The time has come. The New Year is upon us and there’ll be no escape from the relentless comparisons between the space-faring future world of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and our measly earthbound life in the real year 2001. I take a different view. Even though we’ve got no lunar bases and we haven’t sent hibernating astronauts to Jupiter in outsized space ships, I think we have done quite well for ourselves.
People sometimes wax nostalgic over the Golden Age of space exploration: the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs led to the first moon landing in 1969. No doubt those were special times and special moments, but are they more special than the events of today? The greatest obstacle to the human exploration of space, apart from funding and other earthly political factors, is surviving biologically hostile environments. We need to engineer a version of ourselves, an emissary who can somehow withstand the extremes of temperature, the high-energy radiation, and the meager air supply, yet still conduct a full round of scientific experiments.
We’ve already invented such things.
They are called robots, and they conduct all of our interplanetary exploration. You don’t have to feed robots. They don’t need life support. And they won’t get upset if you don’t bring them back. Our current ensemble of space robots includes probes that are, at this moment, monitoring the Sun, orbiting Mars, intercepting a comet’s tail, orbiting an asteroid, orbiting Jupiter, and on their way to Saturn. Four of our earlier space probes were launched with enough energy and with the right trajectory to escape the solar system altogether, each one carrying encoded information about humans for the intelligent aliens who might recover the hardware. And NASA is now soliciting proposals from the scientific community for the first robotic mission to Pluto.
We have compelling evidence for the existence of barely frozen water on Mars and of liquid water deep within Jupiter’s moon Europa. These worlds hold tantalizing prospects for the past or present existence of non-Earth-based life. This news was, of course, beamed to us by semi-intelligent, robotic probes endowed by humans with the capacity to ask and answer many of the questions that humans would ask were we the ones making the trip. We also maintain, at any moment, hundreds of communication satellites as well as a dozen space-based telescopes that see the universe in bands of light from infrared through gamma rays. One of these pass bands, the microwaves, allows us to see evidence for the Big Bang, coming from the edge of the observable universe.
Just because we have no interplanetary colonies, or other unrealized dreamscapes, it doesn’t mean that our presence in space has not in fact grown exponentially. We should not measure our space-faring era by where footprints have been laid. Nor should we measure it by how many people deify our astronauts or follow the progress of our launches. We should measure our era by how many people take no notice at all. A legacy rises to become culture only when its elements are so common that they no longer attract comment—not because people have lost interest, but because people cannot imagine a world without them.
As for the real year 2001: apart from our flocks of robotic probes, we have a silent ballet of hardware in the heavens. The International Space Station is under construction, just like the one portrayed in 2001 the movie, and it will never know a day without an astronaut on board—our human presence in space is now permanent. The Space Station is being assembled with parts delivered by reusable, docking space shuttles, each of which say NASA on the side panels instead of Pan Am. Further similarities include zero-G flush toilets with complicated instructions, and the platters of unappealing astronaut food.
As far as I can tell, the only thing Kubrick’s movie has that we don’t have is Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz filling the vacuum of space and a homicidal mainframe named HAL.