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in 1968 Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke created 2001: A Space Odyssey.

enter image description here

The interplanetary spacecraft, Discovery One, was considered scientifically feasible at the time. The design included in-orbit assembly, nuclear thermal propulsion, centrifugal synthetic gravity, artificial intelligence, suspended animation and pod-type EVA vehicles.

There was no warp drive, teleportation, photon torpedos, rubber masked biped aliens or artificial gravity.

A half century later, is there anything about Discovery One which seems outlandish? What would be done differently if an interplanetary ship was designed with present-day knowledge and technology?

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    $\begingroup$ I'm no expert, but I think I spotted a couple of issues with their shipboard AI. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Dec 3, 2022 at 6:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Cadence Why, whatever do you mean, Dave? The HAL 9000 has a perfect operational record. $\endgroup$
    – Woody
    Dec 3, 2022 at 6:54
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    $\begingroup$ They have 11" iPad. That aged very well $\endgroup$
    – Candid Moe
    Dec 3, 2022 at 18:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Steve ... right. "Gravity" was only supposed to be present in the centrifuge portion, and velcro shoes use everywhere else. Hard to make zero-g for the pod bay filming. But they did convincing zero-g for the "breathing space" scene and inside the computer room. $\endgroup$
    – Woody
    Dec 4, 2022 at 1:06
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    $\begingroup$ It was originally supposed to have huge radiator fins at the aft end, but these were removed at some point before production. A real nuclear thermal design would need those. $\endgroup$
    – N. Virgo
    Dec 4, 2022 at 22:38

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Considering that the film was made before humankind first set foot on the Moon it is a fictional technological triumph and if you create something like that it should age well. And it has aged far better than most.

But as with any film there are a number of things which were specifically included for the purpose of the plot which are simply not the way things would be done.

The pod bay is not a practical spacecraft design. Why is it necessary to rotate the pods inside the bay? why are the pods inside the ship and not docked with it? why have a design that requires such a vast airlock to be pressure cycled every time anyone wants to use a pod?

A lot of the equipment in that long thin ship might be better arranged as additional radiation protection around the central crew habitation area.

The computer room hasn't aged well.

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    $\begingroup$ Good point about external docking for the pods. I read the long thin design was chosen to distance crew area from that big bad reactor. The ship was assembled in space so length is cheap, but mass is not. Originally the design also had huge radiators along the length. Kubrik nixed them cause they "looked like wings". $\endgroup$
    – Woody
    Dec 3, 2022 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ Yes you are probably right about why the long design was chosen, there is a definite logic to it, although given where they were going a human constructed reactor would be the least of their worries. Good point about radiators they would be needed, would be large and might look a bit odd so got the chop. Probably few people notice their omission but giant "wings" would have created all manner of confusion to the general public. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Dec 3, 2022 at 16:47
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    $\begingroup$ Clarke's description in the book had radiators sticking out the sides so the ship looked like a big dragonfly. Kubrik was concerned viewers would think the ship was designed to fly in an atmosphere. $\endgroup$
    – Woody
    Dec 3, 2022 at 16:55
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    $\begingroup$ re: "the computer room hasn't aged well" - given space exploration still uses fairly large computer components due to radiation concerns, a large computer room seems fairly likely. $\endgroup$ Dec 3, 2022 at 21:40
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    $\begingroup$ re: "the computer room hasn't aged well". It looks quite ok to me. Unlike Alien's Nostromo computer room. $\endgroup$
    – Florian F
    Dec 4, 2022 at 18:14
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Possibly the least plausible part of the design today is the suspended animation. While some progress has been made, long-term suspended animation of humans is still strictly science fiction.

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  • $\begingroup$ well, back then nobody knew it was even theoretically possible, now we at least know that much :) $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Dec 6, 2022 at 7:25
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Some skepticism about HAL9000 has been brought up by comments and other answers, but I think that creating a system like HAL9000 would be possible today (although it would look very different on a hardware level). This is because HAL is never explicitly stated to be sapient, only that it can pass Turing-test-esque testing.

Specifically, HAL9000 is shown using these capabilities:

  • speech: Reasonably easy to do. Modern speech synthesis is indistinguishable from human speech excepting edge use cases and scenarios
  • speech recognition: Doable. Modern speech recognition can live-transcribe at very high (exceeding human) accuracy, especially if "primed" on technical vocabulary that may come up
  • facial recognition: Trivial for computers
  • natural language processing: This one is a bit tricky, but modern NLP is good enough to pass Turing tests, so an AI that speaks and answers questions reasonably isn't unrealistic
  • lip reading: Lip reading AI is already better at doing so than average real people, and I suspect that a properly "primed" AI could do this with a high degree of confidence.
  • art appreciation: A bit trickier, but recent advances like Stable Diffusion not only allow an AI to create art, but also classify and grade art, identify emotions in the art, etc. (although it does not "feel" these).
  • interpreting emotional behaviors: Modern text analysis software can already (trivially) extract a general sentiment from written words, and combining this with the speech recognition and face recognition, I think we could make the AI rather decent at identifying and categorizing emotions. The AI wouldn't need to know what being "happy" means, but can definitly pot the photo of a happy person into the "happy" bin.
  • automated reasoning: This is a bit trickier because it is so nebulous, although I believe still possible to some extent. Especially a purpose-built AI, created at enormous costs for a clearly defined use case could definitely "reason" to some degree of the term.
  • spacecraft piloting: Trivial for computers
  • playing chess: Not trivial, but a mostly solved problem for computers

HAL9000 is often portrayed as being a villain and painted as evil--particularly in the movie--but in the book, it is explained this perceived "evilness" comes from conflicting orders and poor programming. The first of these orders is to relay information accurately, while the second is explicitly to lie to the crew members about the true purpose of the mission. When these two command imperatives conflict, aberrant behavior occurs, and I don't think that this is unrealistic. HAL then "decides" that it doesn't need to lie to the crew members if they are dead (which is true), so that's why it decides to get rid of them by killing them.

In my opinion, the blame for HAL's failure lies squarely on the programmers or those who configured the system that resulted in conflicting priorities and apparently not prioritizing crew being kept alive.

The big question about feasibility of creating a HAL9000-esque system is "Can the AI perform the reasoning step of 'I don't need to lie if all the crew are dead'?" and I'd give it a 50/50 shot considering today's cutting edge AI research.

All that said, I don't think such an AI is a good idea for integrating with fundamental spacecraft systems. Most, if not all, functions of a spacecraft can be programmed in a robust, deterministic fashion which can mathematically be proven to be "bug free" as piloting and operating a spacecraft is surprisingly simple for a computer compared to something like speech recognition.

I suspect the only "AI" we will see in spacecraft in the near future are discrete trained and "baked" neural models that are capable of performing extremely specific constrained tasks where perfect accuracy is not required.

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    $\begingroup$ I find it interesting that many aspects of technology are closer to 1960s science fiction than to more realisitc predictions made 25 years ago. Many things that people in the 1990s would have thought impossible have in fact come to pass. $\endgroup$
    – supercat
    Dec 5, 2022 at 8:25
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A sphere is entirely the wrong shape for centrifugal gravity. In order to maximize the usable floor space, you want to have a cylindrical shape running in the same direction as the axis of rotation.

There are basically two options for how to spin a ship such as the Discovery to generate gravity. One is the one we're all familiar with: roll around its primary axis. Discovery is probably too small for this to be practical, however. Because the distance between the axis of rotation and the outer hull is so short (I would estimate probably no more than 10-20m based on the prop shown above) you would have to spin it quite quickly to generate useful amounts of gravity. High rates of rotation cause very noticeable Coriolis effects that lead to disorientation. (You can see a brief overview of the subject, and a useful calculator for speed vs. radius vs. artificial gravity output, here.)

The other option is to pitch relative to the ship's path of travel, spinning "end over end". This requires that the two lobes of the ship have roughly equal mass, but since you've put the heavy nuclear reactor at one end and the heavy life support equipment at the other, that's probably not too burdensome. And because the crew section is quite a bit further from the axis of rotation in this configuration, it's easy to generate plenty of gravity with a relatively sedate rotation speed. The issue is, the direction we're used to thinking of as "forward" becomes "down" - the nice panoramic picture window and the pod bay doors on the shooting model would be on the floor!

While using centrifugal gravity is a nod towards realism, ultimately the design of the Discovery wouldn't be very practical for it.

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  • $\begingroup$ From Wikipedia: "The ship's carousel (12.2 meter diameter) is a spinning band of deck, mounted inside the crew compartment, using centrifugal force to simulate the effects of gravity and is the primary living and work area ... The carousel provides Moon-level gravity rotating at just over 5 rpm." $\endgroup$
    – Woody
    Dec 3, 2022 at 22:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Woody Even assuming you wanted lunar gravity in the first place (which seems doubtful to me, but the health effects of mid-level gravity does seem like an unexplored area), that would be a terrible setup. The radius is too short, so you'll have much stronger gravity at your feet than your head, and rotational speed is much too high to keep oriented. Especially if you're moving between rotating and non-rotating environments, preventing you from acclimating to either. $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Dec 3, 2022 at 23:50
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    $\begingroup$ Note that rotation around the long axis is not stable. The ship would start to wobble and require active corrections. Early satellites have been lost because of this. $\endgroup$
    – Florian F
    Dec 4, 2022 at 18:18
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A retractable version of the spinning ship appears in Andy Weir's Project Hail Mary book.

While ~~cruising~~ accelerating at 1.5g for almost four years the ship looked like a normal space ship. When it got to its destination the engines section is separated from the lab and crew section using a set of cables and start rotating around the center of gravity to create artificial gravity.

This thread shows some animation of how it works and the book contains some calculations about the details.

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    $\begingroup$ Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center. $\endgroup$
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    Dec 5, 2022 at 10:29

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