Gravity's Astronaut Consultants Discuss the Science of Space

By Luke Y. Thompson in Tech
Wednesday, September 18, 2013 at 3:00 pm


In the upcoming movie Gravity, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock play astronauts whose shuttle is functionally wrecked by space debris, and must make their way - if they can - to one of two orbiting space stations to survive. Review to come, but I can confirm this is not like Open Water, where the characters were entirely dependent on an external rescue: they know what they need to do to stay alive, and fight for that goal. It is also more scientifically accurate than the trailers might imply - unlike what we've seen, the crashes in the movie make no noise.

To discuss the accuracy of the movie, Warner Bros. held a press conference yesterday morning with two astronauts who assisted in the film's research: Cady Coleman and Michael Massimino. TR was one of a select handful of media invited, and we're pleased to bring you the complete Q&A. Minor Gravity spoilers are within, though nothing about the fates of the main characters, which I would never spoil except by request.

[All images courtesy of NASA unless specified otherwise]

Cady Coleman: My name is Cady Coleman, and I am a NASA astronaut, formerly Air Force; a chemist in the Air Force. I went on two space shuttle missions, and then a six-month expedition to the space station, and my connection here, I guess, is that - first of all - there's a pretty marvelous movie about space coming out. It was really neat for us to be a part of. When I was up on my space station expedition, Sandra called - well, we ended up talking, I actually called her - because our families met each other and so I got to talk to her a little bit about what it really felt like to live up there and move around up there.

Michael Massimino: I'm Mike. I've flown in space two times on the shuttle to the Hubble space telescope. I enjoyed the movie. Are you allowed to say that? I'm not a critic. I really enjoyed the movie. I liked the actors saying that they should - all of you have seen the movie, right? I don't have to worry about ruining it for you. But the actor with the telescope made me feel like I was back there, but of course after whatever amount of time, I was glad I wasn't back there. But that's where I come from.

Q: I wondered if you have any advice for a woman to struggling for life in zero gravity? How do you play that?


CC: I think the first part of that is the key part - the struggling for life, and that it actually transcends whatever environment you're in. I don't think it matters whether you're in your house and not wanting to come out, or functioning in a world that's actually closed up inside yourself, or in outer space. So that part, I just thought she did so beautifully, and it was really interesting to me to watch. And I liked the fact that the environment - I certainly, I love space, and I love that they made this movie, because it brings, I think, a lot of people from here on Earth up to space.

Mike and I have a very special job, where not too many people get to do it. We're both pretty social folks, and there's a lot of people I would bring with me, if I could, and I can't. In this movie, my mother will get to understand a little bit about what it was like for me. Not the disaster kind of things! [laughs] I think they were so great about the environment, and the visuals are astounding, that the zero G part didn't distract, and yet it was a real interesting place that she was.

MM: I'm afraid that my mother is going to think that I actually broke the telescope. [laughter] "Is that happening?" I've got to keep my mom away.

Q: As a follow-up to that, when she gets to the first space station, there's some Russian, there's some Chinese - when she enters those pods, you see so many things floating around from previous people who were living there or inhabiting that space, do you see things floating in space?

MM: I don't think there was very much time to clean up. It looks like they got the hell out, so...I guess that's what I think.


CC: I was going to say that that visual, the first time in the shuttle, when they get on the shuttle and of course the shuttle's open, I don't know if you meant that in the shuttle everything was floating, and then in the station everything was floating and out and tangled and all those kinds of things, and that is so absolutely foreign to the way that we live up there, because anything that is floating untethered will be gone. You will never find it! There are certain ventilation paths you can follow, and that's where you find the stuff that you lose because...

MM: In the air filter.

CC:...yeah, exactly - in the air filter. But to me, that was actually very emotional to see in the movie, it was the epitome of devastating, just that visual, because it's just not going to be that way in a space ship unless something has gone very wrong.

Q: I was referring to those two other ones.

MM: I'm assuming that's what - I assumed everyone had to get out, because they were in a debris field, and it was time to go home.

CC: I assumed that no one made it.

MM: Well, there were no bodies floating out there.

CC: I know, and I wondered kind of why they didn't do that, but they didn't have any way to go home.

MM: Maybe they only had three people? We'll get into the science here. [laughter] I think what you're seeing is an example of how astronauts watched the movie. Because I was like, "I would have done that differently. I wouldn't have done this. Why is she on such a long tether when he was ..." - things like that. We could probably go on for a couple of hours, so we won't force you to listen to us.


Q: How likely is this - I know it's a drama, but how likely is this to happen in space? If I were a child watching this, I would never want to be an astronaut! Are you afraid it's going to stop people? With the Russians now, we've cut back so much on our space program, we're depending on them to even get to the space station and back, which is infuriating - can you talk a little about that?

CC: Let me address the infuriating part, and then Mike can talk about space debris. You know, it would be nicer if we were launching from the US, but all of us here in this country have a lot of competing economic concerns, and a dozen years ago, every single person that works at NASA can tell you that on this day, we would have no space shuttle, and no way to launch from American soil. It's a choice that we all made to not fund the new program to the extent that it would be ready now.

Now, you can't go back and rethink that. It just wasn't the decision that could be made at the time, but things are actually, I think, in a pretty exciting state, and as much as I loved the space shuttle, and as much as it did for us - building a space station, bringing a number of different kinds of people up to space - it took enormous amounts of resources, people and money...every single time Massimino left the planet. [laughter] No, but seriously...

MM: My bones are bigger. I eat more food.

Massimino and colleagues in the documentary Hubble 3D

CC: That's true. No, it's just an enormous amount of resources, and it was really time to retire the shuttle. Right now, we're in this period where it would be really nice if we had the new vehicle, but the new vehicle is coming. The test flights for the new vehicle start in 2014. That is soon. So it's really soon, and when you look back at this with a longer lens, so to speak, it will be a bump, it will be a time; it's a challenging time in terms of people not working immediately, right now, on a vehicle. But in the meantime, the things that we know how to do, we know how to get people up to space, and we know how to get stuff up to space, and that's supplies, and we're letting our...are you looking at me like I should go faster?

Q: Oh, no!

MM: I'm waiting for the microphone. Usually I'm loud enough that I don't need a mic. I'm afraid I'm going to hurt your ears.

CC: So anyways, we know how to get people and stuff up to space, and that's what we're having our commercial partners do. It's just companies like SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Sierra Nevada, Boeing. They - it's not that we can do that easily, it's not that we can do it casually, but it is a known thing and these companies can do it faster. Faster, better, cheaper is not always the most popular phrase but it's true. They're very flexible and they're interested in making - tomorrow is a very big day for the Orbital Sciences company - they are the second company to send commercial launches to the International Space Station, and their launch is at about 10:50 Eastern time, and they will launch on the Antares rocket from Wallops [Flight Facility], in Maryland outside Virginia there on the coast. Their supply ship arrives at the International Space Station on Sunday. Karen Nyberg and Luca Parmitano will be controlling the robotic arm to capture that thing, bring it on board, unpack the supplies, and then repack it with trash and send it off with trash. And they're doing it in a way that should be done.

So that's where we are now, is trying to make sure that our commercial partners don't reinvent the wheel. That's actually my job right now at NASA when I'm not at the movies, is being in charge of the - basically everything the crew does with those new supply ships, including the transition as we start to have people on those ships, and so it's actually a really busy week for us, and we're pretty excited about grabbing the Cygnus - Cygnus stands for swan, and that's a pretty cool thing.


So it is a pretty tough time, infuriating, or whatever. At the same time, having had this view of the planet, where you look back and see the whole thing, it's actually a lot harder for me to think of myself as being from just one place. I didn't care where I launched from, I just wanted to go, and I wanted to go and live there, and I trust the Russians, and I launched with them, I landed with them. You know, it's the International Space Station, 16 different countries, all of these countries have different ways of doing things, but it's working. I mean, not only is the crew working together up there - there are usually six people up there, right now there are three, because the next three will launch in about a week, we're in the midst of changing crews - but on the ground this phenomenal thing is taking place where 16 countries are deciding with these six people will do every single day. They're making time-affective decisions, and it's a really extraordinary kind of thing, and what I love about this movie is that whether they're having a bad day up there or not, at least folks down here understand that people on this planet are exploring. It has risk, but we're exploring because we just have to, and it's very special.

Q: Mike?

CC: Space debris. [laughter]

MM: I got to fly on the shuttle twice, and I think it's a magnificent space ship. I think if you could put a coolness factor on a space ship, I think the shuttle blows everyone away; it's the coolest thing we've ever had and will have for a while. As Cady said, it had some limits - it's a bit dangerous, it's a bit expensive, it's time to move on, but it was a magnificent ship. It launched like a rocket, it took seven people with her, lots of cargo could go with her when the shuttle flew; it kept us safe in orbit. It went from a large vehicle to kind of like a space station - kinda/sorta, a small one - it allowed us to build the International Space Station, launch and repair mobile space telescopes, which were the missions I was on. I remember thinking of this on one of my last flights, of everything that this space ship had done for us, and if I was outside and I could have, I'd have given her a kiss. As I was looking out over the front windows, looking at Atlantis written on the side - what a magnificent machine. But that time is done, we've got one from here to Los Angeles that you can see it in a museum, and at other points scattered around the country. But it was really a great space ship, I think.

As far as the real world risk - so on my flights on Hubble, we did, very much - we were concerned about risks of getting hit. In fact, I remember my first flight, which was before the Columbia flight, before the Columbia, we actually flew on Columbia - we were the flight before we lost Columbia - and I remember I was a rookie on that flight, and I was with a lot of experienced guys, I was really the rookie - these guys had flown multiple times, and lots of space walks. I remember our first meeting, the four space walkers got together with our lead space walker said to us, "We lost a crew in March; I think the next time we're going to lose somebody is during a spacewalk, and we've all got to stick together and make sure it don't happen to one of us." And so we did whatever we could to make sure that when we buttoned someone up inside of their space suit, that they were ready to go, everyone's comfy, and we knew the checklist, and we knew every emergency, and we practiced and practiced and practiced. And one of those things that we looked at and were concerned about was getting debris hit.

Now we see a very sensationalized version of a debris hit in the movie. So when that happens, it's kind of like, alright, God, I get the message. But there was a reasonable chance - not a very large chance - but when we looked at the telescope, we were space walking on it, the high gain antenna, which is a big antenna dish, has a hole about this big in it, about the size of a silver dollar, from a micrometeorite that came, or was coming towards Earth and clipped it on the way in. It's peppered with these dings.


We took out the wide-field camera, which has an exposed radiator, and when I saw it on the ground at the Jet Propulsion Lab down the street here in Pasadena a few months later, and I saw all these looked like some kid with a BB gun got at it. It's like, what, you breezed through the wrong neighborhood? What happened? [laughter] But it was from space - it was just debris that had pinged it. So it was something that we thought about, and practiced rescue - if you have an incapacitated crew member, for whatever reason, a debris hit or something else - we practiced the rescue of one crewman, crewperson, rescuing the other crewperson, and what the group inside would do, what the ground would do. Cady's gone through that same training. It's something we have to be able to do, and demonstrate, before they even let you go into space. So it is something that's on your mind. It's a real risk.

The movie shows that space can be a very dangerous place. It takes you to the extreme. But these are real risks, you know, these are things we think about - maybe not to that extent, because this was a really colossally bad day [laughter]. But these are certainly things we think about.


Q: I was fascinated by the physical properties that are depicted in this film, and the concept of momentum. Momentum creates a lot of the dramatic tension in the film - if you are going a direction, you'd better like it, because that's the direction you're going to be going for a while.

MM: In the actual movie?

Q: Yeah. First of all, describe how you see it, as far as does the film depict this the way it really is, and also, how hard is it to get used to that concept of momentum and the way it works, and how you have to commit to a direction?

MM: You've got to be careful, because once you - you're right, it's funny, when you mentioned that, I thought of a story. We had a little thing, we had a rendezvous with Hubble, you're building momentum in different directions - you're traveling at 17,500 miles per hour, 350 miles above the planet, and you gotta get this target, and you only have a limited amount of fuel on board the shuttle - at the time, we were using the shuttle - and you could run out of gas. And then you would feel really foolish, like "Sorry we wasted the launch - we gotta come home now! We gotta get gas."

So you want to get there, and you're right - so we had a little saying. If you pick the wrong direction, if you start doing too much, wasting the fuel, so Scoot [Scott "Scooter" Altman] came up with this saying, he said - let me see if I can get it right - "The longer we do nothing, the less we'll have to do later." [laughter] Eventually, it was like everyone just shut up until we really know what we're supposed to do here, or we're going to drift for a while until we figure it out, and not waste any more gas! That actually was a good thing to remember, because it allowed us to manage our fuel better.

CC: Mass, talk about it from being in the space suit, which weighs 300 pounds - that kind of person moving limited, which Mike has done, having done space walks, then I'll talk about inside, which is easier.

Email Print

Sponsor Content