Here’s a nifty interview with German astronaut Ulrich Walter about what the film Gravity got right, and got wrong, about life in space. Excerpt:
SPIEGEL: In “Gravity,” Sandra Bullock plays an astronaut who gets separated from her shuttle and ends up floating in space, completely untethered. Would it be possible to save an astronaut in such a situation?
Walter: Yes, in principle. These days, every spacesuit is outfitted with a small jetpack. The pack’s range, though, is only about a kilometer, so it wouldn’t be possible to fly tens of thousands of kilometers to the ISS, as the characters do in the film. In real life, everyone involved in that disaster would have died.
SPIEGEL: It doesn’t sound like a very nice way to go, drifting through nothingness in a spacesuit, waiting to die.
Walter: On the contrary! When you’re slowly running out of oxygen, the same thing happens as does when you’re in thin air at the top of a mountain: Everything seems funny. And as you’re laughing about it, you slowly nod off. I experienced this phenomenon in an altitude chamber during my training as an astronaut. At some point, someone in the group starts cracking bad jokes. Our brains are gentle with us. A person who dies alone in space dies a cheerful death.
Matt and I saw Gravity yesterday, and loved it. He’s a space obsessive, and said going in, “Just so you know, I’m going to be a pedant about this.” He found nothing to complain about. We both thought it was an excellent movie, very suspenseful.
I have a Dantean philosophical point to make about the film, but I’m not going to do it above the jump because it involves major spoilers. Read on, if you care to…
We learn early in the film that Bullock is more or less dead inside, and has been since her little girl died in a senseless accident. It occurred to me watching her emerge from the womb-like escape capsule and swimming to the surface at the very end — her spiritual rebirth — that the entire experience was like Dante’s journey through Hell and Purgatory, with George Clooney as Virgil (the master who could not go the whole way). It’s only a rough analogy, but she had to suffer a purgation in order to find her way out of the dark woods and back to life.
Then again, if I watched an Andy Griffith Show rerun these days, I’d find something in it that resonates with The Divine Comedy…