Could ‘Gravity’ happen? Astronauts explain the science and fiction

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“Gravity” director Alfonso Cuarón’s movie starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as two astronauts having an especially bad day in space is a hit with film critics and audiences. Reviews by actual rocket scientists, however, have been mixed.

Hayden Planetarium astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has pointed out some of the movie’s scientific liberties on Twitter under the phrase “Mysteries of #Gravity,” while Michael Interbartolo III, who flew the shuttle for NASA, has critiqued the realism of the trailer on the science fiction website Blastr. Elsewhere, second-man-on-the-moon Buzz Aldrin has praised the movie’s portrayal of zero gravity but said the shots of the Earth from space looked too clear.

Whenever science fiction movies rooted in some kind of fact hit theaters, audiences love to dissect them; in 2011, NASA released a list of what its employees considered the 10 most and least scientifically accurate films (they rated “Gattaca” the most realistic, “2012” the least).


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“Gravity” seems likely to fall somewhere in the middle. In the film, space debris creates a terrifying hazard for astronauts working on the Hubble Space Telescope, and that’s a real danger astronauts confront. The look of the Hubble and the International Space Station in “Gravity” are faithfully drawn from NASA documentaries, public domain photographs and U.S. and Russian space objects that production designer Andy Nicholson bought on EBay.

For the filmmakers, that kind of realism was necessary, but not the sole consideration, according to “Gravity” producer David Heyman.

“Getting a verisimilitude was very important,” Heyman said. “We wanted to give the impression of being up in space and it was fundamental to Alfonso’s approach that it look and feel very real. But this is a fiction. It’s a story, it’s not a documentary. It was important that it be truthful, not that it be 100% real.”

Some NASA employees advised on “Gravity” — before shooting, Bullock spoke to astronaut Catherine “Cady” Coleman, who has logged more than 4,330 hours in space aboard the Columbia shuttle and the ISS, while astronaut Andrew Thomas consulted with the filmmakers “as a private citizen,” according to a spokesperson for agency.

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NASA did not, however, provide the kind of production support it did for the 2011 action movie “Transformers: Dark of Moon,” which filmed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida — with shuttle workers even appearing as extras.

One person who worked on “Gravity” said NASA declined to advise on it in an official capacity because of its portrayal of the dangers of space travel.

The movie’s release comes at particularly challenging time for NASA, with 97% of the agency’s employees sent home because of the government shutdown. But if NASA objected to the movie in its earliest stages, the agency must have gotten over it — both Coleman and astronaut Mike Massimino have participated in question-and-answer sessions at public screenings of the film, and in interviews with The Times last week they spoke about both the movie’s accuracies and its creative embellishments.

Massimino said that, overall, he saw the film as a plus for the agency. “I would go so far as to say I think it’s going to inspire some young people. The exposure of it will hopefully get people interested in what NASA is doing,” he said. “The way the characters are portrayed is as real people. A lot of times astronauts are shown as stiff, smart mathematicians. The Sandra Bullock character is very human.”

As for what’s realistic and what’s not, Coleman said that space debris is “no question a worry.”

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“We track everything bigger than half an inch. It comes up all the time,” she said. “We’ve got an equation that tells us we’re going to come within X number of miles and if we need to, we move.”

And the space sickness Bullock’s character suffers in “Gravity” is a common problem too, though both Coleman and Massimino say she would likely have gotten over it by the time she was doing the space walk that appears in the opening moments of the movie.

“More than half of us are sick when we first get to space,” Coleman said. “You try to keep your head going in the same direction as your torso.”

One of the chief critiques that space scientists have had of “Gravity” is the portrayal of the Hubble and ISS as being in relatively close proximity.

“Mysteries of #Gravity,” deGrasse Tyson tweeted. “How Hubble (350mi up) ISS (230mi up) & a Chinese Space Station are all in sight lines of one another.”

Other changes the filmmakers made include the style of the visors the actors wear, which were altered so their faces appear unobstructed in close-ups, and the length of time it takes an astronaut to decompress upon entering the space station, which is dramatically shortened in the movie.


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“There are some things I’m sure the nerd community will be getting very excited about,” Nicholson said. “We always knew exactly how something would work, but we changed it when the story required it.”

In one scene, Bullock takes off her space suit to reveal a flattering jog bra and shorts underneath. In reality, according to Coleman, astronaut undergarments are “way not cute,” consisting of one-piece long johns, cooling tubing and a diaper.

Coleman, who first watched the movie with another, younger astronaut by her side, also paused at scene where Bullock drifts past a fireball burning in the ISS.

“I reached over and I said, ‘You will never, ever, ever do that,’” Coleman said. “You will not go by a fire and not put it out.”

Massimino said he was surprised by some of the remarkably faithful detail in the movie, including when a power tool with the number 8 on it floated behind Bullock’s head. In real life, Massimino had put that number on his tool when he was working on the Hubble because it was Yogi Berra’s jersey number.


“This shows what it’s like to be in space as far the views, the space suits, the look and feel of the payload bay,” Massimino said. “It’s going to remind people we are still in space, that we do still have a space station. A lot more people are going to watch this movie than watch the spacewalk that NASA does.”