It must also be remembered that 2001 was written in an age that now lies beyond one of the Great Divides in human history; we are sundered from it forever by the moment when Neil Armstrong set foot upon the Moon. July 20, 1969, was still half a decade in the future when Stanley Kubrick and I started thinking about the „proverbial good science fiction movie” (his phrase). Now history and fiction have become inextricably intertwined.
The Apollo astronauts had already seen the film when they left for the Moon. The crew of Apollo 8, who at Christmas 1968 became the first men ever to set eyes upon the lunar Farside, told me that they had been tempted to radio back the discovery of a large, black monolith: alas, discretion prevailed…
And there were later, almost uncanny, instances of nature imitating art. Strangest of all was the saga of Apollo 13 in 1970.
As a good opening, the Command Module, which houses the crew, had been christened Odyssey. Just before the explosion of the oxygen tank which caused the mission to be aborted, the crew had been playing Richard Strauss' Zarathustra theme, now universally identified with the movie. Immediately after the loss of power, Jack Swigert radioed back to Mission Control: „Houston, we've had a problem.” The words that Hal used to Frank Poole on a similar occasion were: „Sorry to interrupt the festivities, but we have a problem.”
When the report of the Apollo 13 mission was later published, NASA Administrator Tom Paine sent me a copy and noted under Swigert's words: „Just as you always said it would be, Arthur.” I still get a very strange feeling when I contemplate this whole series of events – almost, indeed, as if I share a certain responsibility…
Another resonance is less serious, but equally striking. One of the most technically brilliant sequences in the movie was that in which astronaut Frank Poole was shown running round and round the circular track of the giant centrifuge, held in place by the „artificial gravity” produced by its spin.
Almost a decade later, the crew of the superbly successful Skylab realized that its designers had provided them with a similar geometry; a ring of storage cabinets formed a smooth, circular band around the space station's interior. Skylab, however, was not spinning, but this did not deter its ingenious occupants. They discovered that they could run around the track, just like mice in a squirrel cage, to produce a result visually indistinguishable from that shown in 2001. And they televised the whole exercise back to Earth (need I name the accompanying music?) with the comment: „Stanley Kubrick should see this.” As in due course he did, because I sent him the telecine recording. (I never got it back; Stanley uses a tame Black Hole as a filing system.)
There is also the strange case of the „Eye of Japetus,” described in Chapter 35, where Bowman discovers „a brilliant white oval… so sharp-edged that it almost looked… painted on the face of the little moon” with a tiny black dot at the exact center, which turns out to be the Monolith (or one of its avatars).
Well – when Voyager 1 took the first photographs of Iapetus, they did indeed disclose a large, clearcut white oval with a tiny black dot at the center. Carl Sagan promptly sent me a print from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with the cryptic annotation „Thinking of you…” I do not know whether to be relieved or disappointed that Voyager 2 has left the matter still open.