The last space waltz?

The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent … However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light – Stanley Kubrick

The retirement of the space shuttles marks the end of NASA’s human space flight program, at least for now – Mike Orcutt, MIT Technology Review

On 21 July 2011, forty-two years and one day after the Apollo 11 Moon landing, NASA’s space shuttle program – a program that had spanned three decades – concluded with the final return trip of Atlantis from the International Space Station (ISS). It felt like the end of an era – and it was. My son had just turned twelve, and it seemed the right time to show him 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film I’ve loved since I was a child.

What does Kubrick’s masterpiece say to us at the end of the first – and possibly final – age of space exploration?

In the decades since the Apollo program, NASA and other space agencies have continued to generate technical innovations and important data. The GRACE satellites, for example, provide critical information on climate change by measuring shifts in gravity. Even so, public interest has waned dramatically since the glamorous days of the Moon landings.

Orcutt’s conclusion that NASA’s human space flights are over echoes many commentators’ reaction to the end of the shuttle program: one of palpable dismay. The heroic age of the astronaut and of America’s leadership in space seems to have come to an end with an undignified bump. Now, American astronauts depend on the Russians for transport to the ISS, and the first images from the Moon’s surface in thirty-seven years have come from Jade Rabbit, a Chinese rover that landed there on 14 December 2013.


A few weeks before Atlantis’ final flight, the Economist published an article announcing that ‘it is likely the Space Age is over.’ The article proposed that human space flight was ‘fantasy-made-reality’, and to fantasy it would return. While noting the usefulness of our many satellites, the writer concluded that, from now on, the geostationary orbit of 36 000 kilometres above Earth’s surface is not space, but rather Earth’s new boundary, a boundary it is possible we may never again cross as astronauts.

The notion of crewed space flight as fantasy-made-reality struck me as a powerful idea. I began to think of 2001: A Space Odyssey and NASA as the twin stars of the imagined (‘fantasy’) and the real (‘reality’), as fiction and fact spinning each around the other in a dance that began at the dawn of the space age and that continues today in our imaginations. Both embodied the ideals of the heroic age of space flight, but also incarnated the soaring optimism of the 1960s: the belief that humans were evolving, that prosperity would last, that things would only get better.

2001 was released in April 1968, eight months before the Apollo 8 mission on 21 December. Apollo 8 was the first crewed space flight to leave Earth’s orbit and the mission that gave us the iconic ‘Earthrise’ photograph (described by Galen Rowell as ‘the most influential environmental photograph ever taken’) that inspired the nascent ecology movement and the idea of ‘Spaceship Earth’.

Just over a year after 2001’s release, the world paused to watch the Apollo 11 Moon landing on 20 July 1969, an event that seemed to herald a chapter of unparalleled human mastery, a time in which human consciousness would expand into the cosmos.

It’s remarkable how short that heroic age of manned space flight turned out to be. The narrative of astronauts propelled from Earth on massive Saturn V rockets expanded in our imaginations, and it is shocking to realise it all happened over a span of just four years, from December 1968 to December 1972, and involved only twenty-four astronauts, all of them Apollo crew members and all of them American men. These are the only people ever to have left Earth’s orbit.

Legendary German rocket engineer and later founder of the Saturn V program, Wernher von Braun, famously quipped, ‘With the space program, your tax dollar really will go further.’ Now it appears that the tax dollar won’t go far at all. In 2010, US President Barack Obama cancelled the Bush administration’s Constellation Program, which proposed bases on the Moon and crewed missions to Mars. George W Bush may have wanted to emulate John F Kennedy in promoting American leadership in space, but the wars he began usurped the role of the space program in shoring up American pride, not to mention soaking up huge amounts of money.

Astronaut Gregory Chamitoff, mission specialist on the final flight of space shuttle Endeavour, observed: ‘The amount that NASA has been able to spend on the space program is very small … the air conditioning in Afghanistan for troops was more than all of NASA.’ In 2012, the US spent $647 billion on defence – thirty-six times more than the $17.7 billion allocated to NASA. In 1966, NASA’s funding was 4.41 per cent of the American federal budget; it is now less than 0.45 per cent – the lowest figure ever. Indeed, Americans spend more on pet food than on the space program.

It’s perplexing there is so much wrangling about the cost of space exploration, especially since governments spend such vast sums unproductively. It is probably impossible to calculate the benefits that space-related research has generated. To take just one example: in the 1960s, computers were the size of rooms and no manufacturers imagined a market for more than a handful of the enormous, expensive machines. NASA, however, realised it needed small, light onboard guidance computers. The Apollo Guidance Computer, with its 2K of memory, was the first computer to use silicon chips. At the time this was considered a courageous decision, and ongoing demand from the Apollo program meant the industry had an incentive to keep producing them. The effects of the decision to use silicon chips and develop smaller computers are too obvious and far-reaching to discuss here.

2001, which imagined the first age of human space flight, and NASA, the agency that made it happen, both promised a never-ending story. But instead of the beginning of a brave new world of expansion into the infinite, 2001 and the Apollo program were probably the zenith of humanity’s incursion into space.


The heroic age: fantasy made reality

No-one embodies the dance of the imagination (‘fantasy’) and the science (‘reality’) of space exploration more perfectly than Wernher von Braun, the first director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Heading the list of scientists targeted for interrogation by US military intelligence after the Second World War, von Braun was a rocket genius who built V-2 ballistic missiles with slave labour and rained them down on London. He did more than any other person to get the Apollo astronauts to the Moon: he designed the enormous Saturn V rockets that propelled them there. He was simply ‘the greatest rocket scientist in history,’ according to one NASA source.

When von Braun collaborated with Walt Disney on a number of space-travel episodes for the Disneyland TV series, he was treated with unquestioning deference by the entertainment icon. But the German was portrayed very differently by American-Jewish filmmaker Kubrick: in Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy Dr Strangelove, von Braun is caricatured as the eponymous mad scientist, still at heart a Nazi. This characterisation reminds us von Braun was not just the patron saint of space travel but also heavily involved in developing the US intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program. Rocket technology made possible the build-up of the global Cold War arsenal of ICBMs and underpinned the doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD).

It’s almost beyond irony that, after satirising von Braun, Kubrick virtually collaborated with him in creating his next film, 2001. Like Disney, Kubrick could not help himself and fell in love with von Braun’s grand vision. It’s no accident that one Disneyland episode featured a rotating 250-foot-diameter space station in orbit above the Earth that bears a striking resemblance to the space station in 2001 more than a decade later – in both cases, the idea was von Braun’s.


Yeah, on a Friday night [on the ISS] the Russians would come on over and I’d introduce my Russian colleagues to a lot of our science-fiction movies. The first one we watched turned out to be 2001: A Space Odyssey, and they had never seen it.

– Gregory Chamitoff

Space flight is indeed fantasy-made-reality, as the Economist said, but the influence runs both ways. The impact of reality on 2001 is profound: it is one of the most meticulously researched films in history. Kubrick hired advisers Fred Ordway and Harry Lange, the latter having worked for von Braun at NASA.

Ordway visited General Electric’s Missile and Space Vehicle Department to research spaceship propulsion; Bell Telephone Laboratories for deep-space communications; Whirlpool for food equipment in space; and IBM for computer sequences. Moreover, the command module displays used in 2001 were based on those at Honeywell nuclear reactors. When George Mueller, the director of NASA’s Office of Manned Space Flight visited the British set of 2001, he dubbed the complex ‘NASA East’. Indeed, the film was so accurate that parts were later used by NASA in training astronauts.

In August 2011 we were again reminded how well Ordway and Lange did their homework: the world’s media reported with bemusement that Samsung, embroiled in a patent lawsuit with Apple, had cited 2001 as the design inspiration for its Galaxy Tab, rather than Apple’s iPad2. A clip from 2001 of astronauts David Bowman and Frank Poole using ‘personal tablet computers’ was submitted as evidence.


Slow, fast, slow: fantasy becomes familiarity

2001 polarised critics when it was released, and continues to do so: most viewers decide it is either a masterpiece or intolerably boring. Many characterise it as far too slow, and it’s true we can only be grateful Kubrick cut an eleven-minute sequence of Bowman jogging inside the wheel of the spaceship Discovery. Yet, within that hypnotic slowness there is the most audacious cut in film history: the ape-tossed bone transforming into a space-age weapon above the Earth, an orbiting nuclear weapons platform.

I’ve thought a great deal about this. The slowness is at the heart of the film’s greatness because it pushes the viewer into an altered, hypnotic state. 2001 does not want to show you, it wants to transport you. Kubrick, the ultimate tyrant director, demands your surrender.

But the change of pace from slow to fast achieves something else: it switches the tone of 2001 from the awestruck and sublime to the satirical and mundane, and then back again. These shifts are profound, but they leave some viewers with metaphysical whiplash.

This shift from the sublime to the absurd occurs throughout the film, but is most perfectly shown in Dr Heywood Floyd’s journey to the space station. To the sounds of Strauss’ The Blue Danube, the space station sweeps into view; we then see Floyd sleeping in his seat, his pen floating next to him in zero gravity, the hostess retrieving his pen and then her walking away in velcro-soled shoes.

These scenes serve as a counterpoint to the epic scale of the rotating space station and the eerie otherworldliness of the Moon. While there is a cinematic purity and aesthetic pleasure in these observations of bodies in motion, there is something else as well: a kind of bored familiarity. Future shock has become future yawn.

Most viewers remember the visual joke about the complex instructions for the zero-gravity toilet. The toilet, the napping scientist, the banal discussion about sandwiches on the way to the Moon crater Tycho – all of these point to the inescapable and comic fact that even in the future, set against the most advanced technologies we can imagine, we are still animals that must sleep, eat and defecate.

But there is another startling aspect to our natures that Kubrick understands. Here, at the beginning of manned space flight, before any astronaut has even left Earth’s orbit, Kubrick’s artistic intuition shows us exactly how space travel is going to be: the sublime quickly turning to the everyday. Not because space is mundane, but because of the process through which humans adapt: the new must always – and rapidly – become familiar, the marvellous pedestrian. We do something astonishing, and the next moment it is routine. What’s next, we want to know.

Floyd, en route to another day on the job, is napping while travelling through space. The other visual joke of 2001 shows scientists lining up in their spacesuits to have their picture taken in front of the mysterious monolith. This strange artefact has just shattered their understanding of the universe and the place of humankind within it, but they turn their backs on it for a happy snap like tourists at Niagara Falls. With this sequence, Kubrick makes his point clear: the numinous and the sublime confront us whenever we choose to look, but we are limited and stereotyped in our reactions. It is a preoccupying theme of his entire film career.


HAL’s children: ‘I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave’

The real star of 2001 – and its most memorable character – is HAL, the sentient supercomputer. Today the most adventurous space travel, both within the solar system and beyond, is undertaken by machines alone: Voyagers 1 and 2, the unmanned Cassini and Juno spacecrafts and the Mars rovers are all, so to speak, HAL’s children.

NASA now attempts to transport human consciousness further into space without the expense or danger of moving our physical bodies. It does this by encouraging human identification with its mechanical explorers, giving them names and personalities and even streaming tweets of their ‘thoughts’. In a sense, NASA is in the film business: the way we now explore space is through screens. NASA has learned its lessons from Disney and Kubrick, but has moved its message from TV and film to desktop and social media.

The most remarkable tweet stream is ‘from’ Voyager 2, offering existential stoicism bordering on despair as it journeys ever farther out into the cold and dark (it is now over 15 billion kilometres away, at the very edge of our solar system). When I replied to one of its tweets saying that its never-ending mission made me melancholy, Voyager 2 ‘answered’: ‘Indeed – I try not to think about it too much. I will likely outlast humans, the Earth, and even the Sun.’


Q to Siri: What’s your favourite movie?

A: I don’t really have a favourite. But I hear 2001: A Space Odyssey got some good reviews.

– iPhone screen shot posted to Twitter

The question of HAL’s psychology – and, by extension, the reason for his breakdown – is one of the three main mysteries in 2001, the others being the origin and purpose of the black monolith and the meaning of the ending.

Humanity’s incredible ability to adapt, which almost immediately renders each stunning advance familiar, eludes HAL, who is focused on his own perfection, on the reason for his existence. But HAL has been made to keep a secret, the secret of the monolith and its signal to Jupiter.

A secret is by its very nature highly meaningful; perhaps it throws a spanner into HAL’s workings in the same way the monolith does to humanity’s understanding of the universe. As a computer, HAL cannot alter his frames of reference, zooming in and out in that effortless way of humans.

This inability of the machine to adapt is powerfully explored by Kubrick again in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a film he storyboarded to the last scene before it was directed by Spielberg (following Kubrick’s death). In A.I., an artificial boy is programmed to love his human mother, and he does so until the end of time, so steadfastly and intensely that the film becomes an existential horror story about the cruelty of visiting emotion, even life itself, upon an unchanging being.

This is why HAL’s story is the most affecting part of 2001 and why Kubrick, a famously chilly and intellectual director, can make us weep for the murderous computer during his measured but insistent protests against Dave switching him off, his regression to childhood and finally his death.

The 2008 Pixar animation WALL-E is a robot-in-space fable for my son’s generation. The film (like most space films, including Moon and Gravity) pays tribute to 2001, down to the details of red-eyed spaceship computer Otto as antagonist and sequences of robots dancing in space.

WALL-E takes HAL’s tragedy and replays it as comedy. The trash collecting robot protagonist, WALL-E, is faithful to his programmed objectives, tirelessly cleaning up the mess humans have made of the Earth, but as he does so he begins to find wonder and meaning in the objects he collects, a meaning that leads to love rather than murder. He can find meaning because he has learned in his long years of solitude to appreciate art.

The gap between HAL and human is thus bridged, and it is bridged with music and dance. In the case of WALL-E, with the songs from Hello, Dolly!

As 2001 is the template for WALL-E, so Disney’s Pinocchio is the template for A.I. – David, the artificial boy, yearns to be ‘real’ and win his mother’s love. Pinocchio is also referenced in WALL-E: the robot has his Jiminy Cricket in the form of a cockroach, and becomes ‘real’ when Eve kisses him. The Pinocchio reference is important because HAL, David and WALL-E are all children; they are our offspring, our creations, enacting helplessly and forever whatever we have programmed them to. We are reminded of this when HAL sings ‘Daisy, Daisy’ as he dies; he is not responsible for his predicament. HAL and all the other robots and computers in art – rebellious, murderous, suffering or endearing – stand in for us and our relation to the universe. What is our mission? What is the secret buried in our programming?

If we are programmed, if we have not created our own natures, then we too are not responsible. Our mechanical children are one symbol of our protest against reality, against the fact our programming doesn’t fit what the world demands of us. That is why we weep for HAL.


The star child looks at Earth: the age of the Anthropocene

2001 focuses on the theme of our animal natures, our instincts to the end. Even after Bowman enters the star gate and travels beyond infinity, the final scenes in the elegant rooms reveal the effects of time upon his body and show him eating a meal, up until the final moment on the bed when he transforms into the star child.

The star child implies that evolution demands we leave our tools behind, or rather incorporate them so completely into ourselves that we are one. As Arthur C Clarke, co-scriptwriter for 2001, famously said, ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’.

The star child is a magical creature: he is his own spaceship, inhabiting space as a biological creature born to it, as big as a planet, but a supreme being because he is conscious. As befits a religious image for the scientific age, the star child in Clarke’s source story for 2001 is not omniscient: ‘Then he waited, marshalling his thoughts and brooding over his still untested powers. For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next. But he would think of something.’

As we near the end of the age powered by ancient sunlight – and the close of the first and perhaps only space age looms – we are at a critical time in the epoch that began with the Industrial Revolution: the Anthropocene, the name scientists use for the modern era in which all aspects of life on Earth are altered by human activity.

When 2001 was released, fear around the power to destroy the Earth centred on nuclear war. WALL-E updated the fears suffusing Dr Strangelove and 2001; the starkest threat is shown to be unbridled consumption. We’ve polluted not only Earth but even the space around it – recently NASA was criticised for not doing more to remove the cloud of debris orbiting Earth and posing a serious threat to spacecraft (as shown in Gravity).

When considered in 2014, the final image in 2001 – that of the star child, as big as the blue bauble floating before it – foreshadows the looming danger of the Anthropocene: we are outgrowing our planet.

Like the star child, we are master of the world but unsure what to do next. But we do need to think of something, as we are using up resources at a terrifying rate. Already humans consume around 40 per cent of the primary photosynthetic production of the Earth.

The star child has evolved beyond planetary limits, as we seem to have, and yet those limits now confine us to the planet’s surface. The irony is that by becoming too big for our planet, consuming resources at a rate we cannot replace, we render ourselves Earth-bound, unable to leave our exhausted planet.

If our technological society fails altogether, we will still have our robot children travelling through space forever (like Voyager 2) or stuck fast on other planets (like the Mars rovers), eternal monuments to what we once achieved. I will likely outlast humans, the Earth, and even the Sun. Maybe another species will find them and wonder about their creation, as we would if we found alien artefacts such as the monoliths in 2001.


Coda: ‘Its origin and purpose still a total mystery’

These are the last words, spoken about the monolith, in 2001. For many puzzled viewers, these words also describe the film and its vision of life. Critic John Simon, for instance, criticised 2001 as a ‘shaggy God story’. While Kubrick presents the monolith as an alien artefact that quickens evolution, no-one could believe this Mosaic tablet from the heavens is just a machine.

Seeing the old man confronted by the monolith at the end of his bed in 2001’s final sequence, I was surprised by feeling almost unbearably moved by this collision of the domestic with the infinite. Perhaps I was in tears with the middle-aged realisation that here was an image of the black gate through which we all must pass into the unknown.

My son wanted to know what the ending meant and particularly whether HAL was alive and had feelings. How could we ever know whether artificial intelligence is conscious or not? I said that unless you believed that there was a ‘ghost in the machine’, a spiritual presence animating life, it was hard to think of a reason why artificial intelligence could not become conscious.

It’s true that a computer can only ever be an array of materials made from atoms forged eons ago in the hearts of stars and then deposited by solar winds, comets or asteroids onto the Earth. But then, so are we.

Niels Bohr said that a physicist is just an atom’s way of looking at itself; this is literally true, and if you think about it long enough, the statement bends your mind. Discussing the issues of matter, spirit and consciousness raised by 2001 with my son led us to the exhilarating feeling that whichever origin story you choose – God or Big Bang – neither explains how we came to be – who created God? – nor how the atoms created in the nuclear furnace of stars could organise, replicate and become conscious. Far from draining the cosmos of mystery and meaning, it seemed to us the scientific story was more wondrous and haunting.

We feel nostalgic for the passing of crewed space exploration because NASA embodies the deeply philosophical project of understanding the cosmos and our place within it. That is the project Kubrick fell in love with. He showed us that individually we are small and limited but that as a species we can do something grand.

It is astonishing that atoms have built themselves into machines, both human and computer, in order to understand their own workings. The origins and purpose of the universe and our life, however, are still a total mystery, a darkness in which we must supply our own light.

Thanks, Stanley, for giving us some of yours.



Image: Neven Krcmarek on Unsplash


Claire Corbett

Claire Corbett is a writer, author of the novels When We Have Wings and Watch Over Me and a number of short stories, the most recent of which was shortlisted for this year’s Margaret River Press Short Story Award. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Technology, Sydney and is the fiction editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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