SPOILER ALERT: Have you seen Gravity? It’s a lot of fun. I don’t enjoy watching cruel behavior, so I appreciated the absence of any “bad guys” except pieces of space debris. Nobody even told a lie. The last time I saw something like that was Lassie. And yet the plot unfolded with high suspense and amazing special effects that left you wondering how they did it.
But you’re not here for a movie review; rather, people ask about the accuracy. And this is what was so strange about Gravity: Its depiction of being in orbit around Earth was in many ways stunningly realistic. Yet huge areas of the film were so scientifically incorrect, they were laughable. I’d decided ahead of time not to be critical and simply enjoy it as science fiction. Armed with that attitude, I thoroughly loved it. But in case you’ve seen it and want to know what was real and what was not…well, here goes.
Several key aspects were borrowed from real life. In the film, deadly debris was created after a Russian missile test destroyed a target space vehicle. In actuality, a Chinese anti-satellite test did indeed create dangerous clouds of space junk a few years ago. That nation received global criticism for that event’s enormous pollution of the orbital environment – and it never repeated it.
Another instance occurred near the end, when our hero nearly drowned after she popped open her capsule’s hatch, letting water rush in. That’s just what happened to Gus Grissom in his Mercury capsule a half-century ago.
The director accurately portrayed scenes beyond our atmosphere as visually stark, with blacks and whites but not many grays. Tears fell off faces to become realistic drifting spheres. And unlike on Earth, where candle or match flames taper upward into sharp points, small fires on the International Space Shuttle were accurately depicted as glowing balls. That’s just as they’d appear up there in real life. There were many such scientifically correct touches.
Moreover, debris hurtling into spacecraft and destroying them unfolded in total silence, which is accurate, too. The violent super-high speeds of these impacts were nicely depicted.
The greatest departure from reality was depicting the Hubble Space Telescope hovering just a short spacewalk from the ISS, and a Chinese space station a mere additional 100 miles farther. In reality, these objects occupy totally different orbits and zoom in completely different directions. Even if you had a fully fueled Space Shuttle at your disposal, you could not possibly go from one to the other. Not ever. You’d have to land on Earth, and then blast off on a different trajectory from the start.
Imagine yourself staying ten feet off the ground while zooming around the Equator at 20,000 miles an hour. Now picture that a friend maintains a 100-mile altitude while circling Earth in a polar route, passing over both Poles in each orbit, rushing that way at 20,000 miles an hour. It is true that at one particular point, your friend might momentarily pass a mere 100 miles above you. But the fact that you two are hurtling at right angles to each other, each traveling ten times faster than a rifle bullet, makes it clear that no bursts of power from thrusters in your backpack could sufficiently alter your motion to let you join your friend and fly alongside her. Yet this is what’s presented to us in Gravity.
Another egregiously silly scene finds the female lead’s feet fortuitously entangled and held by ropes while she clasps the hand of the endangered male lead, keeping him from being pulled into space. While thus connected, he urges her to save herself and let him go. It’s one of those hanging-from-the-cliff scenarios where the safe person at the top struggles to hang onto the dangling companion.
Ultimately he disconnects himself from her and swiftly falls into space. The problem? In truth, the moment she let go, they would all just remain in the same position. Nobody would go anywhere. It would be like floating on a lake holding someone’s hand and then releasing it. Your companion wouldn’t be yanked away. Indeed, in that scene, if Sandra Bullock had just slightly tugged at George Clooney and then let go, he would continue floating toward her and the safety of the spacecraft.
Subtler errors included our astronaut steering towards a space station in the distance. In reality, when it comes to orbiting bodies or spacecraft, you never point toward the desired object. Rather, you always aim toward where your intended target will be located in the future. It’s like a quarterback trying to hit a receiver on a slant pattern. He doesn’t aim for the guy, but where he expects him to be a few seconds later. In space, complex computations are required. The Apollo guys visibly headed towards the Moon only during the final hours.
So it was strange to see this mixture of the accurate and the ludicrous. But, as the director later said, “I was creating fiction, not a documentary.” In the process he took us on a visually stunning, truly original, nail-biting space odyssey.
Want to know more? To read Bob Berman’s previous “Night Sky” columns, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com.