There are a lot of reviews on the new movie “Gravity”, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. A lot of them are gushing, a lot of them are solid, and a few of them are hyper-critical.

This one isn’t really any of those… it’s an honest assessment about the portrayal of a subject that really hits home for me, manned spaceflight, in a dramatic movie that uses the awe-inspiring stage of Low Earth Orbit to play out a pretty compelling drama.

Don’t worry, though – any place I give things away, I’ll try to warn you in advance.

If you know me at all, you’ll know my love for all things space-related. I was fortunate enough to have spent 12 years of my life at NASA in the Space Shuttle Mission Control Center as a Flight Dynamics Officer. The FDO was responsible for anything trajectory-related with the Shuttle and payloads. You can read more about that time at my space exploration site: The Trench

So – when I started to see some of the early visual stills come out for “Gravity”, I was immediately excited. THIS looked like it might be a very realistic movie!

Then I saw the first trailer.

I was crestfallen. Parts of it looked great, and parts of it looked supremely hokey.

As the release date approached, more and more glowing reviews came out about the stunning visuals and the compelling storyline. I started thinking that this could really be a positive thing for spaceflight support.

Then I saw the second trailer.

I had mixed emotions… there looked like some awe-inspiring views, some pretty edge-of-the-seat action, but still some of the Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot moments.

Then I started reading a few reviews (trying my best to stay away from spoilers, but it was pretty tough). That’s when I really started being skeptical.

Then I saw the movie.

  • For the first time, I’ve seen a movie in 3D that *really* needs to be seen in 3D.
  • What they got right… they got INCREDIBLY right.
  • What they got wrong… they got REALLY REALLY wrong.


It’ll end up being left up to the “eye of the beholder” to determine how much the “right” outweighs the “wrong” in this case.


I think that what they got right (story line, character development, STUNNING visuals and cinematography, and some outstandingly realistic spacecraft) was far more important than some of the cringe-worthy-only-to-a-space-geek, but still painful, stretches of physical and/or operational reality.

I give it a positive recommendation.


Don’t expand the tabs below unless you are prepared for some serious movie spoilers. You have been warned. 🙂

Things 'Gravity' did right:

  • The cinematography was stunning… just absolutely beautiful
  • The spacecraft/station models were excellent. The level of detail on the Shuttle, HST, ISS, Soyuz, and the Chinese vehicles was exceptionally well done.
  • The shots of Earth… orbital Sunrise… the thin blue atmosphere band on the horizon. It makes it clear why people want to go into space.
  • The deep space views when Sandra Bullock’s character was looking away from Earth.
  • The spacesuits themselves – VERY accurate in appearance!
  • The tethered dynamics, for the most part, were pretty well-done. There was one GLARING exception (below), but it was necessary for the plot development.
  • Bullock’s weightless translation through the ISS modules was very believable!
  • The behavior and propagation of the fire in microgravity aboard ISS.

Before you read the list of “wrong things”, please understand that I still give “Gravity” a go-see-it recommendation. These are just things that really bugged me.

Things 'Gravity' got wrong:

  • Clooney zipping around on the upgraded Manned Maneuvering Unit MMU making wisecracks with unlimited fuel… until it was conveniently limited. There’s *NO WAY* anyone would have let anything that dynamic zip around that fast and that close to the Shuttle, much less the uber-sensitive Hubble Space Telescope (HST) docked in the Shuttle’s Payload Bay.
  • Speaking of HST… why in the WORLD would a medical doctor, with a whopping “six months of training” be allowed anywhere *NEAR* the HST, much less digging into HST’s delicate innards?
  • Speaking of medical doctors… why did George Clooney need to explain medical symptoms of oxygen deprivation to a Doctor?
  • The original debris event was claimed to be a Russian ASAT taking down a Russian comms satellite. Fair enough – if it’s a Russian commsat in a standard Molniya orbit, it’s inclined at 63.4 degrees with an low perigee and VERY high apogee, resulting in an orbital period of approximately 12 hours. The movie had a massive chain-reaction of debris that not only conveniently knocked out all communications satellites (including NASA’s that were orbiting at TEN TIMES HIGHER ALTITUDE and at an almost equatorial inclination) but also came SCREAMING at the Shuttle/HST combo (and ISS, too, it turns out!) within a matter of just a couple of minutes! AND… the debris was orbiting RETROGRADE! What the absolute bloody hell?
  • Speaking of orbits… HST orbits at a little over 300 Nautical Miles (NM) above the Earth (roughly 560km), but at an inclination of 28.5 degrees.
  • Speaking of orbits… ISS orbits at a little over 200 NM (roughly 370km), but at an inclination of 51.6 degrees.
  • Speaking of orbits… the Chinese “space station” Tiangong orbited at a little *below* 200NM (roughly 360km), but at an inclination of 42.78 degrees.
  • See where I’m going with that? In orbital mechanics, it is almost impossible, with current technologies, to make THAT large of an inclination (plane) change while in orbit. Those changes are determined at launch time, or with some orbital mechanics orbit-transfer tricks that take LOTS of fuel and a good bit of time. Clooney visually spotted ISS “off in the distance” and just decided they were going to zip on over – WITH HIS ALMOST DEPLETED MMU.
  • Clooney kept pronouncing the Russian spacecraft “Soy-ez” instead of the more accurate “Sah-yooz”
  • Then, after getting beat all to hell and about to be cast aside (more in a minute), Clooney tells Bullock to “look over there in the west” and sure enough… there’s this bright massive blob of the Chinese Tiangong just hovering “about 100km” away. ARRGH!
  • Okay – Clooney’s farewell scene. He goes zipping by Bullock who reaches out and grabs his tether in her hands, which of course pulls her along, too. Fair enough. That’s the way it’s supposed to happen. HOWEVER… once she arrests his acceleration, there’s NO REASON AT ALL he should go flying off into the void when he unhooks himself from her/the conjoining tether. There is no longer an acting acceleration/force on him that seems to just fling him away at a high speed like a cosmic finger flicked him across the universe.
  • Oh… speaking more of orbital mechanics. When in orbit, unless you are in extremely close proximity operations (and even then)… if you thrust DIRECTLY TOWARDS another orbiting object, chances are you’re not going to intercept it. That’s just not the way Orbital Mechanics works. ESPECIALLY when you’re talking about larger distances.
  • Sandra Bullock’s hair floated a tiny bit in one scene that I noticed… I also noticed several where it did not float at all. MINOR nitpick to be sure… but still accurate. It would have at least poofed up a bit.
  • Sandra Bullock wearing volleyball shorts, a tank top, AND NO SOCKS underneath her EVA/spacesuit. Yeah. That’s just not accurate. The cooling undergarments that astronauts wear are there for a reason… but I understand they wanted to show her off a few times, so there’s that.
  • The Chinese A/G (Air-to-Ground) radio randomly picking up an amateur radio operator on the ground for a substantially long time… that contact would have been over in seconds, even if it *had* been possible.
  • The Soyuz, and I’m assuming the carbon-copy Chinese Shenzhou, seats have custom-fit liners that are molded to the shape of each astronaut.
  • The constant impacts of the astronauts in their EVA suits against the Shuttle, HST, ISS, etc would have damaged/torn the suits, cracked the visors, broken bones, and on and on. But again… made for exciting dramatic cinema.
  • Sandra Bullock, remember she’s a medical doctor with SIX WHOLE MONTHS OF ASTRONAUT TRAINING (dang!), was trained on the Soyuz simulator (and “crashed every time”). Why would she have been Soyuz-trained for a one-off flight to HST? Regardless, she was perfect in her handling of the incredibly dynamic and non-visual flying while the Soyuz was wrapped up in its deployed landing chute lines around ISS… AND was able to guess/operate/survive a deorbit/entry in the Chinese Shenzhou.

Okay. That’s enough.

Like I said earlier:


It’s a wild and fun ride… just let the movie do the talking and don’t nit-pick as much as I did. 😀

1 Comment

  1. Ken p

    “In orbital mechanics, it is almost impossible, with current technologies, to make THAT large of an inclination (plane) change while in orbit.” So, you’re saying it IS possible, though, right? :0)


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