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Movie Mom

An Astronaut on “Gravity”

posted by Nell Minow

What do astronauts think of Gravity?  Mark Kelly wrote about his reaction to the George Clooney/Sandra Bullock space movie in the Washington Post.  “I’ve spent a total of 55 days in space so I know what to look for, and Cuarón really was able to capture what it looks like inside and outside of a spacecraft.”

Of course, I would fail you as an astronaut and an amateur film critic if I did not touch on the big misconception of “Gravity.” A key plot point involves a space station falling out of orbit because it was hit by debris. But that just doesn’t happen. Likewise, blowing up stuff in orbit makes a big mess, but it doesn’t send a giant field of shrapnel hurtling at high velocity toward a spacecraft that is circulating Earth in an entirely different orbit.

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I can say this with confidence, because I’ve dealt with my fair share of space junk. In January of 2007, China intentionally targeted and destroyed one of its satellites, and it made a big mess in orbit. Six months later, I commanded space shuttle Discovery on a mission to the international space station . As one can imagine, we were concerned about the additional space junk. But we knew that we only had to put some distance between us and the debris.

You also can’t just point at things in space, head off in that direction and expect to get there. In June of 1965, Jim McDivitt tried to rendezvous his Gemini 4 spacecraft with a spent rocket casing — and he failed.

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At the time, NASA didn’t understand that by pointing at something and accelerating, you increase your altitude, slow down and instead move away.

Today, we know that the best way to join up with another spacecraft is a slow procedure that takes an entire day in the space shuttle — too long for the supercharged momentum of a movie.

But the truth is, most of this doesn’t matter. Cuarón has given us a glimpse of the awe that is the universe beyond our atmosphere. And physics aside, he does it remarkably well.

 

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