Gravity and reality
by Jeff Foust
|In an era where bigger and longer movies are often perceived to be better, Gravity is, by contrast, almost minimalistic.|
It’s easy to understand Wired’s enthusiasm. Gravity is a visually stunning film, particularly when seen in 3-D (or, even better, IMAX 3-D). The filmmakers put considerable effort into the realistic detail of the Space Shuttle, Hubble Space Telescope, and International Space Station, among other vehicles included in the film. That realism won praise from astronauts. “In #Gravity I saw an exact replica of the Hubble Space Telescope, space suits, and the tools we used on our mission with incredible detail,” wrote Mike Massimino, aka @Astro_Mike on Twitter, an astronaut who worked on Hubble on the STS-125 servicing mission in 2009. He even recognized one of the tools that, in the movie’s opening scenes, briefly floated away from an astronaut: “I saw our #8 Powertool floating behind Sandra Bullock's head, I nicknamed that tool ‘Yogi Berra’ who wore #8 in his baseball days.”
That attention to detail, though, would be empty without a strong plot. In an era where bigger and longer movies are often perceived to be better, Gravity is, by contrast, almost minimalistic. Running just 90 minutes, the film features only two main characters: spacewalking astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), trying to survive after a cloud of orbital debris created by an anti-satellite missile test wipes out their shuttle while they were working to repair Hubble. (A third spacewalking astronaut appears early in the movie before being killed by debris, and a few other characters are heard but not seen, including the voice of mission control, fittingly played by Ed Harris.) Gravity condenses into those 90 minutes an almost non-stop series of challenges by those two astronauts (and, eventually, only Stone) to survive by transiting to the ISS and then to a Chinese space station to find a suitable spacecraft to return home.
There’s plenty of drama in Gravity, but for some, the movie fails to achieve escape velocity because of its technical flaws. To be certain, there are plot holes in the movie big enough to fly a space station through. Among them: that stranded spacewalkers who were servicing Hubble could float over (in less than 90 minutes, no less) to the ISS, even through the Hubble and ISS are in very different orbits; the maneuver required to shift orbits would require far more propellant than could fit in a Manned Maneuvering Unit-like backpack that Kowalski was wearing. Later, Stone boards a Soyuz at the ISS to fly to a Chinese space station that happens not only to be in the same orbit as ISS, but just 100 kilometers away. In reality, China’s Tiangong-1 module (far smaller than the space station portrayed in the movie) is also in a very different orbit from the ISS or Hubble.
The precipitating event in Gravity is a Russian missile that takes out one of its own reconnaissance satellites (an act described, but not seen, in the film), creating a cloud of orbital debris that grows as it destroys more satellites in orbit. That event is modeled after the 2007 Chinese ASAT test that created debris that, so far, has only been a nuisance to other satellites. While some have warned that the growing population of orbital debris could create runaway growth as debris begets more debris (the so-called “Kessler Syndrome”), such a situation would not develop over a few minutes, as it does in the film. Worse, in the film it knocks out navigation and communications satellites, which operate in orbits far above LEO and thus presumably out of the line of fire from the same debris cloud that wreaks havoc on the shuttle and station.
Those flaws are too much for some viewers. In one online critique, Stephen C. Smith complains the film relies too much on “deus ex machina”, improbable and inaccurate plot constructs like a nearby space station that propel the plot forward. “Gravity will make a huge profit for Warner Bros., but it will probably mislead the public into more misunderstandings about the human spaceflight programs,” he argues.
Another person annoyed with the inaccuracies of Gravity is astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson. In a series of tweets on Sunday, Tyson offered his criticisms of the movie, including many of the factors described above. (His criticism missed in one tweet, though, when he asked why Stone, a medical doctor, would be assigned to repairing Hubble. In fact, MDs have been astronauts and performed spacewalks, including Scott Parazynski, who performed an unplanned EVA in 2007 to fix a solar panel on the ISS.)
“Mysteries of #Gravity: Why we enjoy a SciFi film set in make-believe space more than we enjoy actual people set in real space,” Tyson asked in one tweet.
|“For space travelers and earthbound explorers, it’s a very satisfying ride,” concluded former astronaut Tom Jones.|
The answer to his question is obvious: we enjoy the exciting, if unrealistic, adventures of Gravity more than real-life human spaceflight because the former is far more dramatic than the latter (and that’s a good thing, too: in day-to-day operations on the ISS, you don’t want life-and-death drama.) But do space enthusiasts have to feel guilty about enjoying the movie because of the dramatic license it invokes?
Some of those who have flown in space have no such qualms. Former astronaut Tom Jones notes other inaccuracies in the movie, including the ease Stone takes in directing the Soyuz spacecraft towards the Chinese space station: “Rendezvous in reality is a complex orbital ballet, and applying human instinct and Kentucky windage always results in failure,” he writes in Popular Mechanics. Yet, he’s willing to set those aside and enjoy the film. “For space travelers and earthbound explorers, it’s a very satisfying ride.”
“Watched ‘Gravity’ today w[ith] several associates. Admit there were scientific inaccuracies, but the movie captured the essence of being in space,” tweeted Gregory Johnson, a former astronaut who is currently president and executive director of CASIS, the non-profit that administers research on the ISS. He added in a later tweet he was going back to see the movie again in 3-D.
Even Tyson, for all his criticism, liked Gravity. “But if you must know, I enjoyed #Gravity very much.”
In the end, Gravity is a drama, and not a documentary (and thank goodness for that, given all the destruction that takes place in orbit during the film!) Yes, it gets things wrong, and glosses over the complexities of spaceflight. Yes, it’s possible some viewers will come away from the movie with a distorted view of space. But, if you’re willing to suspend disbelief for an hour and a half (and, perhaps, later use the movie as a “teachable moment” to tell the public about the real state of spaceflight and the actual dangers of orbital debris), Gravity becomes a powerful drama about isolation, fear, and finding the willingness to live against all odds—elements that can have a strong gravitational pull on audiences regardless of setting.