Finding “The Lost Science” of 2001: A Space Odyssey

The film 2001: A Space Odyssey brought space science to the general masses. Today we may consider it as common place, but in 1968 when the film was released, humankind had yet to walk on the Moon. We certainly didn’t have any experience with Jupiter. Yet somehow the producer, Stanley Kubrick, successfully peered into the future and created a believable story. One of his methods was to employ Frederick I. Ordway III as his science consultant. While Ordway has since passed, he left behind a veritable treasure trove of documents detailing his work for Kubrick. Science author and engineer Adam K. Johnson got access to this trove which resulted in the book “2001: The Lost Science – The Scientist, Influences & Designs from the Frederick I. Ordway III Estate Volume 2“. It’s a wonderful summary of Ordway’s contributions and the film’s successes.

What makes a movie? A plethora of ingredients must come together. But most of all, the audience must accept it for what it proclaims to be. For instance, a science fiction show must wander about in space and/or time. And the audience has to believe the wandering. In the 1960s, the general audience had little knowledge of space and could conceivably believe in anything.

Many films used expediency over truth, such as using a gun to shoot a capsule to the Moon. However, to validate his film, Kubrick enlisted Ordway from the Future Projects Office of the Marshall Space Flight Centre. Presumably this alone would have added large amounts of veracity, but Ordway took on the challenge as we see in Johnson’s book and pushed further.


Ordway interviewed many scientists and engineers. Many of these came to the set to provide advice. Ordway acquired drawings as well as made his own schematics. He went to industry, academia and governments. Johnson skillfully brings this all to light. How did the results mesh with this effort? That is the value of Johnson’s book. It gives credit to the breadth and depth of Ordway’s research.

The book’s first section identifies the knowledge sources; people like Willy Ley, books such as Beyond Tomorrow The Next 50 Years in Space, and organizations such as Boeing and its PARSEC project. It identifies the individuals who came to the filming sets to give advice and has many images of the sets as well.

The second section gives credit to preceding films, though it’s not certain from Johnson’s book as to how or if Ordway drew inspiration from them.

Its third and final section is probably the most fun as it provides many figures of the mock-ups, drawings and schematics. It includes a great full page image of Space Station V and a four page pullout section of Discovery X-Ray Delta One. There’s also an interesting note therein that indicates that the sets and props had to be thoroughly believable from every perspective, as they didn’t know where Kubrick may place the camera. Thus, the book gives the reader a taste of the fine detail for some graphics such as for the Moon Bus. With Johnson presenting all this from Ordway’s collection then it’s easy for the reader to understand why there’s a high sense of believability to the film.

Yes, Johnson’s book shows the amount of knowledge that was available in the early 1960s and that Ordway gained access to much of this information. The very large size of this book, about 11in by 14.5in helps show off many great images throughout. However, its size also suggests the style of the book; that is, it is a scrapbook. The book is a wonderful compendium of information relevant to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it doesn’t add to the knowledge base. It’s an excellent repackaging of existing material with only a little suggestive comments on cinematic technique that might be original. And, as with most scrapbooks, the value of this book is the images. While the text is informative, it’s also somewhat dry, so the reader will probably feel much greater reward from feasting on the many print reproductions, drawings and photographs within Johnson’s book.

Perhaps the greatest value of this book is what goes unstated. That is, with enough effort and research people can construct a likely overview of humankind’s progress into the near future.  A future than can be thrilling. The book “2001: The Lost Science – The Scientists, Influences & Designs from the Frederick I. Ordway III Estate Volume 2” by Adam K. Johnson captures some of the excitement and thrill as humankind lay poised upon the edges of travelling into space. Reading it will give you pause at just how far we’ve progressed in the last 50 years. And perhaps get you thinking about what the films of today might be telling us about the next 50 years.

11 Replies to “Finding “The Lost Science” of 2001: A Space Odyssey”

  1. “with enough effort and research people can construct a likely overview of humankind’s progress into the near future.”

    Maybe it was easier before. Now, even the near future (couple of tens of years) is pretty darn uncertain and almost impossible to predict.

    1. 2001 was wrong as well in what you perceive as right or wrong.
      the actual year 2001 came and went and it did not look much like 2001, as a new calibration reference for your “right/wrong” compass. :envy:

  2. “The Lost Snore” is a far better description of 2001. The critics were right the first time. It made little sense, was too long, and maybe once or twice did any of the actors actually change a facial or tonal expression. Kubrick never understood at least 2 things; humanity or acting.

  3. “The Lost Snore” is wrong.
    Kubrick understood what type of people would be sent on such a mission.
    Please remember that the film was not an action thriller oriented towards an audience of young males that have just reached puberty.

    1. You can make a good movie that isn’t as mind-numbingly boring as 2001 A Space Odyssey and also isn’t the explosion-fest Marvel movie of the week. GunnyBob is right, 2001 was almost unbearable to watch.

      Granted, I tried again with a cheat sheet/cliffnotes and that made things more entertaining, once I knew what to look for and not fall asleep. Kubrick knew how to make good movies (most of the time), and 2001 was certainly as heady and dense as many of his others. But to this day, nothing puts me to sleep faster.

  4. * Pan-Am Space Clipper – did not happen.
    .. Pan Am actually went out of business.

    * The Orbital Space Station.
    .. Not even semi-sorta-kinda-maybe happened.

    * Moon Base(s)
    .. Nope. Again – not even semi-sorta-kinda-maybe close.

    * The Moon Bus.
    .. Again, not even close.

    * The Discovery, well that was a pipe-dream.
    * Hal-9000 Computer. Again, not even close.

    Then we got 2010: A Space Odd.
    … Again, none of that was even close.

    Don’t get me wrong – GREAT MOVIES – but sadly – even “Back To The Future”, did not even get things right.

  5. The concept that artificial gravity can only be produced by a huge, costly spaceship like in 2001 in the shape of a circle is frozen into the minds of many. It is this shape which results in NASA concluding that it can’t be done. For a Mars mission just try to think outside the box: How about two sections of the ship separated by a thousand feet of reliable tethers? How about a smaller version that the astronauts can enter for 2 hrs per day to keep their bone mass high? I’m sure people can come up with several other ideas to debate. How about thinking outside the box? Is that allowed at NASA?

  6. Arthur C. Clark wrote the original premise for this film.. Yes, he was right about geosynchronous orbits and yes, he was wrong about how advanced we would be thirty years down the road. Now if P. Nixon hadn’t gutted the space shuttle program and if congress had gotten it’s head out of the sand, we might have been MUCH further along? Then again, how much money did we spend in Viet Nam instead of space exploration?

    1. Actually, Nixon freed up money for the Space Shuttle Program. However, he did that by cancelling the proposed establishment of a Moon base and a mission to Mars.

      1. Sorry.. you are wrong. The initial shuttle design included a ‘fly back’ first stage booster and other enhancements which, due to the Nixon administration cuts were eliminated from the design. HAD the original design gone through, we would have had a MUCH more robust and safer shuttle… period.

      2. No, you said he “gutted” the Space Shuttle program. This is simply not true. He not only presided over its creation, but the debate over which design to use was something that was worked out in advance by all parties in order to optimize capability with cost. The end result was the Space Shuttle design we know and went with, which has set the tone for sustainable space exploration since. As much as I hate Nixon, his administration’s focus on reusability was the right choice in the long run.

        Here’s a good perspective on that:

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