A couple of years before I was born, on December 14 1962, Mariner 2, NASA’s first successful unmanned planetary probe, flew by Venus. 
The thick, featureless clouds of of our solar system’s only other blue planet had, for generations of observers, carried the veiled promise of extraterrestrial life. I remember inheriting from my elder brother a children’s guide to space, written just before the Mariner launch. I remember the artist’s impression of Venusian seas, and Venusian fish.

Mariner 2 did not catch any fish. The Venus it discovered was, in truth, a kind of Hell, with an atmosphere so thick and heavy it would spread a hapless human visitor like jam over rocks five times as hot as boiling water.  

Some years later, between July 14 and July 15 1965, Mariner 4 flew by Mars. No one expected to see gondoliers plying the planet’s canals. At the same time, few expected to see a terrain so cratered, so moonlike, so obviously inimical to life. We still claim – with a sort of inverted optimism – that Mars is a ‘dead’ planet. In all honesty, it has almost certainly never been alive.

I am old enough to remember my mum waking me up and carrying me through to the living room to see Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon. Even then, thanks to Mariners 2 and 4, the dream was already dying. For three hundred years, from the Scientific Revolution on, philosophers had been musing comfortably on the likely profusion and form of extraterrestrial life. The inter-war generation dreamt of one day exploring a living cosmos. It was left to the Apollo generation to measure the weight in disappointment of our patently empty sky.

If They are out there, why aren’t They here yet?

Kubrick took the business of an apparently lifeless cosmos seriously enough to send his assistant Tony Frewin off with a movie camera to interview 21 scientists and philosophers about the likelihood of extraterrestrial life. At one stage, extracts from these interviews were supposed to preface the film. In the end, Kubrick let the film distil its own answer. We have too limited an idea of what life is. We have virtually no idea of what life might become. Technology is so powerfully transformative, we may simply not be able to detect all the traffic whirling above our heads – unless, that is, it comes crashing in upon us in the form of an oversize John Player Special cigarette packet. 

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 has been hailed as a masterpiece of mysticism. It is the exact opposite: a loud, long, monomaniacal celebration of praxis: the brute human business of learning through doing. By doing, we learn about ourselves, and we learn about the world, and we do both imperfectly. Everything we do goes ever so slightly wrong – because the world is very big, and we are very small. Then again, we will never run out of things to do. 2001 is brutally teleological. Murder and warfare are revealed as key elements of human evolution. Evolution falls away eventually, superseded by other, faster, more flexible forms of human progress – like technology. But technology doesn’t necessarily make us happier, or better, or kinder. It just is. 
2001 is not about mysticism. It is about yearning.  

The Apollo and Soyuz missions convinced a generation that space travel was heavy, slow, inefficient, and could be achieved only by mobilising the powers of the state. The comics, meanwhile, claimed that space travel, like air travel, would one day be the preserve of the dedicated, intelligent and resourceful hobbyist. That rocketplanes would be like early aeroplanes: light, simple, and manoevreable.       

2001 steered a middle course. NASA engineers advising the film, including Frederick Ordway and Harry Lange, knew what could be done with the materials of their day, and at what cost. Techologically, their vision of space travel is, I suppose, roughly equivalent to the Concorde builders’ vision of air travel: a lightweight aesthetic hampered by the sheer heaviness of available materials. Politically, 2001’s vision of flag-carrying airlines in space suggests that the great government institutions like NASA will not quite monopolise life off the planet: that some limited enterprise will one day be possible, at some swingeing corporate cost. If 2001’s vision of the future has dated at all, it is not because, three years after its release, NASA began sending men to the moon on top of overgrown ballistic missiles and, by the grace of God, got away with it. 2001 remains to this day a catalogue of all the things NASA wants to do one day, but somehow never finds the time or the money for. 2001’s future looks dated because it is too heavy, too big, too massive – in short, too much like NASA. 
In pursuit of a 1965-vintage veritée, Stanley Kubrick shunned the futures presented by the comic books: their retro-futuristic resettings of the Air War in outer space;  their nostalgic nods to the barnstorming days of aviation. But it was artists like Flash Gordon’s Alex Raymond and Dan Dare’s Frank Hampson who, untroubled by materials science, held true to the first rule of flying – a rule blurred by the Apollo programe’s collosal, fuel-hungry moonshots – that weight is your enemy, and lightness is everything. The other day, in preparation for Saturday’s event in NFT1, I went to see Will Whitehorn, the president of Virgin Galactic – the private space company preparing to send tourists into sub-orbital space on regular excursions. In his scratched-together office off Bond Street (almost next door to, and virtually identical to, the offices of the charter airline my mother used to work in after the War), Will explained to me that Virgin Galactic will also be using its launch system to place satellites in low-earth orbit. Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft are small, light, and fuel efficient, and have been built without state funding. They are the size of small business jets. They are made of packing foam and resin, their engines burn old tyres and laughing gas, and they look as though, at any moment, Dan Dare might climb down from the cockpit of one of them, pipe clamped in his strong jaw, a fishbowl helmet under his arm.    

Saturday’s discussion in NFT1 brings Will, and Tony together with Chris Riley to tease out the ways in which 2001’s tale of the future is becoming, inevitably and inexorably, a tale of future past. Wrangling these very different talents will be like herding cats – but I have a good idea where I want to steer things. I don’t want us to analyze the film, so much as unpack some of the technical and aesthetic and scientific work that went into it. And I don’t want us to do this for its own sake, but rather so we can say something about the world 2001 was addressing, and about the assumptions we bring now, not just to Kubrick’s film, but to the very idea of our future in space.


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