Astronaut and a Writer at the Movies
Elwood H. Smith
Published: September 30, 2013
The new movie “Gravity” is the closest most of us will ever come to going into space, and that may be for the best.
Venice Film Festival 2013
In the new film "Gravity," Sandra Bullock and George
Clooney play astronauts who must save themselves after a midspace
Watching Sandra Bullock
and George Clooney
as marooned astronauts, spinning out of control, bouncing off each
other like yo-yos, is enough to make you forget your idyllic dreams of
zero gravity. As Ms. Bullock tumbles and scrambles across arrays of
solar panels and other spacecraft appendages, grabbing frantically at
anything lest she float off to infinity — in 3D, no less — you feel
“Gravity” opens this week, but it has already won rapturous reviews at film festivals in Venice
So when the distributor, Warner Brothers, offered me a chance to watch
the movie with an actual astronaut, I happily tagged along.
My companion was Michael J. Massimino
, who flew missions in 2002 and 2009 to service the Hubble Space Telescope
— the same telescope the astronauts in “Gravity” were sent to repair.
An engineer with a doctorate from M.I.T., he was delighted by the
movie’s fidelity to much of the space experience. During one scene, he
nudged me, thrilled to point out that a tool Ms. Bullock was using
looked just like his favorite space wrench.
There is also some inventive and very realistic use of the kickback from
a fire extinguisher. The outboard scenery of the sunsets and auroras
below comes straight from NASA
images taken from the International Space Station.
Mr. Clooney, as a veteran spacewalker, with his resonant voice and
folksy yarns, seems to be channeling every imperturbable astronaut you
ever heard speaking from on high. And that opening scene, a long shot
that begins with a majestic view of Earth and ends with Ms. Bullock’s
tumble, has earned the director, Alfonso Cuarón, comparisons to masters
like Robert Altman and Michelangelo Antonioni.
So what’s not to like?
You knew there was a “but” coming, right? Unfortunately, with all this
verisimilitude, there is a hole in the plot: a gaping orbital
impossibility big enough to drive the Starship Enterprise through.
After they stop tumbling and find the shuttle destroyed and their
colleagues all dead, Mr. Clooney tells Ms. Bullock that their only hope
for rescue is to use his jetpack to travel to the space station, seen as
a glowing light over the horizon. “It’s a long hike, but we can make
it,” he says.
At this point, space fans will groan.
As we recall from bitter memory, the Hubble and the space station are in
vastly different orbits. Getting from one to the other requires so much
energy that not even space shuttles had enough fuel to do it. The
telescope is 353 miles high, in an orbit that keeps it near the Equator;
the space station is about 100 miles lower, in an orbit that takes it
far north, over Russia.
To have the movie astronauts Matt Kowalski (Mr. Clooney) and Ryan Stone
(Ms. Bullock) zip over to the space station would be like having a
pirate tossed overboard in the Caribbean swim to London.
This might sound like some humorless quibble. But only 10 years ago, it
was the source of a national debate on space policy, and it almost cost
us the Hubble telescope. After the shuttle Columbia disintegrated on
re-entry in 2003, the NASA administrator, Sean O’Keefe, canceled the last remaining mission
to service the telescope on the grounds that if a shuttle were to run
into trouble it would not have enough fuel to reach a safe haven on the
The decision caused a national outcry
Congress and the National Academy of Sciences got involved.
Schoolchildren pooled their pennies to send to NASA for a mission to the
Hubble. Dr. Massimino reminded me that when the mission finally happened, in May 2009
, another space shuttle
was standing by at Cape Canaveral, ready to rocket into orbit if the astronauts needed rescue. Luckily they did not.
Dr. Massimino achieved a kind of cosmic fame when, confronted with a
stuck bolt that was blocking access to a broken spectrograph, he ripped a handrail off the side of the Hubble
to get to it. He later said he was channeling memories of his Uncle Frank working on a car.
As a result, the Hubble is thriving a decade after its death sentence.
I spent several years writing about the Hubble controversy, so I suppose
I might be taking this a little too personally. It would be nice to
think there was a kind of infrastructure in space so you could shoot
from one installation to another, whether in an emergency or to borrow a
space wrench. But there isn’t, and you can’t.
It wouldn’t matter so much had the producers not set such a high bar for
themselves with their splendid re-creations of small things: the
fogging helmets, the space tools. Violations of the known laws of
physics happen in practically every frame of a “Star Wars” or “Star
Trek” movie, and we don’t care because we don’t expect anything better.
But this is the way it goes in the movies. They will hire art historians
to make sure the curtains in Einstein’s house look right — it’s a visual
medium, after all — but at some point, as the science fiction director David Twohy (“The Chronicles of Riddick
”) said during a talk on movies and science, science gives way to the story.
Still, I wish they wouldn’t always cheat on the physics. It makes me
wish that Arthur C. Clarke, co-author of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and
many science fiction classics, were still around. The opening of
“Gravity” reminded me of “2001” with its balletic spaceships.
Sir Arthur, who also invented the idea of communications satellites,
took pride in getting the physics right. He reported that one story, “Jupiter
Five,” about the discovery that a moon of Jupiter is actually an alien spaceship, had required 20 to 30 pages of orbital calculations
Sir Arthur would have found a way to let Ms. Bullock down gently, and lawfully.