Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, titans of the film and science-fiction worlds, respectively, collaborated on the filmscript for 2001, A Space Odysssey. I could say lots about the (great) strengths and (greater) weaknesses of this movie, but I'll skip all that. I'll talk instead about Part 2 of this 3-part movie, which depicts spaceflight as it was forecast to exist in the year 2001. To put this in context, the film was released in 1968, not long before the first Moon landing.
In retrospect, the vision was ludicrously off the mark. Space shuttles with 2-plus-2 seating and flight attendants, a space station with hotel ameneties, a manned mission to Jupiter in a spacecraft the size of an ocean liner — nothing remotely like that has happend. Frankly, it seemed quite a bit of a stretch at the time (I remember it well!). But the progress between the first, tiny artificial satellite in 1957 and an imminent Moon landing in 1968 had been so huge and rapid that even to skeptics like me, this science-fiction vision didn't seem to be totally out of touch with reality.
But it was. There's a handful of diehard space enthusiast who still claim that this vision is the way it should be — that the fact that we don't have luxurious, routine spaceflight today proves that somebody betrayed their ideal. It's due to government incompetence, a loss of nerve, vision, leadership — that's what they claim. But anybody who analyzes the issues dispassionately will quickly realize that it's the 1968 vision that's at fault. No doubt if it were a really high priority we could have a considerably larger manned space presence than we currently do. But it would still be a lot closer to what actually exists now than to the fantasies of 1968.
As usual, it's all about money. For spaceflight to exist on the lavish scale depicted in this movie, the cost of putting material into low-Earth orbit would have to be reduced by a factor of hundreds at least, and more likely thousands. At current cost, given today's technology or anything likely to be developed soon, the entire industrial capacity of the world wouldn't suffuce to build a Hilton Hotel in space.
There's a lesson here, which I'll save for another blog. But maybe before pushing any farther on this scifi-and-spaceflight theme, I should return to my core comptence: visual observing of the night sky.