Gravity Movie Review

WOW! Wow, oh fricken’ WOW is that one hell of a movie!

Ok, I guess I need to say a few more words than that, not the least of which is that I loved, loved, loved, Gravity! Sure it’s not without it’s nits to be picked, and I’ll pick a few because science, but I also understand it’s a movie that has to appeal to a wide audience.

And boy howdy, did it ever! The gasps, applause, and dead silence from the audience were easily audible, even over the theater sound system. And while 3D movies generally don’t appeal to me, the IMAX 3D experience really put me in space.

To get a sense of what this film is about, let’s take a look once again at the trailer:

Ho-lee Crap!

I just saw the film last night and that trailer still got my heart jumping! As you can see, this is a sci-fi thriller about survival in an impossible situation. I think that’s an apt description since much of what happens in this film is pretty much impossible. But what the film offers in return for your suspension of disbelief is well worth the ride.

Having seen all of the trailers, I pretty much had the entire storyline worked out before walking into the theater, but that in no way ruined the film for me. Like Apollo 13, Gravity had me on the edge of my seat right up to the end.

NOTE: From here on, it’s going to get spoiler-ific so be warned…

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts on an EVA during a Hubble Space Telescope (HST) Servicing mission. Their shuttle Explorer is destroyed by incoming debris, stranding them alone in orbit. They have to make their way to the International Space Station so they can climb into a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and make their way home before the station and Soyuz are destroyed with them in it.

Real astronauts are usually not this good looking. (Image: Warner Bros.)
Real astronauts are usually not this good looking. (Image: Warner Bros.)

That’s it. Not a very complex story in and of itself and in fact, Gravity clocks in at only 1.5 hours93 minutes. But it’s a near real-time thriller that really puts you in space along with the characters. In fact, I had to sit quietly in my car before leaving the theater because I was still feeling a little dizzy afterward!

During their EVA, Houston warns Explorer that an old satellite was shot down by the Russians and its fragments are moving at high speed toward them. It’s worth noting that the voice of Mission Control was provided by Ed Harris, who played Mercury astronaut John Glenn in The Right Stuff and Flight Director Gene Krantz in Apollo 13, a very nice touch!

A short while later, the high-speed debris shreds Explorer,  Hubble, and all of the STS-157 crew except for Clooney and Bullock. Bad times.

Truth be told, space debris is a serious problem, but not this serious. Spacecraft are separated by, well, a lot of space. Moreover, they’re orbiting Earth at different altitudes and different inclinations, so collisions are extremely rare.

Still, there needs to be a way to set up the survival story, and this seems to be a much better choice than, say a freak meteor storm that nobody saw coming.  Perhaps a more plausible scenario would be that the shuttle Explorer had some kind of explosion but a) it’s hard to imagine how that would actually happen, and b) even harder to communicate its cause to the audience in couple of minutes of screen time. So fine, incoming debris swarm in. It looks cool as hell and sends our heroes adrift in spectacular fashion.

Update: After I published this post, I’ve since learned that NASA has been concerned about the possibility of a runaway collision scenario, called the Kessler Syndrome, first proposed by NASA scientist David Kessler in 1978. Yikes!

Clooney is able to catch up to Bullock because he happens to be flitting around in a Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU). MMUs are real, though they haven’t been used since 1984 (they were deemed too risky following the Challenger disaster). And there’s no reason you’d have an astronaut – especially the Mission Commander – buzzing the shuttle with such an expensive piece of hardware as HST in its cargo bay. But this is evidently a fictionalized, highly risk-tolerant NASA.

With Explorer and the rest of her crew gone, Clooney and Bullock have to make their way to the International Space Station (which has been abandoned due to the incoming swarm) climb into a spare Russian Soyuz, undock, and head for home.

I want my Delta-Vee! Image Credit: Warner Bros
I want my Delta-vee! (Image: Warner Bros)

This was another one of those things I knew I was going to have to just accept for the sake of moving the story along. The reality of course is that changing your orbit from HST to ISS requires far more energy than the space shuttle carries, let alone Clooney’s little jet pack. The film also made the mistake of treating ISS as a stationary object that you simply point yourself toward, fire your jets, and cruise on over to. In reality ISS is orbiting earth as well so you’re literally trying to hit a moving target.

But screw it, the arrival sequence just grabs  you by your tether and doesn’t let go, which cool but also ironic because Clooney’s character would have been around for the rest of the film if he had simply done the same thing.

You want me to let go??? Image Credit: Warner Bros.
You want me to do WHAT??? Image Credit: Warner Bros.

By the end of an incredible slam-into-the-space-station-and-grab-onto-whatever-you-can sequence, Bullock’s foot is caught in the end of the Soyuz‘s parachute lines (which deployed when it was struck by the debris) and Clooney is “dangling” on the end of their tether. Clooney sees Bullock’s foot start to come loose from the parachute line, so he detaches himself and floats away as Bullock slings back to ISS.

NNNNOOOO!!!!!! It’s a heartbreaking scene, but probably not for the reason director Alfonso Cuarón  intended. It was clearly trying to depict the space equivalent of a mountain climber dangling from a rope attached to his partner who is barely holding onto the cliff by her fingertips. He cuts the rope, sacrificing himself so his partner can pull herself up to safety. Think Scott Glenn in Vertical Limit.

But in orbit, they’re weightless for crying out loud! I mean, sure they hit ISS at high speed but once their motion stopped (relative to ISS), Bullock and Clooney could have hauled themselves back to ISS with just a gentle tug on the tether.

Ok, I know, it was a (big) cheat to get Bullock alone so we could see if she could make it home by herself but man, dat hurt.

With the Soyuz’s parachute deployed, there was no way she was going to make it home in that thing so she had to devise a way to unhook the parachute, undock the Soyuz and fly it to the Chinese Tiangong 1 space station, jump into its docked Shenzhou spacecraft (which is based on the Soyuz), and see if she can make it home herself. Since Bullock trained in a Soyuz simulator (for a space shuttle mission? just go with it), she might just be able to pull this off.

Bullock in the Soyuz
Bullock in the Soyuz

Ok, we’re breaking orbital mechanics again for the same reasons I discussed above, but as I said before, the suspension of disbelief is more than offset by what Gravity delivers in return. I couldn’t believe the attention to detail that went into this film. The interiors, hardware, and space suits looked authentic (although I noticed Bullock wasn’t wearing her liquid-cooled long johns when she got out of her space suit, nor was her hair floating about in zero-g, nor…ah screw it, it’s fricken’ awesome.)

I could go on and on about the visuals, the sounds (and appropriate lack thereof), the haunting music, and the incredible performances by Clooney and especially Bullock, but I’ll hold off since I’d be veering out of my lane. Besides, this is long enough post already.

Bottom line, Gravity was amazing, and I highly recommend it. Yes, they had to cheat on the science to move the story along, but overall this was the best depiction of spaceflight I’ve seen in a film since Apollo 13. It’s clear that the filmmakers worked hard to get as much of the story right as they could without impeding the story itself. I can’t wait to see it again. In IMAX. In 3-D.

Update: I since learned that director Alfonso Cuarón understood that the orbits of HST, ISS, and Tiangong 1 are very different, but made a conscious decision to set them all in the same orbit so the characters would be able to continue their journey, and the story in turn. I have to admit this makes a lot of sense, and kudos to Cuarón for appreciating this as well!

Bald Eagle Flies with Antares!

This morning, a Cygnus resupply ship launched to the International Space Station atop an Antares rocket. And who better to witness America’s latest leap into space than an American Bald Eagle?

Antares Cygnus Cargo Resupply
The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket, with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft aboard, is seen as it launches from Pad-0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls), Enhancement inset by Tom Wolf.

Here’s another view, cropped in:

Image Credit: NASA

My friend Tom Wolf first noticed this little guy / girl during our visit to the adjacent launch pad ahead of the LADEE launch:

Image Credit Tom Wolf

How cool is that?

Viewing the Antares / Cygnus Launch

Update from Orbital Sciences:

Visibility map of  Antares/Cygnus launch on Sept. 18, 2013 at 10:50 a.m. EDT from NASA Wallops, VA. Credit: NASA Wallops Flight Facility
Visibility map of Antares/Cygnus launch on Sept. 18, 2013 at 10:50 a.m. EDT from NASA Wallops, VA. Credit: NASA Wallops Flight Facility

Tomorrow, September 18 2013, Orbital Sciences Corp are launching their Cygnus cargo spacecraft atop an Antares launch vehicle to resupply the International Space Station from Wallops Island, VA. The launch window is from 11:16 to 11:31 a.m. 10:50 to 11:05 am Eastern Daylight Time. If the weather is clear, that should mean a good sighting opportunity for those of us in the mid-Atlantic region.

Unlike the LADEE launch earlier this month, however,  Antares/Cygnus is going to be harder to spot for a few reasons.

For one, it’s a daytime launch. Nighttime launches are always going to be easier to spot from a distance.

Second, it’s launching to the South East, “away” from those of us in Virginia, Maryland,  & Philly. If you’re in NJ, NY, etc., it will seem to go toward the East more. Here’s an expected view from my home in the Westminster, MD area:

Google Earth view from my home showing the projected trajectory of Antares.
Google Earth view from my home near Westminster, MD showing the projected trajectory of Antares. Google Earth visualization Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp

My friends & family in the Philly area will have a somewhat better view as they’re further east and will see the trajectory arc a little more eastward.

Projected trajectory from the Springfield Mall, looking toward the South East
Projected trajectory from the Springfield Mall, Springfield, PA looking toward the South East. Google Earth visualization Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp

Third, the first stage is a liquid-fueled rocket. Liquid-fueled rockets burn “clean” in that they do not have a long fiery and smokey exhaust like solid-fueled rockets do. If the vehicle can be seen at all during the first stage, it will look like a small bright dot with a small puff of smoke behind it. Depending on the atmospheric conditions, it may leave a contrail.  (Antares’ second stage is solid-fueled so it will be much more visible when it lights but the rocket will be further away by that point.)

So, it won’t be quite as easy to spot as LADEE’s launch earlier this month, but it’s certainly worth a shot. Good luck!


When it comes to viewing rocket launches from a distance, timing is everything. You can watch the countdown on your smart phone which will let you know if there are any delays. But bear in mind that the feed to your phone is about a minute (or more) in the past, so be sure to start looking toward the horizon around 30-50 seconds before “launch.”

LADEE Launch Recap Part 4: 3…2…1…

With two solid days of briefings and tours under our belt, it suddenly began to feel very real. There was going to be a launch tonight, and we were going to see it. After dinner, we returned to the NASA Visitors Center at Wallops. It was early in the evening and VIP guests were starting to come in. With four hours to go before launch, it felt like the calm before a storm.

Monitor at the Visitors Center
LADEE on the launch pad at L-4 hours, 37 minutes

What might have seemed like an eternal wait was pleasantly shortened for me when I ran into Dana Berry, an old friend from the Space Telescope Science Institute days. If you don’t know who Dana is, I can guarantee you’ve seen his work. Dana is a highly sought-after digital artist whose work has been used to visualize many of NASA’s missions, including Hubble, Chandra, and now LADEE.

Admiring some of Dana’s handiwork. Photo courtesy Tom Wolf

At 7:45, we returned to the press room to get ready to head out to the viewing area. By this time, it was becoming less of a calm and more of a storm.

NASA Social is GO for launch.

But we had one more briefing to go, by none other than the NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden!

NASA Administrator (and former Shuttle astronaut) Charles Bolen. DUDE!

Bolen thanked us for coming to the launch and for spreading the word. He told us that for all of NASA’s public outreach assets, they still don’t communicate with the public very well. But NASA Social allows NASA to enlist the public as citizen journalists to spread the word in a personal way that no amount of media power can do.

You all are now part of the NASA team, whether you like it or not.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (we liked)

Then he did something that was incredibly amazing. He asked for Kim Alix, a K-5th-grade science lab teacher from North Carolina. After her selection to come to the NASA launch, she sent Bolen an email thanking him for the opportunity. He was so moved by her message that he wanted to thank her personally in the only way he knew how:

Bolden leads from the top, and does what we need to do more of as a country.

Bolden told us that as the son of two teachers, he laments the lack of respect (and compensation) teachers get from the public. As luck would have it, there were several teachers in our group who were particularly appreciative of his comments. As the son of a teacher myself, I thanked him in return.

Bragging rights: I was sitting right in the front for this bit. Photo courtesy Tom Wolf

With our final pre-launch briefing out of the way, it was time to board the bus and head out to the viewing area. Escorted by police, we were taken to a location just 2 miles from the launch pad, adjacent to the VIP viewing area. There in the distance, but plain as day, stood the Minotaur V rocket. My iPhone’s camera hardly does the view justice, but you might be able to get an idea just of how close we were to the launch pad:

My binoculars are set up!
See that white blob just above my binoculars? That’s it, baby!

The next 2 hours may as well have seemed like two minutes. The excitement, and nervousness, were palpable. But there was one more surprise left. Jessica from NASA Ames asked me if I would like to appear on NASA Edge’s coverage of the launch. Um, okay…

Jessica took Kimberly Knight and myself to the VIP viewing area. There we met up with fellow NASA Social members Kim Alix and iVy Deliz who themselves were getting ready to be interviewed on NASA Edge.

NASA Edge is an unscripted video podcast that has all of the production values of a proper TV show. Best of all, these guys get paid to cover launches!

Good work if you can get it.

In between interviews, they’d cut to a pre-recorded segment, or the live feed of the launch pad, giving the next interview a chance to set up. Kim and iVy went next, and they knocked right out of the park:

Chris from NASA Edge interviews Kim and iVy.

Now, by this point, we were in the final 1/2 hour before launch. My excitement and nervous energy were already pretty high, and this is what I saw next:

As if I wasn’t nervous enough.

In 5…4…3…

Blair from NASA Edge interviews Kimberly and myself.

With just a few minutes to go before launch, we were quickly driven back to the viewing area. And then this happened:

Richard Drumm‘s brilliant video of the launch. Set this to high definition and go full screen. You’ll be glad you did.

I mean, how cool is that? The cheers following the initial launch were for the successful ignitions of the Minotaur’s second and third stages. The vehicle was right on the money!

Afterward, we got back on the bus to return to the visitors center for the last time. The bus was filled with the glow of cell phones showing their pictures, the sounds of videos, and shouts of “My friend saw it from New Jersey!”, “My buddy posted an amazing picture from Brooklyn!“, and so-on.

It was a party bus.

We got back to the Visitors center and by this point, most of our group had gone home. But a few of us die-hards stuck around for the post-launch briefing at 2:30 am.

Post launch briefing about to begin

The briefing ended, we said our goodbyes, and headed back to our hotels.

LADEE was on its way to the Moon.


The two days of our NASA Social flew by in a blink. I met some really great people there, and if I have one regret it’s not getting a chance to meet every single one of them.

I did get to meet several of the hard working people behind the scenes at NASA Social. It takes a lot of work to organize and run these events, and their professionalism was exceeded only by their enthusiasm.

I’m extremely grateful for those whose videos and images I used, especially to Tom Wolf who makes my camera phone images look like, well, camera phone images. Thanks man.

LADEE is on its way to the Moon to study the lunar atmosphere, for no other reason than because we are curious. A lot of brilliant people worked together to pull off this launch, and will continue to do so to make this mission a success. Yes, there was a big ol’ American flag and a NASA meatball on the side of the rocket, and I’m certainly proud of that. But this doesn’t just represent what NASA can do, or what the United States can do, but what we as human beings can do when we really want to explore our universe.

This is Humanity at its best.

LADEE Launch Recap Part 3: Touring Wallops Flight Facility

Day two of our NASA Social Meetup began with lunch at the cafeteria, which was a good thing since that meant we didn’t have to begin until 11:30 on Friday. Afterward, we began a tour of Wallops Flight Facility which was super cool. Wallops does a lot more than launch rockets and all of them are cool in their own unique way.

At the balloon shop. Photo courtesy Tom Wof
At the balloon shop. Photo courtesy Tom Wolf, a professional photographer and a fantastic guy. See his full photo set at SmugMug. When you’re done, be sure to hire him.

Our first stop was to the Scientific Balloon Shop. The balloons made here can stay aloft from days to months at a time at altitudes of 100,000+ feet – right at the edge of space itself. And these things are huge, sometimes inflating to be the size of the Superdome!

Best of all, balloon teams launch all over the world, including Antarctica. Good work if you can get it!

Balloons will take you all the way up to the top of Earth’s atmosphere, but if your science requires you to be in space, you may need to fit your payload into one of these babies:

Bristol Aerospace Sounding Rocket

Suffice to say, this bit was pretty cool, and we had a lot of fun taking pictures of this particular rocket.

Constance and Amanda taking pics while Ulysses looks on like a Steely-Eyed Missile Man. Photo courtesy Tom Wolf
Constance and Amanda taking pics while Ariel looks on like a Steely-Eyed Missile Man. Photo courtesy Tom Wolf

Here I am doing my best impression of a Steely-Eyed Missile Man.

#RocketsF&*kYeah #AmericaF&*kYeah

Our tour continued to the shop where science payloads are assembled, integrated, and tested. Following that, we went into what at first looks like a machine shop, except it’s one where they turn stuff like this:

Boring aluminum tubing

…into stuff like this!

Rocket Parts, F&*k Yeah! Photo courtesy Tom Wolf
Rocket Parts, F&*k Yeah! Photo courtesy Tom Wolf

The whole time people were taking selfies, and Jim Way decided to go all meta on me:

#MetaRocketShopSelfie Photo by Jim Way

By this point, we were starting to run a little late so we made a quick stop at the Launch Control Center

People who launch rockets sit here.

Our final stop on today’s tour was to a hangar that were housing both of NASA’s Global Hawk aircraft. If you’re not familiar with NASA uses these two vehicles for their Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel missions.

One of NASA's two Global Hawk UAVs
One of NASA’s two Global Hawk UAVs

Unlike traditional manned Hurricane Hunters, these aircraft are capable of flying well above the storm and can take data of the entire atmospheric column all the way through to the ground.

It takes two crews to fly the Hawks, one stationed at wherever they are based from (in this case, Wallops) to handle takeoff and landing. Once aloft, control is transferred to the science team in Ohio who fly the mission from there. Very impressive stuff!

That’s a friggen Global Hawk behind me. You’re damn right I’m impressed! Photo courtesy Tom Wolf

With our tour complete, it was time to head back to the Visitor’s Center for a series of briefings from the instrument scientists, engineers, range safety officers, and all sort of people we would have loved to have heard from if it wasn’t so late in the day and we were getting hungry.

One highlight though was a team of engineers from Navajo Technical University who 3-D printed an amazing model of LADEE:

Cutaway model of LADEE, 3D printed by Navajo Tech. I want one of these. Photo courtesy Tom Wolf
Cutaway model of LADEE, 3D printed by Navajo Tech. I want one of these. Photo courtesy Tom Wolf

Even better, the model came apart into segments, which really showed off the Common Spacecraft Bus design!

After the briefings, we broke for dinner. But we had to hurry back because the parking lot was going to be packed with VIPs.

It turns out there was a rocket launch happening that night.