Quirks & Quarks·Bob McDonald's blog

2001: A Space Odyssey is 50 — where are the space hotels?

The influential SF film's predictions are closer than ever to becoming reality.

Space hotels and moon bases are closer to reality than ever

FILE - In this 1968 publicity image released by Turner Entertainment, a scene is shown from Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film, "2001: A Space Odyssey." (AP Photo/Turner Entertainment, file) (The Associated Press)

In 1968, audiences were awestruck by a futuristic vision of orbiting space hotels, shuttles, moon bases and a trip to Jupiter that was sabotaged by a malevolent computer. While the technologies depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey did not actually appear by the year 2001, alternate versions of them are appearing now.

A private company called Orion Span is taking reservations now on a new space hotel called the "Aurora Station" that they plan to launch in 2021.

With a deposit of only $80,000 you can reserve a spot for a twelve day dream vacation in space — with a final price of $9.5 million. That sounds outrageous, but it is far less than the $20 to $40 million tourists have spent for a week on the International Space Station.

You can even buy space in the hotel and treat is as a condo, a business model they've taken from larger cruise ships. (Note for Canadians, you might have to save a little more for your space vacation — these are US dollars)

They're only one of several companies planning to build commercial space stations where private astronauts can visit or work. Bigelow Aerospace is planning to launch a private inflatable space station and Axiom Space has plans for a module that they say will be tested on the International Space Station as the first part of their planned station.

Computer rendering of Orion Span's planned Aurora Station. They plan to offer 12 day stays in space for $9.5US. (Orion Span)
Combine this with lower cost  private launch companies, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, the era of true space tourism could be about to begin. But it will be quite different from that portrayed in the 1968 movie.

Director Stanley Kubrick, along with famed science writer Arthur C. Clarke, went to great effort to make the movie as realistic as possible.

A winged space shuttle operated by Pan Am Airlines flew up to an orbiting space station in the shape of a giant rotating wheel that produced artificial gravity. Inside, a hotel was operated by Hilton with an attached Howard Johnson's restaurant.

Another craft ferried people to the moon where both the United States and Russia had sprawling lunar complexes.  And finally, an incredibly long, well supplied interplanetary spaceship called Discovery headed out on a multi-year mission to the moons of Jupiter with all but two of the crew in deep hibernation.

Then there was the other crew member, a central computer named HAL who not only ran everything on the ship, but interacted with the humans in a sensitive, seemingly compassionate human voice. Of course, HAL goes rogue and...well, if you haven't seen the movie, I won't spoil it for you. 

Aboard the Jupiter bound spacecraft in 2001: A Space Odyssey (TIFF Film Reference Library)
Most of these predictions were technically feasible in 1968, especially considering how quickly the pace of space exploration was proceeding at the time.

That same year, the first humans orbited the moon in the historic Apollo 8 mission, and the following year Armstrong and Aldrin laid down the first footprints on the moon. And that was only eight years after the first human, Uri Gagarin, even reached space. If that pace had continued, it would have been easy to imagine that we'd have space stations and moon outposts 33 years later.

But as famous physicist Niels Bohr is reputed to have said, "Predictions is very difficult, especially about the future." And while the visions of science fiction writers and movie directors may not materialize exactly the way they were portrayed half a century ago, the fundamental concepts have in different ways.

A winged space shuttle was developed by NASA, and we've had a couple of space stations, including the International Space Station which is flying now.  But the station is a scientific laboratory, not a resort, and so far, only seven tourists have visited there, at tremendous cost.

NASA is planning a new moon base, called Deep Space Gateway, but it will orbit the moon rather than be based on the surface.

A NASA rendering of the Orion spacecraft rendezvousing in lunar orbit with the planned Deep Space Gateway lunar space station (NASA)
And while we don't yet have HAL, artificial intelligence programs have developed remarkable abilities such as winning chess matches and playing GO, or finding patterns in vast amounts of data, even imitating human behaviour but none of them are actually doing what we'd call thinking, none of them are turning to murder (sorry, spoiler alert!) - at least not yet.

One prediction that did come true was the role of the private sector in space exploration. In the movie, the space shuttle was operated by Pan Am Airlines.

Kubrick and Clarke anticipated that large multinational corporations and hotel chains would be involved in space. That's not quite how it's worked out.

The private space sector today is not traditional multinational corporations. Instead it's driven by enterprising billionaires like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Robert Bigelow and Richard Branson. They are the people who might bring spaceflight to the masses and, perhaps, fulfil the dreams of many, including some of those who watched that iconic film 50 years ago.

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