Forty-six years ago, Stanley Kubrick led sci-fi movie fans on a wild trip through space with
his 2001—A Space Odyssey movie based on the story (The Sentinel) by Arthur C. Clark
(who then rewrote it and re-issued it as 2001 in time for the movie premier). The fictional
props used in this movie and its sequel 2010—released in 1984—consisted of large rotating
space stations, interplanetary spaceships and obscure alien intelligences. At the time, Kubrick
utilized the best movie special effects that were available (little or no CGI) and it became one
of the most influential of all sci-fi films ever produced, rivaling those from George Lucas and
even J.J. Abrams.
But, reality has put some serious constraints on the viability of real Pan-Am space shuttles,
Earth-based space stations and the nuclear-powered Discovery spacecraft sent to Jupiter.
Obviously, 2001 has come and gone, and nothing to the scale or sophistication of Kubrick’s
man-rated spacecraft vision has been approached or even considered. The International Space
Station (ISS) is of course a reality at a cost of $100 billion. But, it’s degrading and has a pre-established lifetime that expires in about 2028 when its structural integrity will no longer be
sufficient to ensure safe occupancy by astronauts.
And there’s the rub—safe occupancy by astronauts. For all of the past 50 years of man
in space excursions, we have not solved the problem of being able to shield astronauts from
the hazards of space radiation. The vast majority of man in space excursions have been to
and from the ISS which is in low-Earth orbit (LEO) and still protected (for the most part)
from space radiation by the Earth’s magnetic field. LEO is considered to be between 100 and
1,200 miles above the Earth’s surface—ISS orbits at about 250 miles. Go farther than 1,200
miles “up” (while avoiding the Van Allen radiation belt), you start to encounter hazardous
space radiation and even potentially lethal radiation. The 12 astronauts who walked on the
moon and the 12 other astronauts who orbited the moon in the command module, but did
not land on the moon, all could have been exposed, but were lucky enough to travel in space
when there was minimal solar flare activity. The astronauts aboard Apollo 16 and 17 did travel
during some solar flare activity, but were not exposed.
All of these effects were not considered in the movie 2001, and they’re not even easily
explained away in the Star Trek movie series and especially during EVAs (extra-vehicular
activities) when supposedly ship-based shielding powered by the anti-matter-based engines
would no longer be available.
Solutions to this have not gone wanting for lack of effort. The National Space Biomedical
Research Institute is one of several organizations dedicated to understanding and solving this
problem. And several shielding concepts have been considered but mostly discarded as being
impractical, unworkable or ineffective. This issue is also being considered by Mars One, a
startup organization which last December selected its first round of 1,058 volunteers (from a
field of 200,000) for taking a one-way trip to Mars in the first attempt to colonize the red planet. A nine-month voyage through deep space would surely expose its occupants to some level
of harmful radiation, especially with no current shielding solution being available.
As in many movies, you would love to believe that the images of spinning wheel space stations may at some time be possible. But in the world of current technology, radiation effects
pose a severe threat. But also would it really be practical to build such a large space station that
has a relatively limited lifetime due to structural integrity issues (fatigue), micrometeorites,
atomic oxygen corrosion and who knows what else. Reality poses some real issues. And the
space ship of today is definitely not the space ship dreamed up 46 years ago.
EDI TORIAL DIREC TOR Tim Studt
MANAGING EDITOR Lindsay Hock
WEB PRODUC TION SPECIALIS T
AR T DIREC TOR Carol Kuchta