Welcome back to the far-flung voyages of Flight Deck, an ongoing series of guided tours through some of the most influential and iconic spacecraft in the history of sci-fi film and TV. Please feel free to check out previous trips aboard some of the wondrous ships of The Black Hole, Star Trek, Star Wars, Dark Star, Aliens and Farscape.
Being that today (April 3) is the 50th anniversary of the release of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's genre milestone, 2001: A Space Odyssey, it was mandatory that we discuss the Discovery One, the interplanetary vessel that carries a crew of five astronauts on a voyage to Jupiter to discover why a mysterious transmission from an alien artifact buried on the Moon has been beamed there.
2001: A Space Odyssey was born when Kubrick, already the director of acclaimed films like Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, became interested in the idea of extraterrestrial life and decided he wanted to make a science fiction film.
But Kubrick wanted to make a "good" sci-fi picture, something aimed at the mind as well as the senses, which led him to collaborate on the movie with the brilliant Arthur C. Clarke, author of books like Childhood's End and recognized as one of the field's great thinkers about the future of humanity.
Using a Clarke short story called "The Sentinel" as a springboard, Kubrick and Clarke hashed out a story that would encompass all of human history, and focus on two critical junctures where the influence of beings beyond our understanding helped humankind advance to its next stage of evolution.
The story's second half focused on humankind's first manned mission to Jupiter, triggered by the discovery of the artifact on the moon — an artifact similar to one that appears to primitive humans in the film's opening "Dawn of Man" sequence — and was set almost entirely aboard the Discovery One.
As with everything in 2001, Kubrick wanted to make the vessel, which takes 18 months to reach its destination, as realistic as possible. He and his staff spent countless hours researching both U.S. and Russian plans for spacecraft, while also talking to engineers and scientists, in order to design the kind of craft that would be necessary for humanity's first interplanetary jaunt.
The result was a craft split into two sections: the forward sphere was where the crew quarters, flight control, computer and other essential operations for the mission were located, while the rear section was the ship's nuclear plasma engine. The two were separated by a long central beam consisting of other structures such as a communications array and storage tanks.
The actual length of the ship has never fully been established: while Clarke's novel (written in tandem with the screenplay) described the Discovery One as being nearly 500 feet long, the film sequel, 2010, mentions it as being 800 feet in length (the 1970 book The Making of Kubrick's 2001 says it's 700 feet long — sadly neither Kubrick nor Clarke are around to confirm its definitive length).
Inside the sphere was a giant centrifuge, kept spinning to maintain artificial gravity, housing the crew workstations, sleeping quarters, hibernation pods for three astronauts making the voyage in suspended animation, kitchen and toilet facilities, a recreation area, a bay containing three smaller vessels. Its heart was a three-story room housing the mainframe of HAL 9000, the computer that essentially ran the ship until he inexplicably began to break down and behave irrationally in the movie's third act.
One of 2001's many stunning shots was its introduction to the centrifuge: the camera follows the astronaut Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) as he jogs around its length, the giant structure and everything on it spinning above his head as he circles it like a hamster on a wheel. Kubrick built the full-size, working centrifuge on a soundstage at what was then called MGM-British Studios in Borehamwood, England. According to Vincent LoBrutto's Stanley Kubrick: A Biography, the set cost $750,000 to build, was made out of steel girders and was 38 feet in diameter, weighed 30 tons and could rotate at a maximum speed of three miles per hour.
For shots of the Discovery in space, Kubrick fortunately did not build a full-length replica of the vessel. His main model was 54 feet long from bow to stern, while the command module was six feet in diameter. For long shots, a smaller 15-foot-long model was used.
In keeping with the technological aesthetic of 2001 — if not its larger, more poetic themes — everything about the Discovery One was functional and more or less utilitarian in nature. It was based on real science, albeit science that was not necessarily being put into use yet in the real world during the mid-1960s when the movie was developed and produced.
Although the fate of the Discovery One was left unclear after HAL 9000 was shut down and sole surviving astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) left the ship — and was transported to an artificial environment where he was then transformed into a new kind of being — it made a return appearance in the book and movie 2010. That story's joint Soviet-American mission reactivates the ship and HAL, eventually using the Discovery as a giant booster rocket to escape the transformation of Jupiter into a new star by the aliens, who are intent on evolving new life forms on the gas giant's moon Europa.
As both a realistic depiction of what an interplanetary vessel might look and operate like, as well as a catalyst for humanity's incredible next steps into the future, the Discovery One remains one of the most important spacecraft in the history of filmed science fiction. Do you remember the first time you saw it head out on its voyage, and what you thought about it?