Which Way Does Space Station V Rotate?

Space Station V from 2001 A Space Odyssey

The “Phenomena” posts have been a little tied up with abstruse orbital mechanics and obscure revisions to lists of Scottish hills, of late, so I thought it might be time for a break from all that.

So this post is about something superficially trivial in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which has mildly annoyed me for the last fifty years.

People seem to particularly like compiling lists of mistakes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, presumably because it’s a classic film with pretensions to scientific accuracy, made by a famously exacting director advised by a famously knowledgeable science-fiction author. Who wouldn’t want to pick holes in that?

There are mistakes that are genuine scientific errors—I’ve written before about the dire physiological consequences that would have ensued if the Dave Bowman character had really tried to hold his breath when explosively decompressed. (Arthur C. Clarke later said that he would have advised against that, if he’d been present during the filming.) And there are mistakes that are simply technical malfunctions—like the glimpse of Bowman’s bare wrist we get when his spacesuit glove comes away from his spacesuit sleeve. And then there are “mistakes” which are self-evidently artistic decisions to step away from strict accuracy—the various planetary and solar alignments that herald great events, for instance, are clearly inconsistent with the astronomical positions of these bodies in previous scenes.

Finally, there are the continuity glitches, of which there are strikingly many in 2001, given what a notorious perfectionist Stanley Kubrick was.

So here’s the one that first caught my attention, when I watched the film from the front row of the top balcony of the Victoria cinema, back in 1970.

There are eight shots in which the giant wheel-shaped space station, Space Station V, appears in the film. I do love this thing, to the extent I’ve built a model of it. It rotates in order to generate “centrifugal gravity” at its rim, and it consists of two rings, one complete and one under construction. The docking port at the hub of the completed side is internally lit with white lights, while the inactive docking port on the other side is lit in warning red. So if we imagine approaching the station towards its active, white-lit hub (as the Orion III space shuttle in the film does), then we can state unambiguously whether it rotates clockwise or counterclockwise as seen from that vantage point.

When we first see it, twenty minutes in, to the accompaniment of Strauss’s Blue Danube waltz, it is rotating clockwise, by that definition:

Rotation state of Space Station V, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Scene 1
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I’ve marked the picture above with an arrow to indicate the rotation direction, and have noted the timing of the shot, in minutes and seconds, on my old “Deluxe Collector Set” DVD, from which I’ve made these muddy screengrabs.*

Then we get a series of shots involving the Orion III spaceplane on its way to the station, before seeing the station in the distance, with the approaching Orion III in the foreground and the moon beyond. Still clockwise.

Rotation state of Space Station V, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Scene 2
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Next shot, another hero shot of the space station, with the pursuing Orion III appearing later. This is the point at which, back in 1970, I said (rather loudly, I’m told), “Hang on a minute!” The station is now rotating anticlockwise.

Rotation state of Space Station V, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Scene 3
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Then a view from inside the cockpit of the Orion III. Still anticlockwise.

Rotation state of Space Station V, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Scene 4
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There follows a brief view of the instrument panel, in which a wire-frame model of the docking port continues the anticlockwise rotation, and then in the next shot we’re inside the station hub looking outwards. The stars outside are moving in clockwise circles, implying the station is rotating anticlockwise as viewed from inside, and therefore (dammit) clockwise when viewed from our stipulated vantage point.

Rotation state of Space Station V, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Scene 5
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Next shot, and we’re outside again, watching the spaceplane synchronize its rotation with the docking port. Anticlockwise again.

Rotation state of Space Station V, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Scene 6
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Then a view from the Orion III cockpit, now synchronized with the docking port ahead. The stars sweep past in clockwise circles beyond the station, so the station (and spaceplane) are rotating anticlockwise.

Rotation state of Space Station V, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Scene 7
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And this anticlockwise rotation is maintained in the final approach shot.

Rotation state of Space Station V, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Scene 8
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So that’s just a minor curiosity—there are many worse errors in many other films, after all.

Except …

Once you start noticing this stuff, you keep on noticing it. 2001 is positively stuffed with left/right switches, as well as odd 90-degree anomalies. Another gross example occurs when we see the Earth, low on the Moon’s horizon. (This is another of those occasion on which artistry has overruled scientific accuracy—the Moon would be higher in the sky as seen from Clavius and Tycho, where the action takes place.)

As the Aries 1B shuttle approaches the Moon, we see the Earth illuminated from the right. But when we see a shot of several astronauts watching the shuttle’s approach, the illuminated portion faces left. Back to the shuttle, and it’s shifted right again. The same thing happens as we follow the moon-bus across the lunar terrain—the Earth starts off illuminated from the right, then switches to the left, then back to the right again.

The switching orientation of the Earth's illuminated limb in "2001: A Space Odyssey"
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(In the Moon’s southern hemisphere, where the action takes place, the correct orientation at lunar sunrise, when the action takes place, is to have the Earth’s illuminated portion to the right, facing east.)

Later in the film, from shot to shot, we see the character Frank Poole not only reverse the direction in which he’s running around the Discovery centrifuge (twice), but the entire centrifuge (and Poole) becomes mirror-reflected. The bone thrown aloft by the man-ape Moon-Watcher, at the beginning of the film, reverses its rotation direction between the two shots that follow its trajectory. And there are multiple geometrical inconsistencies during the sequence set on the Aries 1B moon shuttle, relating to the orientation of the control cabin.

It’s all very odd, and I don’t pretend to have an answer, but stuff like the constantly shifting orientation of the Earth seems too egregious to be anything other than deliberate—it would have been easier to have that not happen. And Kubrick, of course, has history with this sort of thing—the geometry of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1980) is notoriously protean.

Perhaps there’s a clue to what it all means, embedded in the very first shot in which we see a left-right reversal. The Dawn of Man chapter of the film famously used front-projected African scenes to provide back-drops for the outdoor sequences featuring the man-apes (which were actually filmed on a sound-stage). One particular reddened sky provided the backdrop for the set depicting the area around the man-apes’ cave refuge, and was used multiple times, both as a sunset and a sunrise. But in one shot (and only one shot), the sky image is reversed—and that’s in the shot in which the man-apes (and audience) first discover that a giant alien monolith has materialized outside the cave during the night.

Front-projected sky, Dawn of Man sequence, 2001 A Space Odyssey, showing mirror-reversal
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* I’ve been trapped in a Tommy Lee Jones Cycle for decades, now. His character Kay in Men In Black (1997) kept having to buy the Beatles’ White Album over and over again, as physical media improved. I’ve now owned 2001: A Space Odyssey on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray and 4K disc. I suspect the rising graph of increasing visual and auditory fidelity from new technology has now crossed the descending graph of my failing eyesight and hearing.
I’m indebted to Juli Kearns for pointing out this key reflection in her shot-by-shot analysis of 2001: A Space Odyssey on her Idyllopus Press website.

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