A Tour of Discovery One From 2001: A Space Odyssey

Source: Credit: Warner Bros.

The film 2001: A Space Odyssey is responsible for influencing science fiction and fact, but how does its central spaceship work, and how close are we to replicating it?

Of all the media that has attempted to show humanity's future and how it will travel throughout the stars, the gold standard still belongs to Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, despite that future taking place 18 years ago. Kubrick's film takes the audience on an epic journey from the dawn of mankind to the next stage of evolution. But of particular interest is his illustration of interstellar travel. The film is famous for its commercial space cruisers ferrying passengers from Earth to orbiting space stations, but the most prominent section of the film is the "Jupiter mission" sequence, which involves the gargantuan starship Discovery One.

Designing a Ship for 2001: A Space Odyssey

In the film's story, astronauts Frank Poole and David Bowman, along with three other crewmen, are sent to Jupiter to investigate a signal sent to the planet from a monolith on Earth's moon. Their ship, Discovery One, is an 800-foot United States Spacecraft (USSC) propelled using thermonuclear fission and features a sentient computer, the HAL 9000. But while those are very fancy words, what do they mean? How does Discovery One work and how long will it be before we can catch up to its hypothetical technology?

In 2001, Discovery One takes approximately 18 months to reach Jupiter. While three of the crew are kept in suspended animation, two astronauts – Poole and Bowman – remain to ensure communications between the ship and mission control are sent and received without malfunction. The sixth member, HAL, maintains Discovery One's primary functions. The crew is separated from the engines by a large "spine" constructed from modular components, which allows the nuclear-powered engines to operate at safe parameters with lifeforms well out of harm's way.

Credit: Warner Bros.
Credit: Warner Bros.

Powering Discovery One are six Cavradyne magnetoplasmadynamic thrusters, using a method of propulsion where ionized gas is accelerated and expelled from the thruster nozzle, thus moving the ship. Originally, Stanley Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke explored the possibility of using nuclear pulse propulsion, which was the subject of Project Orion, originating in the late 1950s. Project Orion's concept was using atomic weapons as a direct propellant, which would have provided a more efficient method than the Saturn rocket. However, the controversial use of nuclear weapons and potential fallout meant that Orion was not seen positively, along with the 1963 Partial Test Ban, a treaty initially signed by the UK, US, and USSR that prohibited nuclear weapon testing everywhere but underground (its full name was Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water). Interestingly, Kubrick's main issue was the visual aspect of the method, which would have seen the ship juddering through space due to the constant explosions of atomic material.

The eventual method of magnetoplasmadynamic (MPD) thrust uses Hendrik Lorentz's electromagnetic force (known as the Lorentz force) to push Discovery One to the speeds needed to reach its destination in the optimum time according to mission parameters. However, the issue still remains that to generate the electrical wattage needed to power the engines, a nuclear reactor would still be required. Research has been conducted into developing MPD thrusters around the world, and in 1995 the first successful outer space test of an MPD thruster was undertaken aboard the Uchū Jikken-Kansoku Free Flyer launched from Tanegashima, Japan. In contrast, for NASA's current missions – including the projected 2020 launch of Exploration Mission 1, where the Orion spacecraft will be tested in orbit preparing for feasibility in carrying astronauts to Mars – craft are launched by Solid Rocket Boosters and propelled in second stage by RL10 cryogenic rocket engines, which have been in use for over five decades.

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Away from the engines, the crew areas are situated within the ship's spherical module at Discovery One's bow. The main crew section is the centrifuge where artificial gravity is generated, which includes a communications center, kitchen, and medical center, as well as hibernation chambers for the crew. Micro-g environments on the ship include the cockpit, two science labs, and the pod bay, which features three EVA pods. In this respect, Discovery One is more akin to the International Space Station, and its modular construction allows for adaptable sections to be added to the station.

Credit: Warner Bros.
Credit: Warner Bros.

Installing the HAL 9000

Possibly the most advanced technology on Discovery One is the sentient HAL 9000 (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer). HAL is “just” a computer, but while he works with all the functions on the ship, he also engages emotionally with his fellow astronauts and achieves emotionally complex decision making and rationalizing. This part is crucial in separating HAL from other types of fictional artificial general intelligence, and both 2001 and its sequel 2010 (1984) explore HAL's emotional state, and in the latter case, his ability to process conflicting information and from that make a decision that will be beneficial to humanity as opposed to his own self. It is revealed that his paranoid breakdown was due to being given conflicting orders, and from his own admission of this and realization, he comes to a decision where he sacrifices himself for the good of the crew of the spaceship Leonov.

The fact is that if we are to travel to Mars and further worlds, a unit like HAL would be integral due to its ability to function as a mobile mission control, with the ability to get responses from Earth in a reasonable timespan lessening the farther we travel from our home world. The real issue is, like with magnetoplasmadynamic thrusters, not that we cannot think of such concepts, but that we cannot create them in a functioning way. People may walk around with Siri in their pockets, but there is a gulf of difference between asking where the nearest place to get a chili dog is and figuring out how to program a computer with thousands of variables for any myriad of situations where a spacecraft might be in trouble. We would have to develop software that can handle those variables without causing undue stress on the computer itself.

We'll get there. We just may have to wait until 3001.

Contributing Editor

Charlie Brigden has been obsessed with spaceships, horror films, and film music since a young age and can usually be found across the internet writing about one of those three. He lives in South Wales UK with his family, cats, dogs, and tarantulas.