2001: A Space Rotation: an article by GF Willmetts (feature).

A lot of the articles I write often start from seeing a problem and then seeing how I can resolve it within the reality without bringing in anything not already presented. Occasionally, there is a revelation. Sometimes, two. This one falls under the latter and something in its current state that shows why it won’t work and it’s out of my hands. I thought originally that I would be resolving this particular problem by applying some mathematics to back up my theory but the practicability of knowledge works against it. The more I analysed the problem, the more I realised that there was still something else wrong. In a true scientific approach, I’ll guide you through the problem and see if you see the same logic.

A couple months ago, I was looking at the early ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ poster by Robert McCall showing the Orion shuttle leaving the space wheel satellite. A scene incidentally that isn’t actually in the film. Considering the replacement one was that of the Star Child in its re-release in 1972, it’s pretty obvious that producer/director Stanley Kubrick wasn’t that involved in the choices or he had to let the studio do the promoting. Checking Piers Bizony’s book ‘2001: Filming The Future’, another McCall illustration shows the Aries III blasting off from the Moon which tends to make me think that there was a need to show the spacecraft were doing something than just be static objects. After all, without any exhaust, they’d just be floating there. Good for reality but rather unsettling for a movie poster and cinema-goers understood rockets blasting.

2001-a-space-odyssey-p1          2001-a-space-odyssey-p2

McCall’s poster wasn’t the only selection. Bizony’s book shows three other choices he painted: looking down on Clavius Base, inside the Discovery centrifuge and even Bowman’s pod leaving Discovery in pursuit of Poole. It’s a tough call finding something to symbolise the film. The man-apes? Not spacey enough. The space station/Orion ballet? Lacks motion in a picture. The Moon Monolith discovery? Very placid McCall tried that. The Jupiter mission? HAL-9000? The Trip? These two were used. The revelation at the end? They’d all been done, apart from the man-apes, and would only make sense to those who’ve seen the film as to their relevance. The last ultimately confused everything back then. McCall illustrated them all and the studio made the final decision and ultimately, still used the Star Child photo. Looking at Google, there are a lot of choices since, all taking choices from the examples chosen. Even so, this poster made me think which is where the problem lies.


You might think it’s just the Orion blasting off but as the space wheel is rotating, then the shuttle will also be rotating, just as it did as it landed. Granted that can’t be portrayed in the painting but that was my first revelation because if the Orion left rotating, than so does the Aries III moon shuttle. Although I doubt it would make much difference to the crew and passengers as it would be relative to the wheel rotation and give them some semblance of gravity, there would still be a need for noting what effect it would have on the launch. Would there be any fuel conservation by being spun off a rotating object? If you want the maths for that, look up angular momentum and how much work can be taken from it. The formulas are below although I found I didn’t actually need to apply them.


Looks nifty but a bit impractical because the numbers would be low. From all checks, the space wheel is actually in Earth orbit at something just over 200 miles high. A little higher than the International Space Station. No matter the working angular momentum, to leave Earth orbit, you still need an escape velocity of some 25,000 mph and you would still need to trade off spinning off Earth’s orbit like the old Saturn V launches that went to the Moon to accompany that. Therefore, there is no real gain from the space wheel’s own orbital spin and the associated spin of the Aries. You could try releasing the Aries from the edge of the wheel to get maximum push and it still wouldn’t be enough to beat the Earth’s mass drawing it back. Even so, you would still have to wait for the right conjecture window to leave for the Moon but that would be the same no matter the shape of the space station. In fact, it would make more sense to release the Aries towards the Earth for the slingshot that away from it.

Incidentally, in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, the space station was not a rotating twin wheel but more akin to something like the traditional space stations only larger but we’ve seen from the likes of Skylab, MIR and the aforementioned International Space Station. Both the Orion and Ares had parking orbits to the station. Not quite the same problem as raised by the film and can’t be used for information.

It’s a shame that we never see the Aries III actually take-off, especially when its landing gear would make it somewhat impossible to launch vertically off the space wheel. Not only would it be launched towards the Earth but with the flight crew being at the tip, so to speak, that it would have to be launched horizontally and presumably make a similar manoeuvre when returning to the space wheel. To show all the detail would have increased the length of the film and the special effects budget when it wasn’t needed. The point of the scenes was to show the length of the trip and a Moon landing before it was achieved in real life. Going to the Moon on the Aries would be more a roller-coaster than a ballet. When you consider that Kubrick was filming in 1966 and took two years to complete, it was still a revelation that beat the Apollo 11 by a year.


It’s also an interesting point of reference that the Aries III and the USS Discovery share a similar spherical living quarters chassis although I suspect this might have been from economic as well as a need to use a known habitat quickly for an early launch to Jupiter. It’s a shame that we never see the Discovery II in ‘2010’ and see what differences were being made in the construction.

Whether we would have such an elaborate landing dock as Clavius Bas is debatable. The retraction of the hemisphere portions today would be seen as an expensive option when it would be simpler to just land on a base similar to the landing base that the Moon Bus used to the Tycho excavation only a little larger. The Aries certainly wouldn’t have needed an elaborate launch pad to take off again. If there was thought to be a danger to Clavius Base then having it further from habitation would make more sense and still offer an airlock without needing to getting into a spacesuit.

Anyway, back to the space wheel construction. There have been various indications that the wheel rotates twice a minute to achieve a third of Earth gravity although this would only be achieved furthest from the hub where wouldn’t really be much need to rotate. Indeed, it would even be possible for the central hub not to rotate. It would certainly make landing and leaving easier but then, Kubrick wouldn’t have his shuttle ballet without it. When I was studying the film footage, see above, if you haven’t watched it yet, the Orion manoeuvring towards the wheel hub in an anti-clockwise direction, when it is seen from the space station, it is moving in a clockwise direction. Obviously this is a filming error but if you can think of it being created, whoever was responsible would have thought that because it was seen from the opposite perspective then the movement would be opposite rather than anti-clockwise. Incidentally, if you don’t want to be seasick or rather spacesick on a revolving space station, having it spin anti-clockwise is the way to go and takes into account the Coriolis effect and prevents nausea walking diagonally across it. The small centrifuge in the Aries used by the hostess does a similar thing. It’s a little difficult to determine if this is true of the Discovery’s centrifuge as we only see it from the inside.


In its current design, the space wheel is literally a docking station. There is no gain for either the Orion or Aries using it as a slingshot. Indeed, fuel has to be spent to neutralise the spin when leaving. What is really a shame is that there is no sign of the Orion’s thrusters being used as it approached the space wheel in the film but then the same could be said for the Discovery space-pods. This doesn’t mean it was ignored in the film but recording the special effects actually made that impossible as to give a sense of size and mass, the models were filmed at a slow speed and any gas or powder release to signify thrusters wouldn’t have stayed for long nor repeatable and doing it in close-up wouldn’t have served the purpose. The only time it was used was in the Aries touchdown in Clavius Base.


In that respect, my original theory is impractical and can’t even be applied to our present reality. If you were intending to build a spacecraft to go to Mars, you would park but not dock it to the International Space Station, assuming it was large enough. A manned Mars spacecraft would be many times larger than the current ISS and if it was built completely in orbit would never be docked that way. The same no doubt would have applied to both the USS Discovery and the later CCCP Leonov in ‘2010’. They would be built in Earth orbit as being closer to supplies there that the Moon couldn’t offer.

Just as a practical comparison with what we know fifty years down the line. If the space wheel was created today then the hub would not be rotating. This would be done by a couple of different methods. The easiest would be something akin to the centrifuge on the Discovery and would be literally in free-fall which the rest of it was rotating. If that sounds complicated, then a counter-spin could also ensure then hub stayed stable and not moving. It would make any arriving or departing spacecraft a lot easier. It might not make the film ‘2001’ a better film but it would be a way around the problem and cut some viewing time down.

Considering the parallels to the space shuttle, the Orion isn’t a bad match. The Aries is a different matter. The onion or bulb shape just doesn’t look like it can take off from the space wheel which means a different design would be needed. Certainly the landing dock on Clavius Base would be less complicated.

Even so, despite Kubrick wanting a realistic Science Fiction film, I doubt if he would have anticipated as close as an examination as people like myself would give it today. When I first watched it, I was more concerned about the spacious landing bay at Clavius. These days, I look more intently at the spectacular space ballet.

So the revelations? Although both the Orion or the Ares would be spinning as they leave the space wheel, neither would gain anything from it. The Aries lift-off from the space wheel would certainly be the more spectacular.


© GF Willmetts 2013

Other than information gleaned from the film that is.

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My thanks to Rod MacDonald for suggesting I ought to include more photos


Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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