giovedì 16 maggio 2013

2001: The lost science (book review and interview)

Never, in the history of cinema, a movie has been discussed, analyzed, scrutinized more than 2001; dozens of books have been published about it the past decades... so who would have guessed there's still such a wealth of stuff to be revealed regarding Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece?

Enter Adam Johnson, aerospace engineer and consultant for the U .S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. After years of research he published last year, through Apogee Prime, the book 2001: the Lost Science, which is for the fan of  the technical side of 2001 the equivalent of a chest full of jewels found in the backyard.

Hunstville is the site where the U.S. military installed Wernher Von Braun after the end of World War II, and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center is one of the most important museums about space exploration. The Center hosts since 1989 the collection of documents and archives of Frederick I. Ordway III, the main scientific consultant of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Adam Johnson has worked for two years cataloguing and organizing the donation, helping the museum staff to identify the materials from the movie 2001 from the rest of the collection, and became friend of the scientist.

Kubrick and Fred Ordway on the '2001' set (source)
Copyright Ordway Collection at U.S.Space & Rocket Center.

Johnson was kind enough to answer the questions that I sent him, telling us some insights about the making of the book and the movie.

"I first saw the film in 1970" recalls Johnson, "projected in the awesome 70mm format. I was very young, but the spacecraft got me into modelling very quickly. also, i though the film was a documentary. It was (and still is) extremely hyper-realistic. I knew then I wanted to work in space sciences." Johnson is in fact famous in the modelling community for its highly realistic and detailed models, which can be seen here

"I proposed the idea to the USSRC when i realized that i had stumbled on a 'gold-mine' of informaton that i felt needed to be made public. It took 2 years of correspondance to seal the rights to reproduce the collection. The book took many forms, until i decided to just release it as a document of the scientific work Fred researched for Kubrick, rather than a book full of opinions - which is primarily what had been published up to this time. The book, like the film, can be interpreted in many ways. Nevertheless, it is simply a document of a piece of history."

The book is quite unique and different from the others previously dedicated to '2001': 112 large-sized (15" x 12") pages full of pictures, in color and black and white. 

The first part of the book is dedicated mainly to the models used by Kubrick to shoot the scenes in space, so there are many photos of the models of Orion III shuttle, space shuttle moon Aries IB, the space station, the moon base of Clavius, as well as the absolutely - and surprising - new pictures of the orbiting satellites that can be seen in the first scenes in space in the movie. 

Some of these satellites do not appear in the final cut of the movie: Johnson himself points out that "All the 'probes' and 'bombs' were constructed based on early versions of the script.  These early versions manifested themselves in the book 'The lost worlds of 2001', where Arthur C.Clarke published some of these scripts." In some of the sub-plots imagined by Clarke (we're talking about 1964-65), we get to know the background of the astronauts of Discovery: some of them were veterans of missions in orbit around Venus or on Mars. But all of that was discarded in the final version of the movie, although a picture in the book suggests that at least a Venus probe has been properly lit and shoot. (The shooting with the actors started in December 1965 but the shooting of the models we see in the movie only started at the end of '66)

Another model never used in the film but featured in the book is the Titov V, the Soviet equivalent of the shuttle 'Orion' Pan-Am: Johnson recalls that "The Titov model was only 3/4 complete when it was put on the deck of the Space Station. Kubrick wanted it there as 'fill'. Also, the prototype 18" wood Orion model sits there." In Johnson's blog we see some close-ups of his reproduction of the Titov.

The Hilton office in the Space Station: the Titov V is the large white model on the right. (source)

In another previously unreleased picture we finally see how the shuttle Orion could achieve the orbit: using a piloted winged booster, unlike the real space shuttle (that used an unmanned tank and a couple of boosters). This "piggy-back" design was actually considered by NASA in the early '70s, but later discarded in favour of the cheaper tank/booster design. Johnson explains that the similarities are not fortuitos: "Many drawing concepts and models for the space program were built at the USSRC in the late fifties and early sixties. These served as inspiration to Harry Lange and Anthony Masters, technical designers in 2001, for the Orion and Titov designs".

Most of the book is devoted to the Discovery I, the ship carrying astronauts to Jupiter, which we see in all aspects of design and construction (including, at last, showers and toilets, that had to be somewhere!) the pictures are accompanied by captions and original statements of Ordway, which again according to Adam Johnson "is a very cheerful and nice guy.  I am impressed that he still finds '2001' the best part of his life, and enjoys talking about his experiences. I am honored to continue his legacy."

the building of the Discovery model

Another aspect that struck me was the presence of the Honeywell company logo on much of the equipment used in the film. Unlike other brands, which repeatedly show up in the final movie (IBM, Pan-Am, Hilton, Howard Johnson's) Honeywell, which was also one of the suppliers in the NASA Apollo program, never appears in the final film. In this regard Johnson recalls that "Yes, Ordway asked Honeywell, IBM, Schlumberger etc. to consult for the film, but they only got publicity in exchange. It was Kubrick that decided where the camera, in the end, should go. If the logo didn't end up in the movie, then too bad!"

The single most impressive aspect of the book is Johnson's spectacular restauration of the blueprints of the blueprints of the spaceships depcted in the movie, depicted in the best detail ever. They look brand new, in pristine condition, like they were composed yesterday. "Yes, the drawings and blueprints were about 1 year of work. I still have about 50 more to restore and publish. I will continue to do it, along with the rest of the  scientific work proposed for the film, as I get it done. Most pictures were left out either because they were not relative to the 'science' of the film, or they were copyrighted to another party. Two more books are in process right now - one of them i am co-author (sort-of), but I can't give you details yet"."

the spectactular restoration of the original blueprints

Finally, many of you may have noticed how, in the shuttle 'Aries' bringing Dr. Floyd from the space station to the Moon, the hostess makes a 180° turn to reach the cockpit ... a cockpit that, from the outside shots, seems to be located at 90° to the passenger deck, in which Floyd eats, sleeps and is visited by the commander played by Ed Bishop.


pictures from Agostino Ambrosio's blog

Johnson confirms that the scene has been designed that way on purpose: "The set with the Whirlpool kitchen and the circular 'walkaround' was designed for WOW factor. Kubrick didn't care if it was consistent with drawing details. Masters and Ordway originally intended it to be under the passenger deck, with the entrance to the ship." I see this as a confirmation of Kubrick's pragmatic attitude to reach compromises between the extreme realism goal he set for the movie and the spectacular appeal that a shot could have for the general audience.

For more details about the book (I didn't even tell that a nice DVD is enclosed with the first edition, with a nice documentary 2001: The Science of Futures Past by award winning film maker Michael Lennick, and a lenghty slideshot with some beautiful pictures shot in Africa by Andrew Birkin during the research for the 'Dawn of men' sequences) I encourage you to give a look at these fine blogs for more about the book:,, the forum Also, a video review is available on youtube.

This book deserves to be in the shelf of the 2001 aficionado, along with Bizony's Filming the Future and Richter's Moonwatcher's Memoir. I'd like to thank Adam Johnson for taking so much time discussing the movie and the book with me, and above all for his pivotal role in making the Ordway Collection available to the readers. I encourage all the movie buffs to buy the book from Apogee Prime's web site.

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