The Space Age That Wasn't
Or why 2001 won't be like 2001
By Rod Bennett

From Gadfly September 1998


2001 is pretty much here.

In fact, when astronaut John Glenn makes his much-heralded return to space this October, Hollywood's magic date with futurity will be a mere 27 months away. What will the 77-year-old Glenn see when he finally gets back to Earth orbit? His last visit, after all, was 36 years ago. Like any wayfarer, one expects that Glenn will be curious to find out how the old neighborhood's been getting on in his absence. What's changed up there in half-a-lifetime?

According to the movie—Stanley Kubrick's monumental 2001: A Space Odyssey—Glenn should find a massive orbital space station 220 miles above sea level. He ought to be able to dock there, doff his helmet, and check his bags at the Hilton Hotel before strolling down to Howard Johnson's Earthlight Room for a quick bite. There ought to be picture-phones and stewardesses and a nice hot, zero-gravity shower. And there ought to be connecting flights to the Moon—to Clavius Moonbase, a permanent colony where heroic men of science are already making plans for a manned voyage to Jupiter.

There ought to be... but, of course, there won't. To astronaut John Glenn "2001" will look just like 1962. As a matter of fact, Glenn's upcoming Shuttle mission is (for all practical purposes) identical to his Project Mercury exploit of long ago—go up into space, make a few orbits around the world, and then come back down. To be fair, there is a space station of sorts—the ramshackle Russian MIR; crippled, financially busted, and barely inhabitable; nobody's idea of a space-going Hilton. The Moon (despite having a few footprints on it) is also pretty much as it was during the Kennedy era. According to a recent report, if the order for a return trip to the Moon were given today, it would take nearly as much time to accomplish as it did the first time around—and vastly more money. In short, it has become clear that the bold predictions of Kubrick's masterpiece (30 years old this year, by the way) were entirely illusory. It may have been the last word in realism in its day but we now know that 2001's vision of the future turned out to be about as accurate as Flash Gordon.

Why is that?

Yesterday's Tomorrow
Oddly enough, most space movies of the 1950s seemed to make just the opposite error. The classic Forbidden Planet, for example, opens with these words: "In the final decade of the 21st century, men and women in rocket ships landed on the Moon..." Now Forbidden Planet is an extremely intelligent film—the 2001 of its day, in fact, with MIT scientists acting as script supervisors. Yet in predicting an event which was destined to happen in real life just 13 summers later, Forbidden Planet missed its mark by at least 121 years. Similarly, Walt Disney's famous Man in Space TV programs display to modern viewers the same colossal conservatism. Here (circa 1957) a mere orbital pass around the Moon is presented as a distant dream to be witnessed by our fortunate grandchildren. And yet, incredibly, the technical advisor for these films was Dr. Wernher von Braun—the man chosen to head the design team for the Apollo launch vehicle slightly less than four years later. So didn't these earlier prophecies, in their own way, fail just as badly as those of 2001?

Perhaps. But these days more and more space historians are siding with Walt Disney and Forbidden Planet.

It's true, of course, that man did go to the Moon in the year of Our Lord 1968. With 2001 still splashed across the Cinerama screens of their home world, men from the planet Earth traveled a quarter-million miles through space aboard Apollo 8 to rendezvous with another celestial body for the first time in history. This achievement can never be minimized. But in the 25 years which have elapsed since the final Apollo mission, it has become increasingly clear that America's interplanetary adventures of the 1960s & '70s (grand as they undoubtedly were) constitute something of an historical anomaly. Though at the time these were seen as the dawning moments of a new age—the confidently announced Space Age—we're now beginning to understand that they fit far more comfortably into the closing chapters of another historical epoch: The Cold War.

"Apollo was this incredible Cold War gambit for international prestige," says Andrew Chaikin, author of the definitive space history A Man on the Moon. "First and foremost, the reason Kennedy said we should go to the moon was because he really wanted to make an impression on the world that the U.S. system was the best system." Likewise, filmmaker and space expert Tom Hanks (producer of the recent HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon) also puts his finger on the driving force behind Project Apollo: "There was a national will and a mobilization of forces that could only come about by an executive order. We can sit around now and say we're going to Mars someday, but it could be 120 years from now. Kennedy made it necessary to hire hundreds of thousands of people and develop all of this technology. Without that, we probably wouldn't have been to the moon until the mid-1970s—maybe not even until the 1980s." Hanks' partner, producer Ron Howard, is even more candid: "In a lot of ways, the Cold War effort that propelled the space program at that time probably pushed us as human beings along much faster than we would have gone. I mean, there are people within NASA, and the Soviet space community as well, that really feel that if we had just gone along at our normal course, we probably would've gone to the Moon in maybe 2100, not 1969."

To put it briefly, the space thinkers of the '50s had been right; in the natural order of things a voyage to the Moon belongs to "the final decade of the 21st century." It was only the ideological passions ignited by a "Space Race" which somehow yanked such a voyage out of Walt Disney's Tomorrowland backward into the post-WWII world created at Yalta.

Legends of the Fall
This disconcerting admission—that humanity's greatest adventure was, in one very important sense, nothing but a publicity stunt—is sobering but not, to students of history, very shocking. If the truth be told a good many of our finest hours have been entangled in questions of national bravado and filthy lucre. Even Christopher Columbus went to America not "because it is there," but because it got in the way of a projected trade route to India. Yet there's one crucial difference: Columbus' voyage truly did mark the opening of an epoch—the Great Age of Exploration. In the first 25 years after his 1492 landing (and through the efforts of giants like Balboa, Magellan and De Gama) Columbus saw his world double in size; new life forms (if you will) and new civilizations had been contacted, and a whole New World had begun to be colonized. In contrast, the first quarter-century after Apollo just hasn't amounted to much. Once again, Tom Hanks puts it well: "When I was a kid I just assumed that by 1998 we'd be traveling in Pan Am space clippers. Pan Am was actually taking reservations, and I called up and got one. Now, never mind there are no space clippers, there's not even a Pan Am anymore! Anybody in July of 1969 would have said, 'We're going to have colonies on the moon, and we'll figure out a way to get there cheaper, and we'll have dome cities.' They all just assumed that as soon as you discover the way to get there you keep going back, just like we did with Alaska, California, the Ohio Valley. In retrospect, it's more surprising that we stopped going to the moon than that we got there in 1969."

And this, of course, is precisely the point at which 2001 was taken off guard. Arthur C. Clarke (the noted scientist who wrote the screen play) based 2001's predictions solidly upon the sober projection of current trends... which, unfortunately, were at the time thoroughly fluky and altogether artificial. At the time the movie was written both America and Russia were flinging dollars and rubles into the void at a truly astonishing rate—a rate which anyone should have been able to see was totally unsustainable for any length of time. Likewise, Clarke seems to have been unable to grasp the fact that all of this spending (despite a good deal of diplomatic PR to the contrary) was military spending. Just as the war was cold, the only shots being fired in it were moon shots. But being fired they were, and less at the Moon than at each other. Congress did not approve these billions in an idealistic attempt to make a "giant leap for mankind." They did it to defeat the bad guys... and once the bad guys were defeated, Project Apollo had served its purpose. This is not to say that there weren't scientific goals—and magnificent ones—but simply to insist that the objective which actually paid the bills was the conquest of communism, not the conquest of space.

This hard unromantic truth proved to be 2001's undoing as prophecy. The very fact that the lunar landing had been accomplished so early—well within the lifetimes of many who remembered Kitty Hawk—this fact alone produced a startling (and as it turns out inflated) sense of mankind's progress. After all, with a man actually standing on the Moon to assure us that it was so, who could doubt that some kind of "giant leap" had in fact been made? But the domed cities, the Moon colonies, the Howard Johnson's-in-space never came. They never came because, in actuality, we jumped the gun on our Space Age. Historically speaking, it was a false start which ended on July 24, 1969—when NASA successfully achieved its first, greatest, and only true objective: "... to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth."

All Dressed Up and No Place to Go
But what about today's on-going space program? Isn't there a highly advanced reusable Space Shuttle in service? Don't we still rocket men and women boldly into the heavens as the real 2001 draws near?

There is and we do. What we lack is any particularly urgent reason for doing it.

With the Great Russian Bear mortally wounded, NASA kept the doors open during the late 1970s by re-inventing itself. This being the age of détente, the quixotic, long-haired rationale of Scientific Discovery was moved to the fore, replacing the now slightly embarrassing notion of defeating the bad guys. Not surprisingly, the budget was cut drastically. Then, as we entered the hustling Reagan era, the new Space Shuttle system was put into operation. In reality, the Space Shuttle was a conceptual relic from the von Braun Man in Space days; a mere link in a chain which was originally supposed to end at the planet Mars. But Mars (a natural enough target for the Scientific Discovery crowd) simply made no sense at all from a practical standpoint—especially since there was no one to beat in a race to it. And so the Shuttle was re-imagined for the '80s as a floating product-development laboratory. As long as we keep sending this hideously expensive thing up (we were solemnly assured) wonderful technological blessings would trickle down from high-Earth orbit.

What was missing in all this was a certain sense of truthfulness. By the late 1990s, as the number of orbital Shuttle missions steadily neared 100, even the most curious of us began to wonder just how many science experiments you can actually do up there in that high tight circle. Even NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin recently admitted that today's Space Shuttle is "a marvelous transportation system... without a destination." And did John Glenn and the others really strap themselves to those gigantic flying bombs merely in order to make the magnates of Silicon Valley rich? Do any of these earnest justifications represent our real reasons for being in space—much less a realistic ground for continuing to support such efforts?

Today, the mounting pressure to give solid answers to these questions is bringing another '50s space fantasy a bit closer to reality: the permanent orbiting space station. Though nothing at all like 2001's majestic city-in-the-sky, when Space Station Freedom was first proposed fifteen years ago, it did represent a serious attempt to do something significant in space. Three draconian budget reductions later however, Space Station Freedom has somehow morphed into the International Space Station; about half the size originally planned and largely symbolic in nature. Arthur C. Clarke himself recently felt the need to comment on the progress of his intellectual step-child: "I have ambivalent feelings about the International Space Station. I may be biased, of course, because in 2001 it was a nice rotating ring with artificial gravity—whereas the space station plan now is, frankly, an orbiting pile of junk from the look of it." Space savant Freeman Dyson, of the Institute for Advanced Studies, puts the current state of things more bluntly still: "The [Space Station] project is being driven by politicians for political reasons. It's such a large undertaking and such an important source of jobs—it's just a huge welfare program for the aerospace industry. Whether it's actually any use or not has never really been the question." And future voyages to Mars? Dyson continues: "I don't think we're going to Mars in the next 50 years. I just don't see any point in having a huge expenditure of public money on just a prestige trip to take a couple of people to Mars and bring them back—which is all you could do with the present technology. I don't think it makes any sense."

Dyson is, of course, correct here—"prestige trips" don't make any sense. And yet the entire Apollo Moon program was planned, financed, and actually carried out in order to accomplish just such a prestige trip. Why did it work then and why won't it work now? The answer is simple: the presence or absence of a genuine, honest-to-goodness, get-off-your-duff motivation.

Lost in Space
Failing the discovery of some such motivation, space exploration in the 21st century seems destined, like McArthur's old soldier, not to be killed but simply to fade away.

Will such a motivation be found? In one sense, the question itself proves that we've been putting the cart before the horse; if one actually has a need then one won't be scrambling about looking for it. But is it possible that we have needs which are being obscured—actual motivations for space exploration that are currently being addressed in contrary ways?

One important historical example strongly suggests that this may be the case. Looking back into the records of this kind of inquiry, one notices immediately that the early space philosophers of our century spent very little time rhapsodizing about naked Scientific Discovery... and none whatever about any commercial prospects. No, what seems to have chiefly inspired geniuses like Haldane, Stapledon, Wells and Bradbury (certainly no enemies of science) was one of the same considerations which animated the early terrestrial explorers: the hope of colonization. With the specter of over-population beginning to loom ahead, the possibility of colonizing other planets such as Mars forcefully presented itself to these early visionaries. If man's home world is not enough, they theorized, then our ingenuity will carry us across the void to new spheres just as it carried our ancestors across the fearful seas to what seemed a countless earthly frontier. But starting about 1970, this original motive begins to vanish from the discussion. Even as over-population begins to be described by the media in downright apocalyptic terms ("The Population Bomb," etc.), even as the fiery rockets of science-fiction become an everyday reality, space colonization is cleared from the table. The population problem begins to be addressed in other ways—cheaper, quicker, more ruthless ways. And thus one of the most important traditional incentives for exploration short-circuits in a futuristic re-enactment of Frederick Jackson Turner's famous Closing of the Frontier. Is it merely a coincidence that 1970 is roughly the year in which NASA began to lose its way?

In any event—and with or without sufficient motivation—astronaut John Glenn is scheduled to return to outer space next month. Surely all true Americans—indeed, anyone with an ounce of poetry in their souls—must rejoice and wish him, once again, Godspeed. Just as he was 1962, this Ohio farm boy who will race across our night skies is a perfect mirror of everything good about out nation. It's no reflection on these modern Lewis & Clarks that most of us on the world they leave behind stand paralyzed in indecision, unable or unwilling to go where they lead.

But unfortunately, it really must be said... for our children's sake, as a wake up call...

2001 is here—and America's most eagerly watched space venture is a re-run.