The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

2001 space station
Even in 1968, the massive space station seen in 2001, as realistic as it might look on the big screen, was implausible. (credit: A.M.P.A.S.)

1997, 2001, 1999: a science fiction calendar from the Apollo era

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The 46th anniversary of the first human lunar landing passed largely without notice in the national media last week. It’s hard to understand how such an epochal event, the fulfillment of a dream born in the first stirrings of human consciousness and deemed impossible for most of the history of our species, could fade so quickly into the historical background of American achievement.

Even before its transition form serious drama to campy fantasy adventure, scientific realism was not a high priority on Lost in Space.

Hard also to remember that from the mid-1960’s to the mid-1970’s, the Apollo program was an integral element of American space technology and foreign policy. It was bold and breathtaking and shockingly sudden: from the first stumbling efforts of the US to get a satellite into orbit to men walking on the Moon in little more than a decade. And almost as quickly as the Apollo and Saturn V were created, they were abandoned. But at the time, their impacts on society and culture were pervasive. Two science fiction television series and one movie from that era provide a glimpse into how Apollo influenced Hollywood writers and producers.

The CBS TV series Lost in Space premiered in September 1965, just about the same time that NASA’s budget, driven by the ramp-up of the Apollo program, reached its all-time peak. The TV show was loosely based on the early 19th century novel The Swiss Family Robinson, about a pastor, his wife, and their kids who become shipwrecked on an island somewhere in the East Indies. Through ingenuity, hard work, self-reliance, and a relentlessly positive attitude, the stranded family not only survived but thrived. For the CBS series, the Swiss Family Robinson became the all-American Space Family Robinson. Like television’s Cleaver family (Leave it to Beaver) or the Nelsons (Ozzie and Harriet), the Robinsons were a wholesome loaf of white bread, representing an ideal from a time before the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960s seriously challenged the basic values most Americans took for granted. The Robinsons mirrored the stalwart families of America’s astronauts in both appearance and manner.

Their flying saucer-shaped ship, the Jupiter II, was launched in 1997 on a journey to the nearby star Alpha Centauri as the vanguard of a new colonization effort (the flight was sabotaged, leaving the family lost in space). It was a clever conceit: America, represented by an idealized American family, would someday share in the adventure of space exploration—manifest destiny on an interstellar scale. The show was not a runaway hit, but was relatively successful during its three year run (more so than Star Trek at the time). It began as a relatively serious family drama, but soon devolved into a campy fantasy adventure show for kids (allegedly in an effort to replicate the surprising ratings success of the Batman TV series that first aired in January 1966).

Even before that transition, scientific realism was not a high priority on Lost in Space. Its speed-of-light engine consisted of some flashing lights on the bottom of the saucer, fueled by something called “deutronium,” which could conveniently be extracted from the crust of any alien planet with a portable drilling rig. The drama centered on how the family persevered on a hostile world after they were shipwrecked, not so much on how they got there.

Given the billions of dollars the US was then spending just to put a pair of men on the Moon, did anyone really believe, in 1968, that an immense lunar parking garage would or could be built in the next three decades?

When 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered in 1968, it was the most ambitions science fiction movie ever made, and one of the most expensive movies of all time. It is often cited as one of the most “realistic” depictions of space travel on film. Kubrick’s now-classic depiction of space exploration at the beginning of the 21st century was nothing if not ambitious—in fact, ridiculously so. Even the most optimistic aerospace engineer in the 1960s never envisioned structures in space, thirty years down the road, on the scales that Kubrick conjured. Consider Space Station V, two 300-meter diameter pressurized habitat rings joined along a common axis of rotation. Where does this massive vehicle get its power? There are no solar cells, so we can reasonably assume a nuclear reactor (or several) but where are the radiator fins needed to channel its waste heat into space? The interior of the station is equally implausible, at least the part we see. It’s mostly a sprawling, largely empty hotel lobby—an extraordinary waste of habitable volume. Imagine how many Saturn V equivalent launches it would take to build something like this (admittedly beautiful) station and then ask yourself how much of that pressurized volume would simply be used as a giant hallway.

The Moon base seen later in the film is equally implausible. The underground hangar for the lunar transfer vehicle looks to be on the order of forty or fifty stories tall—and that was only one component of a much larger facility. Given the billions of dollars the US was then spending just to put a pair of men on the Moon, did anyone really believe, in 1968, that an immense lunar parking garage would or could be built in the next three decades? Engineers typically look for the simplest, least expensive solution to a problem. Digging a hole fifty stories deep to store a spacecraft that only accommodates a few dozen passengers seems like a monumental waste of money and effort.

The fact is, Kubrick knew he was creating space vehicles that would never exist, certainly not by 2001. It was a deliberate choice. In his book, 2001: The Heritage and Legacy of the Space Odyssey, space systems engineer Frederick Ordway III, who was one of the film’s main technical advisors, noted that Kubrick was frequently disappointed by the designs Ordway and his friends in the space industry offered up. He wanted his film to be, artistically, as grandiose as its subject matter. Kubrick was frustrated because he was looking for space machines that would not just be technically plausible, but would also express the incredibleness of human space travel. He struggled mightily to find images that were equal to the awe and wonder of the historical transition human society found itself in. Kubrick’s spaceships weren’t much more likely to be built by the end of the century than the Jupiter II, but they were magnificent and inspiring. They represented the dreams of the space age, if not any future reality, but were nevertheless cinematically convincing from the perspective of a society on the cusp of sending human beings to another world for the first time.

The last Apollo flight occurred in 1975 (the American half of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project), the same year the television series Space: 1999 premiered. Moon Base Alpha was built and operated to oversee the long-term storage of waste from nuclear reactors back on Earth. This incredibly bad idea predictably leads to disaster when the waste somehow achieves critical mass and blasts the Moon out of orbit, sending it careening off into interstellar space. Needless to say, an explosion powerful enough to fling the Moon out of our gravity well would obliterate the Moon; Moon Base Alpha would be pulverized into moon dust in a matter of seconds. In order to encounter some bizarre new planetary system every week, the Moon would have to be traveling very close to the speed of light (thanks to special relativity, from the perspective of the Alphans, years of travel would feel like days). How do the rocket-powered Eagle spacecraft decelerate from 300,000 kilometers per second to land on a planet orbiting a star at a speed some ten thousand times slower? How do they accelerate back to near-light speed? None of these questions were asked or answered in the series, which is probably just as well.

The filming model for Moon Base Alpha was highly derivative of the Moon base featured in 2001 (without the gigantic underground parking garage). In the 1970s, many people in the space industry believed that a Moon base of some sort would exist by 1999, albeit on a much smaller scale. The idea that it would be used as a nuclear garbage dump might have been entertained for a nanosecond or two by a few serious people, but most scientists then as now were thinking in terms of a basic research station. And yet here we are, 16 years after 1999, and lunar bases still exist only as PowerPoint presentations.

In the 1970s, many people in the space industry believed that a Moon base of some sort would exist by 1999, albeit on a much smaller scale. And yet here we are, 16 years after 1999, and lunar bases still exist only as PowerPoint presentations.

There is something undeniably poetic about the idea of our Moon drifting through the interstellar void, looking for a new home. Whether it was a conscious choice of the show’s creators or not, Space: 1999 seems to me to be a fitting metaphor for the end of the Apollo era. From the perspective of that time, our space program is still drifting, and the only space-inspired drama on TV today follows the lives of women married to 1960s era astronauts (The Astronaut’s Wives’ Club, on ABC). The heroic adventures of the men who pioneered the path to the Moon have been repurposed as nostalgic melodrama.

Glimmers of hope have begun to appear on the horizon. A new era of human space exploration is dawning, driven in part by wealthy entrepreneurs who grew up on Apollo and the science fiction it inspired, and who now have the resources to make their childhood dreams come true, or at least to try. The hard realities of space travel have been well established over the past fifty years, and people today are generally more skeptical about the feasibility and value of human missions beyond Earth orbit. But someday, someone, some organization, or an international consortium of national space agencies, will launch human missions back to the Moon and beyond. Their adventures will inevitably inspire new films and television shows (and video games and presumably other forms of creative media not yet imagined). When that time will come, and how it will be realized, is anyone’s guess.