When the movie Apollo 13 came out I was not that interested in seeing it. I was involved in the current space program. The Apollo era would never return. The movie was about old news. The end of Apollo was the end of the hope we might live and work on the moon in my working life time.
The new movie “Gravity” is about the space program of today. Kind of! It depicts the International Space Station (ISS) which is on orbit now. The Chinese orbiting space station is depicted somewhat accurately in the movie. The plot revolves around a series of catostroplies created by orbital debris. NASA is tracking over 24,000 pieces of orbital debris created by ourselves, the Russians and the Chinese.
Watching the move in 3D is an experience I recommend. It is entertaining and informative in places. I was right there in the reality of what Hollywood was trying to create. I finally got the sense of scale and place I have wanted to feel for years – what’s it like on the ISS? I got it.
In this article I will share with you what some of the astronauts got out of their experience with “Gravity”. One of whom, Michael Lopez-Alegria, will be here in Las Cruces for the Chamber of Commerce Annual Banquet. Astronaut Don Pettit was on the ISS last year. He enjoyed the movie and said; truthfully exciting things are happening every single day on ISS. But, if there was no bad day in space there would be no movie. No doubt about it, the movie had more disasters than the first five minutes of a James Bond movie.
In the movie, Payload Specialist Dr. Ryan, Sandra Bullock is doing a fictional third repair of the Hubble at the end of a robotic arm out in space. Suddenly she is told to return to the ISS immediately, a freak mass of orbital debris is speeding toward her. Dr. Jeff Hoffman, former astronaut on the first Hubble repair mission, now Space Grant Director in Massachusetts said of the repair Dr. Ryan was doing, “when I was working on Hubble we had our problems. Parts got stuck, it was long, difficult and dangerous, but nothing like what happened to Sandra Bullock.” A few facts Jeff brought up; we do have problems with orbital debris in low earth orbit. The communications blackout that occurs in the movie from orbital debris impacts would not take out communications with ISS. Most of the communications satellites are in geostationary orbit, 26,000 miles above the earth. And a shout out to our NASA White Sands Test Facility neighbors, all ISS communications are received and disseminated through the TDRSS station just 17 miles from Las Cruces.
Don suggested to Jeff, who teaches at MIT, have his engineering students who are taking orbital mechanics work out why it is not possible to go from the International Space Station over to the Chinese Space Station. If you want to read a definitive article written by Don on ISS, download, The Tyranny of the Rocket Equation http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/expeditions/expedition30/tryanny.html.
Which brings me to another topic that Michael Lopez-Alegria wrote about in his article on “Gravity”. Mike has the long duration USA record for EVA – Extra Vehicular Activity. He also is a Navy pilot and Soyuz rocket flight engineer. If you saw the movie, you learned a bit about the importance of the Russian Soyuz rocket that functioned as an escape vehicle on station. Soon, we hope the NASA can replace the Soyuz with rockets and capsules made in the USA. The SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon cargo capsule has already docked with the ISS twice. So has the Orbital Sciences cargo resupply Cygnus capsule. Eventually so will Sierra Nevada’s winged space plane the Dream Chaser. This is the new space age, public/private partnerships.
Michael Lopez-Alegria recently wrote an article on “Gravity”. He has the long duration USA record for extra vehicular activity. He wanted folks to know, this movie does not qualify as continuing education for NASA engineers. He said, “Years of preparation, not six months is the norm for space walks where every move is choreographed down to the last minute.” All the astronauts commented on the great accuracy of the visual effects including the views of earth from orbit. Finally, regarding Sandra in her skivvies, Mike said, “The lack of a diaper had me crying fowl.” Diapers. Humm. Count me out. Go see the movie and see where you fit in this new space age.