Gravity Fact Check: What the Season’s Big Movie Gets Wrong

The new cosmic thriller makes a lot of small mistakes and some big ones—though you may not notice them through the gasps

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Warner Bros.

NASA doesn’t care if you have a hot body or not. Tall, short, lumpy, lithe—as long as you’re fit and fall within a reasonable height and weight range, you clear at least one simple hurdle to becoming an astronaut. But NASA isn’t Hollywood. And so, in the new—and extraordinary—movie Gravity, when Sandra Bullock comes inside after a spacewalk, she shucks her pressure suit and floats about in a crop-top and boxer briefs, perfectly toned, perfectly lovely, zero-g eye candy.

In truth, what an astronaut returning from what NASA calls extavehicular activity (EVA) would have on under her pressure suit would be what’s known as a Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment, a full-body, crazily complex bit of space finery that has about 300 ft. (91 m) of fashionable plastic tubing running through it. She’d also be wearing an adult diaper and would be wringing with sweat. Doesn’t matter if you’re Bullock, Penelope Cruz or Nicole Kidman, you would not be looking your best.

It’s really beside the point to mention any scientific inaccuracies in Gravity since the movie is so gripping, so jaw-dropping, so visually, gobsmackingly good that it seems churlish to pay attention to much else. What’s more, Gravity, which does get much more right than it gets wrong, is not Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff—movies that had to hew close to history because they were based on real events. (Disclosure: I wrote the book on which Apollo 13 was based and served as a consultant on the movie.) Gravity is a space disaster and survival movie that never happened in real life—though in smaller and surely less cinematic ways it could.

(MORE: Space Race 2013: Who’s Up, Who’s Down, Who’s Going Nowhere)

All the same, science is science and facts are facts and when a movie purports to traffic in both, it’s only fair to point out the blunders—none of which were howlers in this case, but at least some of which could (and should) have been avoided. Spoilers, by the way, lurk here like satellite debris, so proceed with caution if you haven’t yet seen the movie.

The triggering incident in Gravity—equivalent to the exploding oxygen tank in Apollo 13—occurs when Russia launches a missile to destroy one of its own satellites, accidentally creating a chain reaction that demolishes most of the communications satellites orbiting the planet. An American space shuttle is in orbit on a Hubble Telescope repair mission at the time, and not only does the satellite disaster plunge the crew into radio blackout, it also puts them directly in the path of a high-speed swarm of space junk that whips around the planet every 90 minutes. The shuttle gets clobbered, most of the astronauts die, something less than hilarity ensues. So, where to begin?

First of all, the Hubble orbits at an inclination of 28.5º, which maximizes the time it spends passing over the American mainland on its various trips around the planet. The shuttle, in most cases, stays at that angle too. Russian satellites, however, orbit at higher inclinations, for the same reason—to keep them as close as possible to the Motherland. Junk from a Russian pigeon-shoot might cross the shuttle’s orbit on some of its passes, but it would not happen right away—and certainly not every hour and a half. After the shuttle is destroyed, the surviving astronauts seek refuge on the International Space Station, which is conveniently located nearby. But the ISS orbits at 51.6º—a concession to the Russians when we built the station, since their Soyuz spacecraft regularly ferry crews up and down. Shuttles fly at that high inclination when they’re visiting the ISS, but they wouldn’t be anywhere remotely in the neighborhood if they were servicing Hubble.

(PHOTOS: Space Shuttle Endeavour Journeys Through Los Angeles)

What’s more, a satellite-demolishing chain reaction would never happen in the first place. In 2008, the U.S. shot down one of its own dead satellites—ostensibly to prevent it from spinning out of control, but probably as a military riposte to China, which had pulled off a similar bit of cosmic marksmanship the year before. The technology needed to clean up your own dead satellites is pretty much identical to what it would take to shoot down another country’s very much alive ones, and China was no doubt signaling that it had the wherewithal. So do we, we signaled back, so do we. In neither case was there a risk of anything like what occurred in Gravity, and while you could probably write a computer model that would show how such a thing could happen, it’s wildly improbable.

Then there was all the spacewalking. When the movie opens, we see Bullock and another crewmember hard at work on the Hubble and the shuttle, while George Clooney, wearing a Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU, essentially a space jet pack) zips around them, having a grand time as he listens to country music and wisecracks. It’s the only bit of the movie that looks slightly silly—and it also grossly overstates the speed and maneuverability of the MMU. What’s more, NASA would never countenance such cosmic silliness because the MMU’s fuel was limited and could easily run out—something that in fact happens in the movie. When disaster strikes and Clooney is adrift, it’s fair to wonder if his character wishes he’d cooled it a bit on the earlier horseplay. Bullock, who is not wearing an MMU, finds herself in similar free-floating peril. While spacewalking astronauts wear tethers, they are also equipped with a small backpack called SAFER (Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue) which would allow them to maneuver back to the safety of the ship if the tether should break. Bullock’s does, but she has no SAFER. Later, when she improvises, using a space station fire extinguisher as a sort of handheld jetpack—well, suffice to say that actually maneuvering with such a thing would be far less successful than it is on screen.

(VIDEO: The Space Shuttle Atlantis Comes Home)

There are other implausibilities too. Bullock winds up piloting two other countries’ spacecraft: a Russian Soyuz and a Chinese Shenzhou, which she picks up when she makes her way to China’s space station—which exists, sort of, but only as a single pod, not as the sprawling complex it appears in the movie, and in either case it orbits at 42.78º, nowhere near the Hubble and the shuttle. She handles both ships with surprising deftness considering she was only lightly trained on the Soyuz and not at all on the Shenzhou. And throughout the movie, she and Clooney spend a fair bit of time getting whacked around in space, grabbing onto this or that rail or tether on the shuttle or ISS only at the last second to avoid pinwheeling off  into the void. In truth, pressurized space gloves are murderously hard to manipulate, providing only limited grip at best and leaving astronauts’ hands cold and very painful after a day of work. Making the kinds of one-handed Cirque du Soleil catches Clooney and Bullock accomplish would be impossible.

So, that’s a lot that Gravity gets wrong. But you know what? So what? The shuttle, space station and spacesuits are painstakingly recreated; the physics of moving about in space—thrusts requiring counterthrusts, spins requiring counterspins, the hideous reality that if you do go spiraling off into the void your rotation never, never stops—are all simulated beautifully, scarily and accurately. Gravity will wind you up and wring you out as only the best thrillers do. Absolute technical accuracy matters—except when it doesn’t. Gravity gets a well-earned waiver.

MORE: Beijing, We Have a Space Program

172 comments
cknob101
cknob101

I read reviews that praised this film as one of the most scientifically accurate movies ever rivaling 2001 in its portrayal of orbital zero G maneuvering.  I was a bit disappointed to say the least when the opening scene included one astronaut working on the Hubble whooping it up like he was in a Girls Gone Wild video using his tether like his personal space bungee cord and another flying around the shuttle with his MMU on steroids like a 1960s jet pack wisecracking with mission control using every bad NASA banter cliché.  Only Bullock, hard at work, concentrating and focused depicted anything close to reality.  The scene of destruction would have been much more chilling if a meticulously choreographed, surgical and scientific NASA spacewalk had been thrown into horrific turmoil by the debris.  The silly, "Star Wars-like"  depiction of what is a very precise and practiced part of manned space exploration got this movie off on the wrong foot with me. 

craigmagnon1
craigmagnon1

escape velocity is about 28,000 mph if you get away from your ship you will never be rescued. 

steveski74
steveski74

Honestly, the worst thing I noticed in the whole film was George Clooney hanging getting pulled away.  I can't for the life of my work out what was pulling him with such force yet not the thing he was attached to - and perpendicular to the earth anyway.  I can only think he'd get to the full extension and the jarring would stop him then he could pull himself back, and if anything post extension he'd bounce back towards the station!!

craigmagnon1
craigmagnon1

@steveski74 your right i like the movie and all ,but everything is wrong and impossible,if this was made with b list actors you never would have heard of it.

josex
josex

Objects at the same altitude from the earth are supposed to move around the earth at the same speed in order to stay in orbit. Why would that debris stay at the same altitude as it went around the earth (much faster than the main characters) so as to come around from the other side again? At most the odds would have to be really small (basically 0) since the orbits could not overlap except at a few points. Ie, you can't have the telescope in geosynchronous orbit and the debris moving around the earth and overlap repeatedly when it comes around, It would "come around" at a different height if it even came around (since some would fall towards the earth, go into oute rspace, or go in a different direction).

ToniEscanellasMora
ToniEscanellasMora

@josex if the debris are orbiting the earth faster than the ISS at that point it's because they describe a more elliptical orbit. So their speed could be 32.000km/h at their perisapsis and much less at their apoapsis. So those two orbits could coincide at one point, even if one is orbiting faster than the other one.

craigmagnon1
craigmagnon1

@josex the telescope or the spacestaion are not in geo synchronous orbit.

craigmagnon1
craigmagnon1

@josex in space everything blows up in  a sphere thus a changing of orbit,

twobitcoder
twobitcoder

So what if real astronauts wear adult diapers? Do we want to see that in the movie? Does it add to the plot? 

DellGriffith
DellGriffith

The scene where Clooney lets go was just bad. They wanted to kill him off but they could have found a better way to do it. Once his momentum in the opposite direction had stopped (which it absolutely had), he no longer was pulling on Bullock. She could have given him a little tug and brought him back towards her and the space station during the time he kept saying he is going to let go and how he is pulling on her. Yes it is a film and I guess we shouldn't dissect it so much but it is hard not too when Gravity and physics is a huge part of the film. It would be like Ricky the Wild Thing Vaughn from Major League striking out 7 batters in a single inning and not expecting people to notice.

josex
josex

@DellGriffith  One way to see this (as an approximation on earth) is to take two free-floating boats tethered to each other in relatively calm water. The tether is basically never perfectly taut. The boats are always either moving towards each other or away from each other in some way with some lag on the line. [Even here there is lots of friction with the water and air to slow the effect. In space it would be nearly instantaneous the change in direction.]

josex
josex

@DellGriffith  Yes, they bounce around everywhere yet at that crucial point space physics seems to have ended and Clooney didn't bounce right back at Sandra. Even if there was radiation or gravity, it would have affected the ship as easily so they should have pulled towards each other. It made no sense for Clooney to "fall" away as long as there was even a tiny tug on that cord which there obviously was since they were stretched out full length.

JohnEh
JohnEh

That is the tip of the iceberg. For example when they are tethered and George Clooney lets go: He would just float there. He was already moving at the same approximately the same speed as the space station. There is no force pulling him away from the space station. Assuming he had oxygen she could easily pick him up later. If fact once the rope holding her went taught they would both start traveling back to the space station. Giving her plenty of time to get a good grip on it.

Pure_Amateur
Pure_Amateur

One thing I haven't yet seen mentioned here is after all of SB's lucky breaks she lands in water and within a few strokes swim to land. Since approximately 4/5 of the earth's surface is water, the likelyhood would be for a splashdown hundreds of miles from any shore, or about a 20% chance of a hard surface landing, which with no "soft landing" jets left would have been hard indeed. I enjoyed the film but hope it doesn't win any awards, aside from possibly special effects as the acting was no better than average, the story was a mixture of other space stories (mission to mars, apollo 13 etc.) and the scientific inaccuracies were enough to upset (but not ruin) what plot there was. A good yarn, but nothing more.

steveski74
steveski74

@Pure_Amateur You need in a movie to keep the pace up.  There's an assumption that some time passed and we didn't need to see the full swim back to shore.  The only problem with the scene was that she'd probably be too weak and unable to get back.

prs2106
prs2106

Life of PI in space ?

capital.connection
capital.connection

I  pray for a version of DVD that has no music but that that  was in the story: that which the astronaut chose to play.


I almost walked out when the sound track came in about two thirds of the way in. I had been waiting 60 years for the perfect film and the soundtrack  screwed a lifetime ambition . 


 On the plus side i chose the last showing , during the day on a week day and the 10 or so who turned up did not make a sound. We were  all up there.  Indeed I have saved a million to pay for a trip  up there since we were there. 

YoshiLink
YoshiLink

@capital.connection the sound track was amazing! what is wrong with you? it helped add tension to the movie. and of course this if obvious but, Gravity got an award for Best Achievement in Music Written for a Motion Picture. so maybe you need to get your hearing checked.