- Posted October 17, 2013 by
Washington, District of Columbia
Former ISS Commander Weighs In On 'Gravity'
Editor's Note: Michael Lopez-Alegria currently serves as the President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. Michael "L-A" is a three time shuttle astronaut and later Soyuz flight engineer. He was commander of the ISS for seven months, an American record. His other two NASA records - for number and duration of EVAs - put him in second place worldwide, to cosmonaut Anatoly Soloviev. He recently participated in an "AMA" on Reddit, where the Reddit community was able to ask him anything they wanted. He received many questions regarding his thoughts on 'Gravity', and he shares his review below:
Not since Al Capone walked into a theater to watch The Godfather has anyone been so skeptical about a film. OK; that could never have happened, but you get the point. Having plied the astronaut trade for a couple of decades and having been “outside” doing spacewalks for a fair part of the time I spent orbiting the Earth, I was more than primed to roll my eyes for an hour and a half of encounters with the deadly orbital debris that plays the villain in Gravity.
I’ll start with what should be obvious: this film does not qualify as continuing education for NASA engineers. There are so many technical inaccuracies that listing them would take longer than sitting through the previews. But here’s a short list:
Dr. Ryan Stone is on a mission after having trained for a total of six months. And she’s out doing an EVA – Extravehicular Activity (spacewalk)? On the Hubble Space Telescope? Sign me up! At NASA it takes two years just to complete basic training and have the word “Candidate” dropped as a suffix to “Astronaut.” All that is before you can even be assigned to start one or two years of mission-specific training.
Meanwhile, Mission Commander Matt Kowalski (who is awfully long in the tooth for a Lieutenant) is carelessly hosing out invaluable propellant doing loop-de-loops in his jet backpack? It does look like a lot of fun, but real spacewalks are challenging and dangerous; they are choreographed down to the last minute. NASA would certainly have found some bolts that needed tightening for Matt while Dr. Stone saves the Hubble (again).
Houston insists on calling Sandra Bullock’s character, “Doctor Stone” in their air-to-ground communications. The whole point of having all the CAPCOMs in the Mission Control Center be astronauts is to capitalize on the familiar bond that we share. Besides, by now Ryan would definitely have a cool call sign, like “Scooter” or “Pinto” or “Scorch.”
When she does make it into the airlock and doffs her spacesuit, all she’s wearing under it are her skivvies. Believe me, I get why that’s more visually appealing than the actual Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment (particularly in Dr. Stone’s case), but the lack of a diaper has me crying foul (and would have Matt not wanting nearly so badly to break Anatoly Soloviev’s record).
And the list goes on: the exterior hatches on the various airlocks in the movie open out instead of in (think about it); all the radios are inexplicably tuned to Houston, even on Russian and Chinese vehicles; and don't even get me started on the orbital mechanics impossibilities.
But, hey, it’s a movie! The fact is that the effects are nothing short of SPECTACULAR. I highly recommend spending your popcorn money on seeing the movie in an IMAX theater in 3D. As jaded as I was walking in, I was floored by how realistic certain aspects of the visual effects were. In particular, the dynamics of motion in zero g seemed, well, incredibly real. The fidelity of some of the details of spacecraft and spacesuits was stunning. In particular, the interior of the Russian Soyuz capsule, from the layout of the cockpit, to the hand controllers, to the labels of the command buttons in Cyrillic, was spot on. And the views of Earth from orbit – clouds, aurora and especially city lights at night – were extremely accurate.
It was like an Oliver Stone movie, where fact is so seamlessly blended with fiction that the layman can’t tell where one stops and the other starts. Which, I’m pretty sure, is the idea. The movie’s makers went to great lengths to be painstakingly accurate about some aspects of spaceflight, while shamelessly ignoring reality in others. But so what? It’s their story. And unless you’re the occasional astronaut or rocket scientist – and maybe even if you are – you’ll find Gravity to be remarkably entertaining, and, dare I say, a tale well told. Two EVA-gloved thumbs up!