What Does the Film Gravity Get Wrong?

Dennis Overbye, writing in The New York Times, sat down with astronaut Michael Massimino, who flew missions in 2002 and 2009 to service the Hubble Space Telescope — to discuss the upcoming film Gravity, starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock.

The movie gets a lot of detail right:

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.

But there is a HUGE gaping hole in the plot:

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.

I still want to see this film, but I won’t be pretentious about what it gets wrong. Just good to know.

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