Anthony Masters who was responsible for turning Lange's 2-D sketches into models.[31] Ordway and Lange insisted on knowing "the purpose and functioning of each assembly and component, down to the labeling of individual buttons and the presentation on screens of plausible operating, diagnostic and other data."[9] Kubrick's team of thirty-five designers[32] was often frustrated by script changes done after designs for various spacecraft had been created. Douglas Trumbull, chief special effects supervisor, writes "One of the most serious problems that plagued us throughout the production was simply keeping track of all ideas, shots, and changes and constantly re-evaluating and updating designs, storyboards, and the script itself. To handle all of this....a "control room"...was used to keep track of all progress on the film."[33] Ordway (who worked on designing the station and the five principal space vehicles[34]) has noted that U.S. industry had problems satisfying Kubrick with its equipment suggestions, while design aspects of the vehicles had to be updated often to accommodate rapid screenplay changes, one crew member resigning over an unspecified related issue.[9] Eventually, conflicting ideas of what Kubrick had in mind, what Clarke was writing, and equipment and vehicular realities emerging from Ordway, Lange, Masters, and construction supervisor Dick Frift and his team were resolved, and coalesced into final designs and construction of the spacecraft before filming began in December 1965.[9]

Other technologies[edit]

One futuristic device shown in the film already under development when the film was released in 1968 was voice-print identification; the first prototype was released in 1976.[35] A credible prototype of a chess-playing computer already existed in 1968, even though it could be defeated by experts; computers did not defeat champions until the late 1980s.[36] While 10-digit phone numbers for long-distance national dialing originated in 1951, longer phone numbers for international dialing became a reality in 1970.[37] Installation of personal in-flight entertainment displays by major airlines began in the early-to-mid 1990s, offering video games, TV broadcasts and movies in a manner similar to that shown in the film.[38] The film also shows flat-screen TV monitors, of which the first real-world prototype appeared in 1972 produced by Westinghouse, but was not used for broadcast television until 1998.[39] Plane cockpit integrated system displays, known as "glass cockpits", were introduced in the 1970s[40] (originally in NASA Langley's Boeing 737 Flying Laboratory). Today such cockpits appear not only in high-tech aircraft like the Boeing 777, but have also been employed in space shuttles, the first being Atlantis in 1985.[41] Rudimentary voice-controlled computing began in the early 1980s with the SoftVoice Computer System and exists in more sophisticated form in the early 2000s,[42] although it is still not as sophisticated as depicted in the film. The first picture phone was demonstrated at the 1964 New York World's Fair;[43] however, due to the bandwidth limitations of telephone lines, personal video communication did not succeed commercially and has only been practical over broadband internet connections.[44] Personal (audio) wireless telephones were ubiquitous in 2001, and yet no one in the movie had a small personal communication device.[45]

Some technologies portrayed as common in the film which have not materialized in the 2000s include commonplace civilian space travel, space stations with hotels, Moon colonization, suspended animation of humans, and strong artificial intelligence of the kind displayed by Hal.

Companies and countries[edit]

Viewers of the film today—especially those old enough to have seen it upon its first release—will notice corporate logos in the film representing companies that either no longer exist or were broken up by anti-trust lawsuits. Still others changed their business model or represent countries that no longer exist.

The British Broadcasting Corporation operated more domestic television networks in 2001 than it did in 1968 as shown in the film, although there is no BBC-12. In actuality, the BBC uses names such as BBC News and BBC Parliament for channels after BBC One, Two, Three and Four, and BBC Three and Four did not come into existence until 2003 and 2002 respectively, as before then they were known as BBC Choice and BBC Knowledge. The corporations IBM, Aeroflot, Howard Johnson's, Whirlpool Corporation and Hilton Hotels, visual references of which appear in the film, have survived beyond 2001, although by 2001 Howard Johnson's had switched its business focus to hotels, rather than the restaurants shown in the film. On the other hand, the film depicts a still-existing Pan Am (which went out of business in 1991) and a still-existing Bell System telephone company (which was broken up in 1984 as a result of an anti-monopoly lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department).[46] The Bell System logo seen in the film was modified in 1969 and dropped entirely in 1983.[47]

Many reviewers thought the Russian scientists met by Dr. Floyd in the space station were affiliated with the then-extant Soviet Union.[48][49][50] Nonetheless, the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.[51] (Aeroflot, then the Soviet state airline, is now a privately owned carrier, but still considered the de facto national airline of the Russian Federation, much as Air Canada is considered the de facto national airline of Canada, even though it has been privately owned since 1988).


  1. ^ a b Williams, Craig H., Leonard A. Dudzinski, Stanley K. Borowski, and Albert J. Juhasz. "Realizing "2001: A Space Odyssey": Piloted Spherical Torus Nuclear Fusion Propulsion" NASA Glenn Research Center, 2001.
  2. ^ F.I.Ordway (March 1970). "2001: A Space Odyssey, Spaceflight". Spaceflight (British Interplanetary Society) 12: 110–117. 
  3. ^ a b Ordway, F.I. (1982). "Part B: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY IN RETROSPECT". In Eugene M. Emme. American Astronautical Society History Series SCIENCE FICTION AND SPACE FUTURES: PAST AND PRESENT 5. pp. 47–105. ISBN 0-87703-172-X. Retrieved January 27, 2012. 
  4. ^ Ordway, F.I. (2007). "2001: A Space Odyssey – Vision Versus Reality at 30". In Kerrie Dougherty. American Astronautical Society History Series: History or Rocketry and Astronautics 27. pp. 3–17. ISBN 978-0-87703-535-0. 
  5. ^ Dan van der Vat (April 29, 2009). "Jack Good". The Guardian (London). Retrieved August 2, 2010. 
  6. ^ For more, see this interview,
  7. ^ see the book Hal's legacy: 2001's computer as dream and reality edited by David G. Stork, MIT press, 1997.
  8. ^ a b By George D. DeMet (July 1999). "2001: A Space Odyssey Internet Resource Archive: The Special Effects of "2001: A Space Odyssey"". (originally published in DFX a special effects journal). Retrieved August 22, 2010. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f "The Kubrick Site: Fred Ordway on "2001"". Retrieved August 22, 2010. 
  10. ^ Arthur C. Clarke 2001: A Space Odyssey p. 109
  11. ^ a b Singleton, Maura. "Space Odyssey | The University of Virginia Magazine". Retrieved August 22, 2010. 
  12. ^ "Blue Sky and Raleigh Scattering". Retrieved October 18, 2010. 
  13. ^ Les Paul Robley (Oscar winning special effects technician). "2001: A Space Odyssey". Audio-Video Revolution. Retrieved August 22, 2010. 
  14. ^ "High Tide on Europa". Astrobiology Magazine. Retrieved December 7, 2007. 
  15. ^ Joyce, Paul (director) Doran, Jamie (producer) Bizony, Piers (assoc. producer) (2001). 2001: The Making Of A Myth (Television production). UK: Channel Four Television Corp. Event occurs at 15:56. 
  16. ^ "Human Body In a Vacuum". Imagine the Universe!: Ask An Astrophysicist. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center web site. Retrieved August 13, 2007. 
  17. ^ a b "The Kubrick Site: 2001 Gaffes & Glitches". Archived from the original on September 11, 2010. Retrieved August 22, 2010. 
  18. ^ "Gravity – dust". Clavius. Retrieved August 22, 2010. 
  19. ^ Artificial gravity by Gilles Clément, Angeli P. Bukley p. 64
  20. ^ "14 MOON". Retrieved August 22, 2010. 
  21. ^ Makowiecki, Piotr (1985). Pomyśl zanim odpowiesz (in Polish, translated from Russian). Warszawa: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Wiedza Powszechna". ISBN 83-214-0419-7. 
  22. ^ Michael Lennick (January 7, 2001). 2001 and Beyond. Foolish Earthling Productions. 
  23. ^ Agel, Jerome (1970). The Making of Kubrick's 2001. New York: The New American Library, Inc. pp. 321–324. 
  24. ^ MGM Studios. Facts for Editorial Reference, 1968. Reproduced in: Castle, Alison (Editor). The Stanley Kubrick Archives, Taschen, 2005. ISBN 3-8228-2284-1
  25. ^ Gelmis(1970)p. 307 See
  26. ^ Clarke (1972): p.78
  27. ^ a b Ormrod, J.E. (2008). Educational Psychology Developing Learners. Merrill. pp. 285–286. 
  28. ^ Luke, S. (2009). Essentials of metaheuristics
  29. ^ Te Chiang Hu: Combinatorial Algorithms (2002, book).
  30. ^ [1] and [2][3]
  31. ^ Popular Mechanics April 1967, Backstage Magic for a Trip to Saturn, by Richard D. Dempewolff
  32. ^ Number given in an essay in Schwam's 2000 book The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey p. 83. and in production calendar p. 4 of same book.
  33. ^ Trumbull's essay in Stephanie Schwam The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey p. 113
  34. ^ the two space shuttles, Moon bus, main spaceship, and space pod
  35. ^ (August 7, 2006). "Biometrics History". Introduction to biometrics. Retrieved February 28, 2011. 
  36. ^ "SCIENCE WATCH; AND STILL CHAMPION: CRAY'S CHESS COMPUTER". New York Times. June 17, 1986. Archived from the original on January 24, 2011. Retrieved February 28, 2011. 
  37. ^ "Milestones in AT&T History". AT&T. Archived from the original on February 20, 2011. Retrieved March 1, 2011. 
  38. ^ Stanley Ziemba (July 4, 1992). "Sky-high fun Airliners are fast becoming flying entertainment centers". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved March 7, 2011. 
  39. ^ "A History of Flat-Panel Displays". Planar. May 2009. Retrieved February 28, 2011. 
  40. ^ "The Glass Cockpit". NASA. Retrieved March 1, 2011. 
  41. ^ Aviation Earth Glass Cockpit
  42. ^ Making Computers Talk – by Andy Aaron, Ellen Eide and John F. Pitrelli. Scientific American Explore (March 17, 2003).
  43. ^ Bell Laboratories (May–June 1969). "Bell Laboratories RECORD (1969) Volume 47, No. 5". pp. 134–153 & 160–187. Retrieved March 6, 2011. 
  44. ^ A highly technical discussion of the unacceptably long delay of video signals even in broadband communication is at Alan Percy. "Understanding Latency in IP Telephony". Telephony Retrieved March 5, 2011. 
  45. ^ How Accurate was Kubrick's 2001:A Space Odyssey?
  46. ^ On the movie screen, the words "Bell System" appear in the Bell logo on the outside of the PICTUREPHONE booth (starting at 27:17) and on the PICTUREPHONE screen at the end of the call (at 29:23).
  47. ^ "A Brief History: Post Divestiture". AT&T. Archived from the original on February 20, 2011. Retrieved March 5, 2011. 
  48. ^ "Film/Classic: 2001: A Space Odyssey". December 27, 2000. Retrieved August 22, 2010. 
  49. ^ "2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)". Retrieved August 22, 2010. 
  50. ^ Two essays in the 2006 book Kubrick's 2001: a space odyssey: new essays by Robert Phillip Kolker refer to "Soviet scientists"
  51. ^ Serge Schmemann (December 26, 1991). "END OF THE SOVIET UNION; The Soviet State, Born of a Dream, Dies". new york times. Retrieved March 6, 2011. 

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