I finally had the opportunity to see Alfonso Cuarón’s high-flying sci-fi drama, "Gravity," and of course the first question I get coming out of the theatre is from my very inquisitive daughter, Marisol, “Is that how space is like?” Before I go into my perspective of how space is like and what scenes brought memories of my own 2009 14-day mission aboard space shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station (ISS), I would do a disservice to our scientific community if I didn’t point out that the award-winning Mexican director/writer didn’t quite get the physics of space right.
I assure you that as a bona-fide rocket scientist I do these types of "that’s not right!" mental analysis on every sci-fi movie I go and see. However, this one hit so close to home I felt compelled to write my opinions in this Op-Ed piece.
I assure you that Sandra Bullock’s comment on enjoying the quietness of space is not true. The simple crackling of the radio would offer a reassuring sign that you are still somewhat connected. One would also hear the hums of motors and fans from your EVA suit.
- Jose Hernandez
The procedural and scientific inaccuracies I found difficult to accept start at the very beginning of the film. It’s hard to fathom that NASA would allow two astronauts on Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA’s), otherwise known as space walks, to hardly do anything while the third one is doing all the work. Though it was mentioned that George Clooney was trying out a new turbo-charged jet pack, it’s hard to believe he could zoom around the Hubble telescope like his namesake George Jetson. Current technology uses a small self-contained propulsive device called a Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue (SAFER). Only NASA would figure out how to create an acronym within an acronym. This self-rescue device is used if an astronaut gets separated from structure. The small nitrogen jet thrusters, if used appropriately and sparingly, would bring the astronaut back onto structure.
Though I did not perform an EVA myself, I did train for EVA’s at NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab and I assure you that Sandra Bullock’s comment on enjoying the quietness of space is not true. The simple crackling of the radio would offer a reassuring sign that you are still somewhat connected. One would also hear the hums of motors and fans from your EVA suit.
EVA gloves are hard and stiff so the notion of an astronaut hanging on to a pressurized hatch as it wildly opens is hard to imagine. Bullock's character did this not once but twice. Also, upon removing the EVA space suit I can’t help but notice that she was not wearing the Spider Man-like liquid cooling garment required for regulating body temperatures during EVAs.
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Perhaps the most unforgiving fact in the movie was the close proximity of the ISS to the Hubble telescope. The ISS and Hubble are not only at substantially different altitudes but on different orbiting planes. Imagine two differently sized hula hoops at different angles, even if they intersected they would meet at these points of intersection at high speeds. Without getting into Orbital Mechanics, let's just say it would require a lot of energy to make a plane change and accomplish what the female astronaut accomplished in the movie.
My final notable inaccuracy to point out was the Titanic-like scene when Clooney asked Bullock to let go of him. If you noticed, both were not moving at the time and hence Sandra had no reason to let go of him since there was not anything pulling him away.
In spite of having mentioned all of the above, I found the movie to be quite enjoyable. Alfonso Cuarón did a great job of bringing to life the feeling of being in space. The story focuses on confronting obstacles, overcoming adversity and the spirit of wanting to survive. Cuarón does a magnificent job at showing an astronaut’s perspective of the world we live in.
I say time and time again that words cannot do justice in describing what an astronaut sees or feels. All I can say is that it is a very humbling feeling — and Cuarón came pretty close to accomplishing this.
Cuarón’s final scene, when Bullock swims on shore on all fours, tries to stand up only to fall and finally standing up tall, brings a symbolic end to what I consider a picture worth seeing. Hopefully this movie motivates our kids to study the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields and more importantly motivates Congress and our president to invest more in NASA.
Jose Hernandez is an engineer, scientist and former NASA astronaut.