“Gravity” Movie Logic: NASA Tells Us What It’s Really Like

NASA astronaut Cady Coleman consulted on the film, and talked to us about why it's a surprisingly realistic thriller.

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True: The risks are real.

True: The risks are real.Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
In "Gravity," actors Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts working from the Shuttle Explorer to assemble a scanning system on the Hubble Telescope. Debris soon strikes their craft, severing communication with Mission Control and potentially dooming them to live the rest of their lives in the vast expanse of outer space. "The risks are real," said Dr. Cady Coleman, a NASA astronaut who consulted on the film. "That vulnerability is very well portrayed in this film."

True: It's very claustrophobic in space.

True: It's very claustrophobic in space.Murdo Macleod
Dr. Coleman was actually stationed in space when she answered Sandra Bullock's questions about life in orbit. "The first major thing that they portray very well is the sort of claustrophobic and out-of-control feeling that one has [when] one gets put into a space suit. The first time that helmet gets put over your head, there's a feeling that I had that, now there's just some things beyond my control. It's everything from not being able to itch my nose or get my bangs out of my face to being completely dependent on that space suit to be your space ship. I mean, it is your breathing, it is your cooling, it is your communication, it is your lifeline."

Not So True: Astronauts would never have just one tether.

Not So True: Astronauts would never have just one tether.Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Like in the movie, astronauts do tether themselves to structures when floating in space, but they always have a backup leash or a jetpack. "Our leashes are made with kevlar, so they're really strong," said Dr. Coleman. "We have our permanent leash that's always on the space station, and we have one that's waist-length, about four feet long. As soon as I get somewhere where I want to spend more than 15 seconds, I also slap that waist tether onto the structure." However, in the movie, Bullock's character does not have sufficient backup, and this helps move the dramatic story forward.

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True: Debris can destroy spacecraft.

True: Debris can destroy spacecraft.Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
According to NASA reports, there are 500,000 pieces of debris in the Earth's atmosphere, and on a few occasions space refuse has destroyed satellites as in the film. In fact, recently Dr. Coleman worked to launch the Cygnus, a supply ship sent out by the Orbital Science Corp. to deliver essentials to the International Space Station. It "had some troubles," she said. "Because of the exact time that it launched, it put it in the path of space debris. If we did nothing, it had a certain chance of running into it." Dr. Coleman continued, "At NASA, we're always doing this kind of 'what if' game, and the very things that they think of in 'Gravity,' we think about every single day."

Not So True: The sheer number of technical failures.

Not So True: The sheer number of technical failures.Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
"There are so many bad things that happen [in 'Gravity'], and there are so many technical coincidences that would be unlikely," said Dr. Coleman. "We do actually think, 'What if this happens, what if this happens,' and we try to make sure we're ready for it. And there are some technical coincidences that make it a really bad day on the space station." So, any given issue in the film could happen—but all of them together? That's movie magic.

True: Explosions are not noisy in space.

True: Explosions are not noisy in space.Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
"Star Wars" this is not. When disaster strikes in "Gravity" it's quiet, because there is no sound in outer space. Even less destructive moments—like when Sandra Bullock's character faces her own mortality—are realistically, eerily quiet. In space, "there's an emotional feeling of being separate from everybody you know and love," said Dr. Coleman. "You can see someplace that's really dear to you... and 30 seconds later it's receding in the distance."

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