No one’s really sure how the only remaining model spaceship from 2001: A Space Odyssey ended up in an English garden shed. But its journey to the soon-to-open Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, in Los Angeles, is among Hollywood’s more bizarre lost-and-found stories.
Released 53 years ago, in 1968—a year before the Apollo 11 moon landing—2001 was the second-highest-grossing movie of that year, and its influence can be detected everywhere, from Star Wars and Alien to Gravity and Interstellar, along with myriad lesser science-fiction movies. Steven Spielberg, who donated a wing to the Academy Museum, once called 2001 “the Big Bang” of his filmmaking generation.
What might remain singular about 2001, though, is the maniacal standard of craftsmanship involved: One of the principal spacecraft designers, Harry Lange, was a protégé of Wernher von Braun’s at NASA. And the special-effects techniques developed for the film were unprecedented. Five decades on, 2001 still appears startlingly modern. (Except maybe for the monkeys.)
There are a handful of space suits and helmets from the film in private collections. But the spaceships, which represented the apotheosis of human toolmaking, and are, along with HAL 9000, the real stars of 2001, had been lost to time. For years, the rumor was that Stanley Kubrick, patron saint of artistic control freaks, had ordered the miniature models to be destroyed. But what really happened to them all?
According to David Larson, a historian of 2001, after the movie was released, Kubrick reneged on a contract that would have sent the spaceships to an exhibition in Washington, D.C.—because he wanted to maintain the mystique of the film, it was thought. The terms of the out-of-court settlement meant Kubrick and MGM had to hold on to the models until the mid-70s, at which point most were sent to a dump (though some ended up at a playground in Stevenage, about an hour north of London, until Kubrick found out and had them dismantled). Meanwhile, the director had kept three for himself.
Then, in 2015, appearing out of nowhere like the film’s mysterious black monoliths, one turned up at a movie-memorabilia auction: the spherical, white Aries 1B. It got several minutes of screen time floating toward the moon to Johann Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube” waltz, ferrying passengers who were treated to a liquid-meal service by flight attendants walking upside down in grip shoes and Pan Am uniforms (a company which did not make it to the titular year), and eventually touching down with a plume of exhaust.
The model was in rough shape. It had supposedly spent the past 40 years in an art teacher’s garden shed in Hertfordshire. “The provenance of it was kind of weird,” according to Douglas Trumbull, who worked on the visual effects for 2001. Supposedly, he said, “Stanley had traded it for tutoring services for his children.” The Aries 1B caught the attention of director Christopher Nolan, a fan of the movie, and Tom Hanks, a trustee of the Academy Museum. Trumbull authenticated the model on behalf of the museum, and Hanks and Nolan put up the money for it: $344,000.
For years, the rumor was that Stanley Kubrick, patron saint of artistic control freaks, had ordered the miniature models to be destroyed.
“The Aries 1B lander was as important a vehicle in motion pictures as Ben Hur’s chariot or Dorothy’s ruby slippers,” Hanks explained in an e-mail. “The spaceship was the embodiment of movie magic and a physical construct of storytelling. The Museum is the perfect place for such a prop,” adding, “I didn’t have space in my living room.”
The Aries 1B will be one of the centerpieces of the forthcoming Renzo Piano–designed Academy Museum, on Miracle Mile in Los Angeles, which will also feature two movie theaters, an abundance of other important cinematic artifacts, a multi-story glass dome, and, needless to say, copious red carpeting throughout. After years of delays, the museum is currently expected to open on September 30.
But like a faded movie star preparing for a close-up, the Aries 1B needed a lot of touching up before it could be displayed. For three years, the museum’s conservators painstakingly disassembled and re-assembled it, re-attached missing pieces, exfoliated old glue, cleaned and detailed it, and even hunted flea markets and eBay for old model kits of tanks and submarines from the 60s, parts of which were used in the original. Restoring the Aries 1B involved an arsenal of razor blades and cotton swabs, followed by a top-notch airbrush job that returned the original weathered patina to the spaceship.
Standing before it now, it’s impossible to tell how battered it had been. Cue “The Blue Danube.”
Adam Elder is a San Diego–based writer