The 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey was a landmark science-fiction film, in many ways far ahead of its time. With the recent release of a 1080p Blu-ray video version, home viewers can enjoy nearly the same stunning level of graphics and visual effects of the original big-screen theater release. Forty-three years later, in the wake of films like Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien and Avatar, and with full-time sci-fi channels on cable/satellite TV, it is easy to underestimate the impact that 2001 made when it was first released. Steven Spielberg called it his film generation's "big bang," while in 1977 George Lucas declared, "Stanley Kubrick made the ultimate science-fiction movie and it is going to be very hard for somebody to come along and make a better movie."
From a scientific point of view, the film's account of the discovery of evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence reflects the ever-growing fascination with fundamental scientific questions such as "Are there extraterrestrials?," "Where are they?", "What are they like?" -- questions directly tied to Fermi's paradox. In general, the film faithfully reflects humankind's eternal fascination with the planets and stars and our future destiny in outer space.
- Space travel. Perhaps the biggest disappointment since the movie was released has been our failure to seriously embark on space travel. We have an International Space Station orbiting the planet, but it is a far cry from the huge double-wheel structure depicted in the movie. We traveled to the moon shortly after the film's release, but we have not returned there in four decades, even for brief exploration trips, much less to construct permanent colonies. Several U.S. attempts to initiate human trips to Mars have been scuttled, victims of crushing budget deficits. Space vehicles of the enormous scale depicted in 2001 remain far-future fantasies. NASA has had to bring back 70-year old engineers to tell their "war stories" about the Apollo program, in order to preserve a rapidly disappearing corporate memory.
So how many more years will transpire before we truly return to space in the style of 2001? Recently NASA, recognizing continuing problems with safety and technological obsolescence, terminated its Space Shuttle program, leaving the world's largest economy without a viable space transport. NASA is placing its hopes on private ventures such as SpaceX, founded by PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk, which is developing its Falcon 9 spacecraft to deliver cargoes (and later people) to the International Space Station. But NASA's longer-term plans to send humans to Mars remain mired in budget cuts and high-level indecision. Even American presidential candidate Newt Gingrich's more modest suggestion to create a colony on the moon was met with derision. We hope that it was the messenger, not his message and long-term vision, that was being derided.
Meanwhile, China has announced an ambitious five-year plan to develop space technology. China's initial moon plans include orbiters that will make soft lunar landings, survey the lunar landscape, and then return collect samples of the moon's surface to earth for analysis. Ultimately China plans to place astronauts on the moon. One advantage of China's space program is that most likely it will not be subject to the "fits and starts" and political infighting that have plagued the U.S. space program.
Looking further into the future, NASA and the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) recently embarked on a 100-Year Starship Study, as a first step to chart out the future of space exploration. This includes plans for interstellar travel, energy generation and requisite medical and radiation-resistance technologies.
There is clearly a public appetite for human space discovery, independent of the public's appreciation of spin-off technologies generated from the first space age. What is missing is a sales pitch -- like the arms race but ideally less grim -- that made possible the Apollo program. Time will tell when and how the 2001 vision will be realized, and if it will be human or robotic. In the meantime, we all can dream.