The good and bad science of "Earth II"
"Earth II" was a made-for-television movie that came out in 1971. It was the pilot for a television show that never happened. At the time I was pretty interested in the concept but I guess it did not catch on with TV viewers.

Here is a 3-minute trailer for the movie.

Watch Trailer for "Earth II" made-for-TV movie from YouTube
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Considering that we had only just landed on the moon in 1969, it should not be surprising to anyone today that they got so many things wrong. But at the time there was a great sense of hopefulness about future scientific exploration. No one realized just how expensive it was going to be. And the 1973 Arab oil embargo hurt the US economy so much that the space program took a serious hit.

Near as I can tell (I just watched the movie again), a lot of the basic elements they used were projections based on real proposals at the time. The space habitat, for example, shares some design features with the current International Space Station, although they imagined a rigid architecture and a mix of "zero gravity" (what we now call "micro gravity") and artificially induced gravity. The habitat did not use the classic wheel or torus structure that had been so popular in the 1950s and 1960s. I don't know why, other than we have yet to build a space habitat like that. We're still stuck in the microgravity ages with space habitats.

The shuttle they used looks like it was modeled on early concept art. The space shuttle program was already in development at the time, or in late proposal stages. NASA officially began working on the Shuttle Program in 1972. The shuttle program came out of a 1969 proposal that was inspired by the successful moon landing.

The movie begins with an Apollo module being shot into orbit for a special referendum. The United States, as the only nation capable of sending people to the moon, apparently barges ahead with a proposal to establish an orbiting space habitat, Earth II, that will immediately become an independent nation. The purpose of the referendum is to determine how many Americans will agree to foot the bill. The Apollo astronauts count the number of home lights left on and determine that 71% of Americans support the proposal.

This optical referendum is, in my opinion, bad science. We create so much artificial light that I don't think we could determine even with today's technology what percentage of Americans would leave lights on they normally don't leave on. While the idea sets up the audience for an Earth orbit observational capability, it really doesn't work.

The movie's plot assumes the space habitat is constructed over the course of a few years and that about 2,000 adults will be able to live there by the time the main story begins. In the 1970s we simply would not have had the resources to send that many people into near orbit. Even in the 1980s and 1990s, when the space shuttles were running at their most frequent rates, we could not have sent that many people (and supplies) into space.

This was essentially hippie science fiction: very hopeful, based on assumptions about the near-future that were incredibly inaccurate, and ignorant of things we have long since learned about. For example, we now know that long-term exposure to space even in near-Earth orbit has permanent effects on human DNA. And we have better shielding materials now than we did then (well, supposedly).

They also showed a "zero gravity" operation on a human patient. While they made clever use of space, showing people "standing on the ceiling", the concept is not supported by current knowledge of how human bodies behave in zero gravity (microgravity) environments. The body needs gravity to work properly and we are a long way from perfecting any kind of space surgery that could be used for a major operation. In the movie they give the patient a very low chance of survival, and he does die, but even today I don't think we would seriously attempt to operate on anyone in space.

I cannot comment on the realism (or lack thereof) for the movie's main conflict, that of a nuclear weapon that has to be disarmed. I would guess that some of the technobabble was based on real declassified technology.

Of course, the movie was made before a number of significant historical events occurred. As I mentioned above, the Arab oil embargo came along and hurt the world economy. But the United States also entered into detente with the Soviet Union and Nixon initiated the "One China" policy, which allowed "Red China" to become the widely recognized sovereign government of China. In the movie "Red China" is still treated as an outlaw nation.

If the movie were to be made today the bad guys would probably have to be the North Koreans or the Iranians. I don't think an American film would portray China as a rogue nation. They might weave in a Chinese sub-plot about hackers or something, but rogue nuclear weapons would have to come from some less well-liked nation.

I was not really convinced by the habitat's rotation. It was a bit dizzying to look from inside the habitat out into space because they kept the rotation in the background, but there should be different strengths of artificial gravity at different levels in the modules. You see 1 or 2 signs that suggest that might be the case but everyone sort of walks around normally (because, obviously, the movie was shot on Earth). They did go the extra mile to simulate a zero gravity environment inside spacecraft.

One of the characters, played by Mariette Hartley, is an expert photographer and they have her take critical pictures with a hand-held camera from inside a spacecraft. I am pretty sure there were external cameras attached to the spacecraft even in the early 1970s. So I could not help but wince at the idea that she was using a hand-held camera like that for a critical espionage mission. Now, I realize that hand-held cameras WERE taken into space. The astronauts used them on the moon. Also, today's astronauts occasionally share pictures they take from outside the ISS. But this specific sub-plot also had Hartley's character developing pictures ala a portable photo lab, such as you would see in stores in the old days. I'm pretty sure advanced space camera technology would have gone digital sooner than the rest of the world. NASA used a digitizer to convert video footage taken by Mariner 4 in 1965 to transmit pictures from Mars back to Earth. Even so, the foundations for modern digital photography were laid in the 1950s. The writers either did not know much about digital photography at the time or there may have been a practical decision to use traditional analog photography. Maybe that was just easier to film for a TV movie in 1971.

There is another scene where Mariette Hartley sneaks into a special chamber where the nuclear weapon is stored. I find it odd that no one was on guard and this space habitat didn't have an internal surveillance system. Again, security cameras were developed around 1965 so they should have been known to the writers. In fact, the movie depicts those kinds of cameras being used on the habitat. It could be argued that the nature of Earth II's society (a fully democratic nation devoted to peace and maintaining no weapons) simply led them to not think about guarding nuclear weapons. But I would imagine that in real life responsible government even in a commune-like space habitat would lead people to ensure that the most dangerous components on the space habitat were constantly monitored.

In fact, one point of realism that you see (and hear) throughout the movie is that the spacecraft are carefully monitored from central control stations (either on Earth or in the space habitat) and the astronauts are in constant communication with the controllers. You frequently hear incidental communications where the controllers advise the astronauts to flip switches and active or disengage sub-systems. And yet the section of the habitat - complete with control panel, computers, and communication equipment - containing the nuclear weapons is left in the dark, unobserved, and barely monitored. The people in the CC room only notice when a hatch is blown.

I keep thinking about John Travolta in "Broken Arrow" as he repeatedly says to his henchmen, "Would you please stop shooting at the nuclear weapons?" That line is genius. Of course, THAT movie was hardly realistic, but that's a topic for another discussion.

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