It seems like everyone is talking about "Gravity," lately! But why not see what an astronaut thinks about the movie? We're lucky to have our Extraordinary Scientist-in-Residence, former astronaut Dr. David Wolf, here to answer your burning questions about this box office hit. Interview conducted in tandem with Indianapolis Monthly.
Would it be difficult for someone who's been to the International Space Station to watch this movie?
For me, watching “Gravity” brought back lots of amazing memories of life in space on the ISS, including during spacewalks. The movie really captured the look and feel of space very well and it was a bit like going back to space for me. Actually, it's amazing how well they “created” zero gravity in the studio and how accurately they portrayed the way people move and objects behave under that condition. Even though the events unfolding were so extreme, it did well capture the sense of spaceflight.
In the film, the earth looked incredibly clear from space. Does the earth really look like it does in the movie?
The Earth, viewed from Space, is even more spectacular than the movie was able to capture. The depth of colors and extreme contrasts and dimension are beyond our ability to project on a screen. But they are still really impressive as shown in the movie—the movie is awesome.
Like Sandra Bullock's character, you're also a medical doctor. When you were on the space station, how does your medical training factor into the job?
I have been our medical officer on four spaceflights. Some medical issues inevitably do come up and it's good to have a crew member who is able to take care of these and knows well how to use the medical instruments, as well as communicate with medical specialists on Earth. Like in the movie, the doctor's main work in space usually is centered on the mission unless they are needed to provide medical care.
Did you ever see debris in space? Is this an issue?
We do see a fair amount of debris that comes from our own vehicle and does not pose a high speed impact problem. It floats slowly near to us. And we do see evidence of high speed impacts by observing small damage on windows and structure. These are usually very small pieces and don’t cause serious damage. The kind of “wave” of large debris that caused enormous damage in Gravity has not been seen and is very unlikely. But we do worry particularly about damage to spacesuits during spacewalks and sharp edges created on the structure that could cut spacesuit material. So the premise is true—space debris is a hazard. For example, an ISS solar array was left with a small hole from an impact.
As one of the relatively few people who's been on the International Space Station, what did the movie get right?
Gravity got a lot right and it's an amazing movie. Even the physics of motion and human physiology were mostly correct. The vehicle and spacesuits looked almost real down to small details, even the colors. It really well captured what it's like to move around without gravity and how easy it is to get out of control and flop into structures. We move much slower than they did in the movie to prevent causing damage by being out of control. The appearance of the Space Station, inside the modules and the exterior, the various equipment and spacesuits were very accurate. The controls of the various vehicles and equipment were also very realistic. Inside the vehicles, the control labels were pretty accurate, even the one in Russian language. I noticed that even thruster firings were reasonably close to correct to get the motion that was intended when thrusters were fired. One cannot get into, or out of, the spacesuits as quickly as shown,but that’s okay. And the Shuttle, ISS, and Chinese Space Stations are in different orbits such that moving between them is not really possible as depicted. But that’s a literary license “nit.”
Are there any factual errors in the movie that you think are important to correct?
I think that allowing for some literary license, nothing needs to be corrected. The movie is fantastic and gives a great feel of Space with a really dynamic story. I like it just how it is! But, for example, one could not maneuver the “jet pack” nearly as fast or as far as George Clooney did. The chain reaction of satellite debris would surely not unfold that quickly, but one can imagine situations that could cause severe damage in real life, and we maneuver the ISS to prevent these when they are predicted. Go enjoy it without worrying too much if it's perfect. It’s a great story and very realistic—darn realistic!
Do you have any favorite parts of the movie? What did the movie do well?
I really like the entire movie. I did see it in 3-D. It took me back to my actual spacewalks and living inside the space station. If I'm forced to pick, it would be when they were approaching the ISS and had to grab hold to stay on it. One has to be impacted when Clooney lets himself go to save Sandra Bullock. Oddly enough, Clooney is trying to beat the spacewalk record of Anatoly Soloviev, a Russian cosmonaut. I personally did my first (of seven) spacewalks with Anatoly and he actually does hold the record.
In the movie, George Clooney’s character cracked jokes while space walking or on the ISS. While in space are astronauts all business or do you have time for a few jokes?
During real spacewalks it's much more “all business” but there are a few jokes made. They need to be short and carefully chosen. Every word spoken distracts the attention of hundreds of mission controllers on the ground that are doing very detailed work. In general we are very careful to minimize unnecessary chatter on the communications loops. But, heck, it's so amazing that one cannot help but be human even during a spacewalk. More often we hear comments about amazing views of the Earth.