2001: A Space Odyssey was a groundbreaking film for sci-fi. The very nature of the movie is all about space travel. As an homage to the scientific inspiration it gave a generation, JPL has chosen to use it as a mascot for the Europa mission coming up in 2022.
We are a group of students at the University of Michigan working with a professor on some space-related stuff, and we were asked to build a monolith for the science meeting hosted here in Ann Arbor. Of course, being young and aspiring engineers that were approached by JPL for help with building things, we didn't hesitate to take up their challenge.
We hope that our model will inspire you, and our trial and error will make your build 100x easier!
Step 1: Preparation
The monolith isn't given any specific dimensions in 2001, other than the side-side ratios being "the squares of the first three integers", respectively those are 1, 4, and 9. We decided that we would just build it to be 9'x4'x1' for simplicity sake.
We wanted the surface to be as flat as possible, as well as for the structure to be relatively light.
The largest issue we ran into was finding a way to cut sheets of insulation foam, so we also built our own table saw-esque wire-cutter.
What We Used (Monolith):
Foam insulation board (4' x 8' x 1.5", Owens Corning XPS) [x6]
PVC (1" diameter, 10 ft lengths) [x10]
Corrugated Plastic Sheets (4'x8') [x2]
Boxes (12"x12"x16") [x3]
PVC Fittings: T-fitting [x20], 3-Way Elbow [x8], 4-Way [x4]
Small Rare Earth Magnets [x6]
PVC Cement [16 oz.]
Elmer's "Glue All" [1 Gallon]
What We Used (Wire Cutter):
24 Gauge Nichrome Wire
2"x4" [approx. 16 ft]
6"x1/2" Hex Bolts & Nuts [x3]
Step 2: The Wire Cutter
Foam is a very sensitive material, and cutting it isn't the simplest process. Using a knife, you end up with rough edges and a lot of cutting (especially on 1.5" foam). A table saw is problematic because it will produce a lot of dust, and you don't want to be breathing in excess amounts of insulation dust. Our solution? Burn it apart!
We had multiple large tables available to us in a lab, so we designed a cutter that we could run across it.
We put a large length of wood along the side of the table. This section was used as a guide to keep our cuts as straight as possible.
At the end, we have two pieces of wood with various mounting depths on them, and two bolts that determine which length you're mounted at (we needed cuts at 3", 9", and 12"). There is also a large overhang on the non-wire side with a bolt going through it. This is so we can tighten the bolt to tension the wire at the other end.
The wire is nichrome, which has a high resistivity that makes it heat up when you put a voltage across it. We used a power supply to drive it at about 5V. This provided a good amount of heat to get the wire slightly red, and cut through the foam like butter.
Step 3: Cutting Foam
Once the wire cutter was built, we marked out the various cuts we needed on our large boards, and started going. We made all the cuts of each length (3", 9", or 12") before changing settings when possible (to save time). This was time consuming, but overall not too bad.
Note: Keep your area VERY well ventilated! The foam will give off a gas that you do not want to be breathing!
We also cut out a block M to represent our university, and a lot of 3"x3"x6" blocks (out of two sheets glued together) to use for a setting. These two things were personal to our project, and it's up to you how if you want to add any flare.
Please don't burn yourself. The wire is hot.
Step 4: PVC
The frame of the monolith is entirely PVC, so we had to make sure it would be rigid enough. We made all of our cuts using a chop saw. We just made note of how many of each size cut we needed, divided them along each 10ft section of PVC, and got to cutting.
Step 5: Monolith Assembly
The monolith assembly can be broken down into two parts: pvc assembly and foam assembly.
To assemble the PVC, simply lay out the cuts in the correct orientations, and attach them to one another using fittings. PVC cement works fantastic for this, just be sure that all of your T-fittings are square when you're gluing (might be helpful to press to the ground as a guide).
Once the PVC frame is all together, simply screw on a few pieces of corrugated plastic with a drill and self-tapping screws. This is used for surface area so the foam will be able to stick to the frame.
The foam is delicate, so be sure during this process not to bump it on things.
As far as adhesives go, we had to play around a little bit. Here are our results;
Wall-joint compound: Brittle, bad surface tension
Contact cement: Melts foam. Cool, but not usable. (see picture)
Elmer's Glue-all: surprisingly solid connection
We used a gallon of elmer's glue, and a paint brush to make all of our foam connections, as well as the plastic-foam connection. Messy, but efficient. While drying, be sure to apply weight.
For our application, we wanted to mount some electronics inside of the monolith. Therefore, in the bottom foot of the monolith where we had extra pieces of foam anyways, we used the back piece as an access panel. Using small neodymium discs glued into the foam, we made a panel that would hold, but still be removable to access the raspberry pi and speakers inside.
Step 6: Almost Ready to Paint
We're almost to the final stage! What we're still missing though, is a setting!
In order to hide the bottom foot of extra foam (ew, seams) we made a setting of blocks. Basically this was just a LOT of glue, some storage boxes, and a lot of foam. Emphasize the glue (see pictures of dripping within setting, and onto people).
The setting is entirely up to you, if you even want one. Be creative, do something cool. We chose ours to be somewhat abstract and modern because we were shooting for a futuristic aesthetic.
The final step before painting, is to apply wall joint compound onto the monolith body to cover any seams in the foam, and smooth out the corners. The wall joint compound holds surprisingly nice to the body, and can be sanded very smooth once it dries. Just use a putty knife to keep it as flat to the foam as you can.
Step 7: Making It Pretty
SO close! Now it just needs some paint!
First, apply a layer of primer. Without primer, paint just isn't as friendly. Then, apply black paint! It's a pretty simple process, but be sure to keep the surfaces dry and dust-free during this process or you'll lose some of the matte effect of the monolith. We used paint rollers to get a nice smooth finish, but if you have a paint sprayer you could probably get even better results.
We painted our setting a white base, with blue and brown stripes in order to represent Europa for the conference.
Note: There is a wooden thing coming out of the bottom of the monolith in this photo. That is a support structure that has legs extending a few feet in front and back of the monolith, and a larger part that slides into the monolith to support it. This keeps it from falling forward or backward, due to it's very tall but very narrow frame. This is just wood and screws, and can be done however you want to interpret it.
Step 8: Bonus Step: Electronics
How to make a cool box even cooler? Make it play music!
Using a Raspberry Pi, a wireless adapter, and some speakers, we were able to make the monolith play the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey on command wirelessly.
Due to the nature of the wifi I had available, I couldn't ssh into the pi. To get around this, I set it up as it's own access point using this tutorial. That allowed me to connect to a secure network, ssh into the pi, and run my python commands.
Using the package mpg321, I could play the theme wirelessly using the command
$ mpg321 -l 1 theme.mp3
(where 1 is the number of times to loop the track. 0 for infinite)
Bonus (within the bonus): Using an arduino, an ultrasonic sensor, and serial connection, I also wrote a python script to adjust the volume to get louder as one approaches the monolith. We didn't end up implementing this because of issues with mounting the ultrasonic sensor on the monolith, but if you do this, I'd love to see you try!
Step 9: Results
Now once it's all dried, set it up and admire! Shown here is a picture of it set up on the main conference stage, and then again back in our lab once the conference finished!
This was a huge hit at the conference, and we were beyond honored to have our creation stand on stage with some incredible scientific minds!
(Banana for scale)