When my STS-98 crew launched into orbit on February 7, 2001—the first human space launch of the millennium—I marked the milestone by carrying with me two personal mementos of the landmark Stanly Kubrick science fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
To be sure, our space shuttle Atlantis did not have the capabilities the 1968 film predicted for spaceships of the “future.” Atlantis could not leave Earth orbit; the film’s Discovery could voyage to Jupiter. Our shuttle was a fragile, if versatile, experimental space plane; the Pan Am shuttle of the film was a passenger-carrying stiletto crewed by impeccably uniformed flight attendants. Although we were headed for a space station that day in 2001, it hardly approached the sophistication of the giant, rotating station seen in the film. About the only edge Atlantis held over 2001’s spacecraft was that our space toilet was much simpler to operate than the version portrayed in the movie.
Just follow Dr. Clarke’s prescription: ‘See the movie, read the book…repeat as often as necessary.’
While most of our space technology has not advanced at the pace portrayed in 2001, it nevertheless had an outsized impact on my interest in a space career. A Life magazine story had prepared me for some of the amazing visuals in the film, but seeing it on an 8th grade field trip to Baltimore’s Charles Theater left me breathless. I was stunned by the movie’s sweeping timeline, leaping from the origins of humanity to a 21st-century expedition to the remotest reaches of space. Hoping to capture some record of the movie’s special effects, I shot an entire roll of film during the screening with my Brownie box camera—of course, none of the shots turned out. Awed by the sleek monolith, the taciturn astronauts, and Kubrick’s dazzling mind-trip across the universe, I knew I had to become a space explorer myself.
Unable to interpret the film’s enigmatic ending, I immediately bought a paperback copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel of the same name, devouring it for clues. Later I bought the soundtrack album; eyes closed, I was soon soaring toward a space station to the strains of Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube.
Through high school and college, I watched 2001 at least 20 times, examining the cosmic scenery, the spacecraft, and the cool decisiveness of the astronauts. I was fixed on a career in aerospace—whatever future America had in space, I had to be a part of it.
Fast forward to February 2001 and my fourth shuttle mission. I wanted to mark our upcoming shuttle mission, the first of a new millennium, by bringing along something to commemorate Clarke’s story and the Kubrick film.
I pulled my hardcover copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey from the shelf. To accompany it, I searched the aisles of a local hardware store in Houston and found a dull black sharpening stone, a miniature version of the monolith which in the film repeatedly altered the fortunes of humanity. Cleared by NASA, I now had the props for a possible educational talk from space about 2001 as we pursued the trail blazed by the prophetic film.
STS-98 Atlantis and its five astronauts headed for the International Space Station (ISS) on February 7, 2001. Its 13-day mission: deliver the US laboratory module Destiny to the ISS. Installing the lab, my partner Bob Curbeam and I executed three spacewalks. Just as in Kubrick’s film, I hovered alongside a massive spacecraft as it cruised silently through the cosmos. Fortunately, I escaped any worries of a rogue HAL 9000 plotting my extravehicular demise. Just to be safe, though, we always left the airlock door open.
Rain and clouds at Kennedy Space Center delayed our return to Earth by two days. Until then, we had been too busy to break out my 2001 items in Atlantis’ cabin, but now we had a bit of free time. I was surprised to learn that Marsha Ivins, our flight engineer, had never read the 2001 novel, and she was soon spending her spare minutes afloat in Atlantis’ middeck, devouring Arthur C. Clarke’s story. She could be found deep in her reading, her stockinged feet tucked into our galley’s convection oven for warmth.
When she finished, we discussed which of 2001’s technologies had arrived and which still lay outside our grasp. We agreed that future astronauts could really use some nuclear rocket engines and routine transportation between Earth and an expansive Moon base. And we remarked that, as in the film, civilian space travelers would soon have the opportunity to visit our growing space station.
So, our 2001 journey to the ISS was a complete success. After our safe return, a mutual friend even introduced me to Clarke, who was generous enough to send me a signed book plate to insert in my copy of the novel. I emailed my thanks, but admitted I still wasn’t sure I understood the story’s ending.
Via satellite email, he messaged back: “That’s OK. Just follow Dr. Clarke’s prescription: ‘See the movie, read the book…repeat as often as necessary.’”
I’m still striving to understand 2001 and other mysteries of the universe. But I can at least take satisfaction in the fact that my book and miniature monolith—both veterans of a 2001 spaceflight—are now in the National Air and Space Museum collection. My STS-98 crewmates and I are gratified to have helped, in a small way, to recognize the importance of this landmark book and film. We look forward to seeing its expansive vision of space travel become a reality.
Dr. Tom Jones is a scientist, author, pilot, and veteran NASA astronaut. In more than 11 years with NASA, he flew on four space shuttle missions to Earth orbit.