The Catacombs Space: 1999 Catacombs Series Guides
Science Of Fiction

A look at the science in Space: 1999 by Martin Willey

4. TECHNOLOGY

A wide range of weapons, power sources, biological engineering, computers, transportation, and exotic technology were seen in "Space: 1999". They also had a wide range of credibility.

Moonbase Alpha was a plausible if optimistic prediction in 1975, although politics have left it still at least twenty-five years in the future. Lunar rocks can be broken down into soil, water and oxygen, and used for construction and industrial raw materials. In addition, recycling and hydroponic gardens were mentioned and occasionally seen, ensuring the base was self sustaining. The base was dependent on various extremely rare minerals, although fortunately very small quantities were required. This suggests they were used as catalysts, making possible chemical reactions used in the recycling process. Tiranium (in Catacombs Of The Moon) and dylenide crystals (in Mark Of Archanon) could be found by mining under the base. Two substances vital to their "life support systems" could only be obtained on alien planets: the mineral milgonite (in All That Glisters) and the metal titanium (in The Metamorph). Of these, only titanium is real, and it is actually very common, especially on the Moon. Titanium is a low density, high strength metal used as a structural material in aircraft and spacecraft (it is used in Eagles, according to Space Brain), and as a white pigment in paint. It was also used by the special effects crew to create the wispy smoke on the Psychon surface in the episode.

Life support

The dependence on their fragile life support system created a dramatic background to everyday life on Moonbase Alpha. It was frequently threatened: by shortages of the vital minerals previously mentioned, by power cuts in Force Of Life, The Testament Of Arkadia and One Moment Of Humanity, and in Ring Around The Moon when the aliens extract the details of their life support ("memory cell 371 classified"). The need for excitement and suspense rather than realism did mean the life support was centralised, very vulnerable, and did not have back-up systems. This was an advantage for Helena in The Bringers Of Wonder when she introduces contact gas into their air conditioning system, but not so in The Exiles when Cantar & Zova cause explosions from their tampering, or in One Moment Of Humanity when the (duplicate) base is depressurised. Incredibly, vital "core" elements were removable and irreplaceable, leaving Alpha minutes from death when they were stolen in Earthbound and The Beta Cloud.

Explosive decompression, when leaking air bursts out into the vacuum of space, was a recurrent threat, seen in Breakaway, War Games, End Of Eternity, Space Warp and The Dorcons. In War Games Koenig orders that "primary bulkhead doors" are sealed to separate and secure the Moonbase sections. "Pressure Normal" signs were seen in the caves in Mark Of Archanon and Catacombs Of The Moon. In these episodes individual rooms and Moonbase sections were sensibly described as modular, able to be sealed off as self sufficient units. In The Bringers Of Wonder we see a room with an emergency oxygen supply, while War Games shows a window leak sealed with foam and paper, and Seance Spectre demonstrates a plastic sheet pasted over the leak and sprayed with a hardening agent.

Airlocks give access to the lunar surface, and are seen in Ring Around The Moon, Alpha Child, Missing Link, The Last Sunset, End Of Eternity, The Last Enemy (to an underground level of the launch pad), Space Warp and The Dorcons. Eagles have to decompress the entire passenger module, requiring large oxygen tanks. Alternatively, they can decompress just the docking tube, as in Earthbound, although the Eagle does have enough oxygen to pressurise the alien spaceship. In Seance Spectre the Eagles are revealed to have an oxygen recycling plant. According to Black Sun they have oxygen to last at least five weeks. The modularity of the moonbase allows atmospheres to be changed in certain rooms, as when the hydroponics lab is flooded with chlorine in The Beta Cloud and anaesthetic is administered to the airlock in Space Warp. A vacuum chamber is seen in The Beta Cloud, perhaps used for spacesuit testing.

While the Moonbase would have a normal oxygen-nitrogen mixed atmosphere, spacesuits need pure oxygen at lower pressures (normal pressure suits would be inflexible in vacuum). Astronauts would have to breathe pure oxygen for two to three hours before using airlocks, to avoid the nitrogen in their blood bubbling into gas. The principal air supply seems to be the backpack, connected to the helmet by a thin wire. However, propulsion units are worn on the back for space walks (Space Brain and The Exiles), and fire extinguishing packs in The Bringers Of Wonder, so there must be a reserve oxygen supply in the chest packs. The extinguisher packs are pointless, as fire cannot burn without oxygen.

The Moonbase atmosphere and water would come from the oxides in lunar rocks and recycling. Algae and higher plants can be used as part of the natural oxygen-carbon dioxide cycle, rather than chemical and electrochemical methods, and additionally can recycle food and water. Hence the base has a Hydroponics Section, seen in The Troubled Spirit, The Beta Cloud and Matter of Balance. Strictly none of these was a hydroponics area: instead of growing plants in gravel and nutrient rich waters, the plants are clearly growing in soils, perhaps created from lunar regolith. These are experimental units; wall charts indicate two large scale "Hydroponic Farm Areas". Hydroponics was also mentioned in Dragon's Domain, Mark Of Archanon, Rules Of Luton and The Taybor. The main "Recycling Plants", of which there are at least two, were presumably vats of algae. These were mentioned in Force Of Life, War Games, Seed Of Destruction and Seance Spectre. These could provide raw protein to be prepared and flavoured into whatever form is required. In The Last Sunset the Alphans find manna, an edible mushroom-like plant able to grow on a sterile regolith, rich in vitamins and second class protein (i.e. vegetable protein, lacking certain essential amino acids found in meat, flour, rice and pasta). This could also be processed into different forms. According to Mark Of Archanon, soya is grown for similar purposes, allowing hamburgers to be made. Other foods could be synthesised: according to The Dorcons, even the coffee they drink so much is imitation. However, many crops are grown for less than strictly nutritional requirements. Tony cultivates hops and barley for his beer, as seen in A Matter of Balance. In Guardian Of Piri, Bob Mathias is even able to prepare an alcoholic punch. Flowers are also grown, as seen in Dragon's Domain, Rules Of Luton and A Matter of Balance. In case of crop failure, the Protein Store seen in The Testament Of Arkadia preserves seeds to sow the farm areas.

There seem to be few animals on the base. There are doves, seen in Mark Of Archanon. Presumably there are small laboratory animals, and perhaps battery hens and fish farms. Maya is able to transform into a wide range of Earth animals, so perhaps there is a zoo.

Recreation Centres in Mark Of Archanon and The Taybor contain facilities to serve food, and we presume that the Alphans are allowed to prepare meals if they wish. Otherwise it seems they eat in restaurants located throughout the base. Vending machines are widely distributed, providing drinks.

Energy

Power seems to be provided largely from nuclear reactors. Of lesser importance is solar energy, mentioned in War Games. According to Force Of Life there are four Nuclear Generating Areas, although the base can survive on two. We are not told whether they are fission or fusion reactors, although in either case direct horizontal access to the reactor vessel as shown in Force Of Life would not be possible. The "Main Power Unit" in Black Sun, revamped as the "Nuclear Power Station" in Earthbound, seems to be the main reactor and power distribution point, although it looks considerably different as the Power Room seen in The Exiles and One Moment Of Humanity.

The Earth in 1999 has not solved the serious problem of disposing of high and medium level radioactive wastes. Dumping it on the Moon or into the Sun is not an unlikely scenario providing a totally reliable and cheap space shuttle system can be developed. In the series a major reason for the construction of the base is to oversee the nuclear waste dumps on the far side of the Moon. There are at least four different types of waste dump: the huge mounds of lunar regolith in Nuclear Disposal Area One, the synthocrete-capped silos in Area 2, both seen in Breakaway, the Area B7 silos seen in Seance Spectre, and the domes in The Bringers Of Wonder. The elaborate and sophisticated facilities at these sites is excessive: waste containers could simply be dropped from orbit into craters. The series assumes that given some kind of trigger the waste will begin fissioning. This is wrong: although the material is highly radioactive, it is too low grade to sustain a nuclear chain reaction. If it were free to move, magnetic fields could sort the radioisotopes, effectively refining them, as is proposed in Breakaway. Fission is still unlikely.

In a closed system it is hard to see how power can be drained from the base, but many episodes feature this situation. In Black Sun, Earthbound, Force Of Life, The Testament Of Arkadia, One Moment Of Humanity and Seed Of Destruction we find the Alphans on the edge of survival, apparently with few alternative power sources. Generators from Eagles are used in both Black Sun and One Moment Of Humanity, and in A Matter of Balance we see a portable nuclear generator (which must be a nuclear battery, powered by a radioisotope, rather than a fission reactor). Catacombs Of The Moon features the opposite situation, with the Moonbase heating up. The surface temperature reaches 40 degrees centigrade, causing the Alphans to start stripping off clothing. In reality, the lunar surface temperature ranges between -160 and +120 degrees centigrade. The internal heating is measured on displays marked at only five degree intervals, so they lack accuracy and practicality.

Brian The Brain uses a "nuclear fuel core", probably uranium rods, also seen in The Bringers Of Wonder. The Darians in Mission Of The Darians similarly used nuclear fission, and suffered a Chernobyl-like explosion of all but one of their reactors, irradiating most of their spaceship. Power sources were often unstable. An explosion in a "power pod" kills the alien crew in Space Warp. The meson converter in The Dorcons uses antimatter, ensuring the ship explodes very violently. Magus in New Adam, New Eve extracts energy using a light decelerator, slowing light particles to zero. Other than by altering space-time this is not possible, as Koenig correctly notes in the episode. The Tritons in Ring Around The Moon and the Zennites in Missing Link used light to create their environment. The alien base in Immunity Syndrome uses solar cells. The Alphans use "metaline fibres" to link them to their radio transmitter. Plastics which conduct electricity have been created since the series was made.

Vehicles

The Alphans used a fleet of space shuttles, the Eagles, for transport through space. A few episodes claimed highly improbable flight times (just ten minutes from the Moon to Psychon in The Metamorph). One problematic area is the un-aerodynamic design of the Eagles in atmospheric flight. So perhaps the number of crashes is realistic. The Eagle could be at risk of having much of itself burnt off in atmospheric re-entry. One procedure to avoid this is to re-enter backwards, firing the engines; the plume of rocket gases would form a heat shield which would protect even an oddly shaped spacecraft. The Eagles use nuclear engines, perhaps heating hydrogen to provide rocket exhaust. An alternative but rather drastic method of nuclear propulsion is to use a controlled series of nuclear explosions; this may be the principle of the Queller Drive in Voyager's Return, which produces fast neutrons (high velocity fundamental particles created in nuclear reactions). Photon drive spaceships such as the Croton ship in Dorzak use lasers; the pressure of the light beam is very slight, but can be sustained for a long period. The meson converter in The Dorcons can convert matter to energy, transmit it faster than light across the universe, and convert it back to matter at the other end. This doesn't compare much to real mesons, which are fundamental particles which only exist for fractions of a second before decaying into other particles. Otherwise the Eagles and other spaceships were credible, if sometimes small for interstellar flight.

Anti-gravity

The Moon has only a sixth of the gravity of Earth, and space has zero gravity. This can have serious effects on the human body, notably bone de-calcification. Special diets, drugs and exercise can reduce the effects, but simulated gravity may be a necessity for long space flights. It would be impractical, distracting and costly to make the Alphans bounce everywhere in the moonbase and float through the Eagles. The only way known to simulate gravity is a revolving centrifuge, although the rapid spinning and curved floors are expensive and dramatically inconvenient for a television series (or film; only 2001: A Space Odyssey ever really attempted to portray this). Therefore, "artificial gravity" (or "anti-gravity") was invented. It is spurious, but at least it addresses the problem. Moon walks outside the base were shown infrequently (in nine episodes only) and space walks were rarely attempted (in War Games, Space Brain and The Exiles). Artificial gravity is provided from eight anti gravity towers around the base, according to Black Sun. In Ring Around The Moon, Alpha Child, Another Time, Another Place and other episodes astronauts "moon walk" past the towers, so presumably the increased gravity only occurs in the interaction of the fields. Strangely, a tower is seen on Earth in Another Time, Another Place.

The anti gravity effect can also create a forcefield, demonstrated in Black Sun and used to protect the base on many subsequent occasions, as well as being fitted to protect Eagles. Forcefields were used in the traditional science fiction sense of energy barriers which absorb or repel matter and certain wavelengths of light. Alien forcefields can be used to protect an entire planet (the atmospheric forcefield in Devil's Planet) or to surround small areas or people (New Adam, New Eve, Mark Of Archanon). In Dorzak and One Moment Of Humanity alien forcefields unaccountably look like coloured perspex; Alpha's fields glow, while other forcefields are invisible. These forcefields bear no similarity to anything in science.

Weapons

More offensive technology comprises nuclear bombs and beam weapons. Nuclear bombs were featured in Collision Course and Space Brain. Presumably the robot Eagle in The Metamorph also carried nuclear bombs, although nothing could destroy an entire planet as claimed. Beam weapons can either fire streams of particles, such as electrons or protons, or pure light as in a laser. Both are inefficient in air, which distorts and absorbs their energy. Lasers can be visible by reflecting off particles along their path, as in smoky or polluted atmospheres, although most science fiction shows visible laser beams in space for dramatic effect. Lasers are good for targeting, or even blinding soldiers, but they cannot cause the targets to explode instantly as shown in science fiction. Although the prospects for laser weaponry are poor, political interests have ensured much research into the subject. One way lasers can work in atmosphere is to ionise the air molecules in its path, sufficient to discharge an electric current along it, like lightning. This mechanism is viable at short distances so while it is suitable for stun guns (see later) it could not be used for spaceship weaponry.

Moonbase Alpha is surprisingly well armed for a scientific base, although weaponry such as the laser tanks seen in The Infernal Machine and the laser cannons seen in The Metamorph, The Beta Cloud, The Bringers Of Wonder and The Dorcons must have been constructed after the Breakaway. Evidently only some Eagles have laser capability, either fitted to the command module or to a top mounted laser turret (seen in The A B Chrysalis, Seance Spectre and Devil's Planet only). There is also a wide range of hand held weapons. The laser blaster seen in Alpha Child, "The Last Sunset", The Beta Cloud and Seance Spectre can damage or destroy a spaceship. Rocket guns, firing anti-personnel shells, were seen in The Beta Cloud, The Immunity Syndrome and The Dorcons. Laser rifles were frequently seen, in War Games, The Infernal Machine, Dragon's Domain, The Metamorph and others. Occasionally anaesthetic guns were seen or referred to, as in Mark Of Archanon, Space Warp and The Beta Cloud.

Additionally, security guards and exploration teams carried small stun guns with "stun" and "kill" settings. The unusual but credible design resembles the staple guns that appeared soon after the series was made. Stun guns are sometimes referred to as "lasers", and, in The Full Circle as a "ray gun". The blue kill-laser beam causes the target to burst into flames, and is often used to shoot the control panel of doors so they can be manually opened (you would think shooting the lock would fuse the door shut instead of making it easier to open). In A Matter of Balance it is called an "electrical beam" (a laser is a beam of electromagnetic light, not a beam of electrons; electron guns firing beams of electrons are the basis of television screens). The yellow stun beam seems different in kind, inducing unconsciousness in the humanoids it strikes. The two ways to induce unconsciousness are by a drug delivered as an injection, gas or food or drink, or by hitting the head very hard (although watching Ring Around The Moon also has noted anaesthetic properties). According to Space Brain this effect is "neuronic concussion". This sounds like the beam delivers a sharp physical knock to the head rather than some anaesthetic effect. In The Exiles it is supposed to last for an hour, although later in that episode Tony recovers after half a minute. Some aliens are immune to the ray.

Hand held stun weapons were being developed by real-life 1999. These short range guns use a laser to ionise a path through the air, then discharge a powerful electric current across the ionised air like lightning. The current can stun (like the electric stasers carried for self defence) or, at short range with high voltages, kill. The laser has a risk of permanently blinding the victim instead of just stunning them. Obviously such a weapon can only be used for short distances and in an atmosphere, just like the Alphan stun guns. So the reference to an electrical beam in A Matter of Balance may be accurate after all.

Aliens have similar stun weapons, such as the staser in Dorzak. Related weapons include beams which immobilise the Alphans like statues, in Force Of Life, One Moment Of Humanity and The Dorcons (plus "stasis" in Mark Of Archanon) and pain beams as in The Infernal Machine. Energy beams cannot penetrate to the inner organs and thus could not cause these effects, but they could cause blinding or skin cancers (an electric shock could, however). The statue effect is remarkable, considering standing up requires constant muscle adjustments co-ordinated by a brain which is supposedly not active. Other weapons seen include missiles in The Last Enemy, and most bizarre of all, electric whips in Devil's Planet.

Communications

Other hand held instruments were more benign. The comlock is carried by every Alphan, electronically opening doors providing they have security clearance (many cars now have such devices), containing a television screen and camera for personal calls (now a feature of most mobile telephones) and accessing the main computer (akin to hand held computers).As a prediction of technologies that emerged a decade later, the comlock is surprisingly accurate. The stubby antenna was a feature of many early mobile phones, but has now disappeared and the Star Trek-like clam-shell design has emerged as the clear winner in usability. Comlocks are just one of the many options Alphans can choose when they want to contact each other. Alternatives include the communications posts at every corridor intersection and many rooms (each post with four screens), their desks and wall screens.

Computers

One of the most obvious weaknesses of the series is the depiction of the Moonbase computers. There was a notable absence of screens on the desks in Main Mission. The staff seemed to have to interpret flashing lights or read small slips of paper like checkout receipts. Command Centre had screens on every desk, although the displays were very crude and the computer now issued read-out cards. Input was by keypads, rather than keyboards, and voice command. Mice, pen screens, touch-sensitive screens and graphic user interfaces were not anticipated by the series (or many other people in 1975). Voice command is still elusive in real-life computers, although software such as Dragon's Naturally Speaking is popular for dictation. Voice response has not been as vigorously pursued, largely restricted to education and toys, although automated voice systems are widely used, for instance in telephone answering systems such as directory enquiries, or for warning messages on metro trains. Research has shown that people respond better to a female voice, which the Moonbase Computer anticipates accurately. In an odd continuity lapse, Brian The Brain claims the computer cannot talk.

There was an X5 Computer on the Uranus mission of 1986 (Death's Other Dominion), so the X5 used on Moonbase Alpha is at least 13 years old in 1999. Although commercial computers have developed rapidly, computers in aircraft and spacecraft must be "hardened" against vibration, radiation and vacuum. As a consequence, aerospace computers develop much more slowly than business computing. The component based architecture of the X5 (slot-in computer panels which can be switched with different panels) accurately anticipates how computers have developed since the mid-1970s, both in terms of simple plug-in components and linking individual computers into clusters or farms.

The episode states that the computer is a "mark ten holographic programming", which presumably refers to a holographic CPU, using light switches instead of slower electronic switches as in current technology. This is being eagerly developed by researchers. The computer is very vulnerable to alien interference, frequently being taken over by aliens, as in The Infernal Machine, Guardian Of Piri, The Last Enemy and others. In Brian The Brain the computer memory is wiped, but the Alphans have evidently not even carried out back-up security copies.

Brian in Brian The Brain, Gwent in The Infernal Machine, and the androids in One Moment Of Humanity were computers which achieved consciousness. All were defeated by their human emotions. Human intelligence is based upon human senses and experience. Experts are divided about whether masses of data and simple rules may replace that, or merely imitate thought processes and emotions. The Guardian Of Piri describes an experiment to link a computer to a human mind: this is ambitious, but perhaps not very far away.

A number of more conventional computers were also seen, including the eponymous Guardian Of Piri, the voice probes in The A B Chrysalis and ship computers in Voyager's Return and Dorzak. Robots include the servant of The Guardian Of Piri, the creature in The Beta Cloud, and the Maya replica in The Taybor.

Computer screens and keyboards were rare in the series, with aliens often preferring to sweep a hand through a magnetic field over a panel (The Last Enemy, Journey To Where and others). A wide range of remote scanners were used. These hand held devices were pointed at subjects and somehow indicated details about health or geology or materials. However good remote analysis gets, it is not likely to be a substitute for touch, taking samples and chemical analysis, although it is a convenient short hand to keep the plot moving.


Contents copyright Martin Willey
Thanks to Marcus Lindroos