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Gravity’s pull brings in seven oscars

How accurate was Warner Bros. depiction of the threat of orbital debris? Image Credit: Warner Bros

For a movie that details everything that could (and does) go wrong in space, the movie Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón has shown clearly how some disasters – can make everything go just right – at least when it comes to the Oscars. The 86th Academy Awards handed out seven of the shiny statues to the team who help produced the movie on Sunday, March 2.

The Warner Bros. movie details how a pair (well one mostly) of astronauts fight to survive after Russia blasts a satellite and in so doing causes a chain reaction which essentially wipes out every crewed station and spacecraft on orbit at that time (a space shuttle on STS-157, the International Space Station and the Chinese Tiangong-1 space station all are destroyed).

NASA astronaut Cady Coleman chatted with the film’s star, Sandra Bullock, on September 16 about her character, Dr. Ryan Stone. The discussion was detailed in a NASA statement ,one which highlighted how Coleman aided Bullock in preparing for her role. While it might not seem like it would take much to react to having the International Space Station be shredded in front of you – the devil was in the details.


Video courtesy of NASA

“I told her that I had long hair, and if you pulled a hair out and pushed it against something, you could move yourself across the space station,” said Coleman. “That’s how little force it takes.”

The film was one of two big winners at this year’s Oscars with “Best Picture” going to “Twelve Years a Slave” which took in 12 Oscars. Gravity, however, took home the Oscars for: Best Director, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score and, naturally, Best Visual Effects. The fact that Gravity resonated so well with the public was viewed as a positive thing by the three-time space flight veteran and retired U.S. Air Force Colonel as it allows the average citizens a slightly better understanding of the risks involved with space exploration.

“This isn’t a documentary; it’s a movie,” said Coleman. “It transports people from this planet into space. I am really lucky, as an astronaut, to get to go and live there.”


Video courtesy of NASA

To be fair, “Stone” would not have survived if not for George Clooney’s character, Lieutenant Matt Kowalski, who spends much of his on screen time keeping Stone calm and saving her when she is sent flying out into the void. Clooney’s character serves as a cold reminder of the hard numbers that dictate space flight – as well as the consequences of those numbers. The film while predominantly an action-thriller provided a vehicle from which to allow the discussion of what is involved and needed for space exploration efforts – to take place.

While the research being conducted on both the ISS as well as Tiangong-1 are only seen in the background (and in one case setting fire to the ISS) it, at least, gets to be part of the narrative.

“This research lets us make more accurate measurements for an easier math problem to solve,” said Coleman. “Things burn in a different way in space, allowing us to understand the mechanism of burning itself—how soot is produced, how pollution happens—things happen more slowly, so we are able to better measure them.”


Video courtesy of NASA

The fact that a movie detailing the challenges involved in human space flight could have such a strong presence at the Oscars suggests that the public might be gaining a deeper appreciation for the risks involved as well as the necessity of the enterprise as a whole.

NASA is currently working to conduct the first unmanned test flight of the space agency’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle later this year in the lead up to sending astronauts to destinations beyond the pull of Earth for the first time in more than four decades. Meanwhile, NASA’s commercial partners are working to send their crew-rated spacecraft to destinations in low-Earth-orbit within the next two years.

“Our planet sits in a neighborhood within the universe, and we are all space explorers,” said Coleman. “I think space movies, in general, bring that message home to us. Whether we live with our feet on the planet or whether we live on the space station, we are all space travelers and we are a people of space exploration.”


Video courtesy of NASA


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Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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