2001: A Mission Planning Odyssey

HAL 9000 eye (Wikimedia Commons)

A paranoid computer and excessive secrecy killed Frank Poole wrecked the Discovery One mission. But, there was another problem that’s been hiding in plain sight for half a century.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

In the classic sci-fi movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the first human mission to explore Jupiter goes off the rails when the Discovery One‘s HAL 9000 computer begins to malfunction. Faced with possible disconnection, HAL kills Frank Poole during a spacewalk, turns off life support for three survey team members in hibernation, and traps mission commander David Bowman outside the ship. Bowman manages to get back inside and disconnects the psychotic computer, triggering a video that explains the true purpose of the mission.

The precise reason for HAL’s malfunction and murderous rampage are not really explained in a movie that is the very definition of opaque. We know that it involved a monolith dug up on the moon that sent a signal to Jupiter. And that HAL knew about it. The answer lies beyond the infinite.

The novelization by Arthur C. Clarke does explain what went wrong with HAL. There is also a good explanation in the film’s underrated 1984 sequel, “2010: The Year We Make Contact.” The scene involves a discussion between Heywood Floyd (Roy Schneider), R. Chandra (Bob Balaban) and Walter Curnow (John Lithgow).

Chandra: So, as the function of the command crew – Bowman and Poole – was to get Discovery to its destination, it was decided that they should not be informed. The investigative team was trained separately, and placed in hibernation before the voyage began. Since HAL was capable of operating Discovery without human assistance, it was decided that he should be programmed to complete the mission autonomously in the event the crew was incapacitated or killed. He was given full knowledge of the true objective… and instructed not to reveal anything to Bowman or Poole. He was instructed to lie.

Floyd: What are you talking about? I didn’t authorize anyone to tell HAL about the Monolith!

Chandra: Directive is NSC 342/23, top secret, January 30, 2001.

Floyd: NSC… National Security Council, the White House.

Chandra: I don’t care who it is. The situation was in conflict with the basic purpose of HAL’s design: The accurate processing of information without distortion or concealment. He became trapped. The technical term is an H. Moebius loop, which can happen in advanced computers with autonomous goal-seeking programs.

Curnow: The goddamn White House.

Floyd: I don’t believe it.

Chandra: HAL was told to lie… by people who find it easy to lie. HAL doesn’t know how, so he couldn’t function. He became paranoid.

Floyd: Those sons of bitches. I didn’t know. I didn’t know!

Clarke’s novel explains that HAL worried how Bowman and Poole would react once they discovered he had lied to them about the true objective of the mission. He first tried to cut off communications with Mission Control, which acted as a kind of conscience. after Bowman and Poole realized he was malfunctioning, HAL was threatened with disconnection, which he equated with death. The computer concluded he had to kill the crew and complete the mission on his own.

So, there you have it. The goddamn White House, those sons of bitches politicians who find it easy to lie, told a perfect computer to lie. The result: four astronauts dead, a wrecked mission, Bowman missing and presumed dead, and a derelict spaceship covered in red ash slowly rotating near Io.

There’s only one problem: telling HAL about the monolith wasn’t really what screwed up the mission. It was the decision to treat Bowman and Poole like a pair of celestial truck drivers. As Chandra recounts:

“So, as the function of the command crew – Bowman and Poole – was to get Discovery to its destination, it was decided that they should not be informed.”

At the very least, that decision was a waste of two talented astronauts who would assist the survey team in their investigations. At the most, it was utterly immoral and unethical. And it got one of them killed.

Mission planning decisions were governed by the need for strict secrecy. The three members of the survey team was placed aboard already in hibernation after separate training on their own. Bowman and Poole were kept in the dark so they wouldn’t reveal the true purpose of the mission during interviews with the media or while talking to family and friends.

This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If you don’t trust Bowman and Poole to keep a secret, then why are you trusting them with a bazillion dollar mission to Jupiter? If you have so little faith in these guys, send people who you do trust. The backup crew. Or military astronauts who know how to keep secrets.

In the 2001 novel, Arthur C. Clarke explained that the Discovery One mission was already in the advanced planning stages when the monolith was found. Perhaps the space agency’s hands were tied in terms of training other astronauts due to a tight launch window. Perhaps the backup crew wasn’t deemed any more trustworthy.

Yes, HAL could carry on the mission on his own. But, even if one viewed Bowman and Poole as backup components, keeping them in the dark like that was poor mission planning. You need the entire crew mentally and emotionally prepared for a possible second contact with alien life. (The first, of course, being the apes at the beginning of the film.)

It was unethical, even immoral, to not inform Bowman and Poole about the mission’s true objective. An expedition to Jupiter was dangerous enough. Add in a monolith and aliens, and the risk increased exponentially. Bowman and Poole needed to be told about the risks they were taking, and given the opportunity to bow out if they wanted to do so. It should have been their choice.

And it’s not like a lot of people didn’t know about the monolith. The people at Clavius Base who excavated it knew. The president, military brass and top scientists knew. I would bet the Soviets knew once one of their satellites flew over the excavation and snapped some photos. They probably even tracked the radio signal the monolith sent to Jupiter. Telling Bowman and Poole wouldn’t have expanded the circle by much.

HAL was right about one thing: Bowman and Poole would be two very angry astronauts after arriving at Jupiter and discovering the true purpose of the mission. They would feel misled, lied to, facing god-knows-what without any preparation at all. You sent us all the way out here and didn’t tell us? You didn’t think us trustworthy enough to keep a secret? WTF?

They would be royally pissed off. But, their anger wouldn’t really be directed at HAL, who was merely doing as he was programmed. They’d be furious with the humans who sent them on the mission. Any trust Bowman and Poole had built up with Mission Control would be destroyed in an instant at a critical time when they need to work hand-in-glove with the survey team to explore the Jupiter system and deal with whatever alien artifacts or beings they might encounter.

It made perfect sense that the discovery of the monolith was initially withheld from the public. The reactions to an alien monolith deliberately buried on the moon millions of years ago might have been extreme. Nobody knew what Discovery One would find at Jupiter. Until the government knew more and could evaluate the risks, secrecy was warranted. Premature disclosure could cause societal panic.

But, keeping that news from the astronauts going to Jupiter was irresponsible and immoral. The Discovery One mission to Jupiter was a gigantic mission planning failure due to that obsession with secrecy. Four crew members were killed. David Bowman was sent on an LSD-fueled trip across the Universe to live out his life alone in a hotel room at the Galactic Hilton before being turned into a giant floating fetus. Or something.

It was not just the decision to tell HAL about the mission’s true goal that ran the Discovery One mission off the rails. It was the refusal to trust two members of its human crew with that information. If they had been informed, there would have been nothing for HAL to lie about. For that, Heyward Floyd and everyone else who signed off on keeping Bowman and Poole in the dark should be roundly condemned.