NASA missions and dangers in space—research topic on the accuracy of Gravity the movie

A box office hit and winner of seven Academy Awards shows how heavily interested the public is with space. (Credit: Thomas Harbaugh)

A box office hit and winner of seven Academy Awards shows how heavily interested the public is with space. (Credit: Thomas Harbaugh)

Now that the Academy Awards have come and gone, with Gravity the movie garnering seven total statues, attention is once again focused on how accurately the film represents the dangers in space for NASA missions. The fact that the movie has made more than $270 million so far indicates that the public is very interested in space, but are they receiving inaccurate information? Astronauts and space experts have weighed in with research and explanations for what the movie gets right and where it veers into fantasy.

What does Gravity the movie get right?

Just because Gravity the movie is a fictional story doesn’t mean that it is totally unrealistic. In fact, there are several things the movie depicts correctly. For instance, the challenges involved in doing basic activities like removing circuit boards or tightening screws in space is shown true to life in the film. “The Hubble Space Telescope, space shuttle, and International Space Station are shown with a lot of realism,” according to Corey S. Powell’s October 7, 2013, post for Discover Magazine’s blog “The Real Stories and Real Science behind “Gravity”.”

Powell also finds that the way Gravity the movie shows movement is very realistic and that there’s a lot of debris in space—“NASA is tracking about 500,000 pieces larger than 1 centimeter (roughly a half-inch) across.”

What does Gravity the movie get wrong?

So yes, parts of Gravity the movie are realistic in its depiction of the dangers in space. But what are the odds of NASA missions resulting in an astronaut being disconnected from the space ship or space station? Not very likely, according to Mark Uhran, NASA’s recently retired director of the International Space Station who is quoted in the October 19, 2013, Science News article, “Gravity: An Astronaut and a NASA Expert Consider the Reality of the Film’s Space Dangers” by Andrew Grant.

Grant writes, “Uhran says NASA calculated the chance of an astronaut coming untethered as infinitesimally small. Just in case, astronauts perform space walks in pairs, and they wear thruster belts that can provide an emergency boost—though not a powerful one. No spacewalkers, or their steel tethers, have ever been struck by debris.” It is also highly unlikely that astronauts would be unable to return home because backup means of return is required on all NASA missions.

How is NASA handling the movie’s success?

Jeffrey Marlow posted on March 3, 2014, for wired.comNASA’s Gravity Dilemma” about how NASA is trying to parlay the public’s interest in Gravity the movie into a positive feeling about NASA missions. Marlow says that NASA has employed a strategy that acknowledged the film’s success, showed support of the movie during the awards season and deflected some of the incorrect information. “Over a series of 31 tweets that began a few hours before the Oscars telecast and ended after midnight eastern time, NASA congratulated the film and pointed followers to images of real astronauts in action via the hashtag #RealGravity,” he writes.

The dangers in space may not be the idea that NASA wants stuck in the minds of the public, however. But Gravity the movie could raise the public’s awareness and interest in space exploration, which, since NASA is dependent on public support, could be a good thing. Overall, the beauty depicted in the movie, as well as the bravery shown by the fictional astronauts, are positives for the future of NASA missions.

As Marlow writes, “It might not be completely on-message (NASA would prefer to downplay the risk of the endeavor), but with danger comes excitement; with exclusivity comes the desire to be involved. And that allure of space exploration, NASA hopes, will be the film’s ultimate legacy.”

Want to learn more about space exploration? Check out Questia—particularly the section on NASA

How will Gravity the movie affect the way Americans view NASA missions? Do you think it will increase interest in space exploration? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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