One expert who offered a notable online critique of Gravity is the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the well-respected head of the Hayden Planetarium in New York’s American Museum of Natural History. On 6th October 2013, Tyson posted a remarkable series of Twitter tweets highlighting technical blunders in Gravity (while also confessing that he thoroughly enjoyed the film). His tweets created an enormous response including television reports on Inside Edition, The Today Show and NBC Nightly News, along with many other news stories, blog posts and online discussions. Tyson himself was shocked at the fuss created around the handful of tweets he had sent over the course of an evening and was moved to write an open letter on 9th October explaining his motivations and offering praise for the many accurate details of space and space travel depicted in Gravity; we shall return to this message later.
In his original stream of Twitter posts, Tyson highlighted some faults with the film and also raised some interesting issues around extraterrestrial travel and the safety of human beings exploring outer space. He started by noting that Gravity is possibly an inaccurate title and suggested names which better reflect the forces that the characters experience during the film, either Zero Gravity or Angular Momentum.
The film’s plot involves a Russian missile strike on a decommissioned satellite causing a chain reaction of destruction and space debris – known as Kessler Syndrome after the scientist Don Kessler who theorised it – which in turn damage the space shuttle, forcing Bullock and Clooney’s characters to embark on a space walk of epic proportions.
Tyson notes that, despite technical errors in details, one of the central aspects of Gravity highlights a very real danger for space travel – that of collision with the existent and ever-growing amount of space junk orbiting the Earth. In the few decades that humans have been sending spacecraft, satellites and manned missions into space a huge collection of manmade objects have been left in orbit. NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office researches, collects data and records orbital debris – more than 500,000 pieces items of space junk are currently being tracked, from nuts, bolts and chips of paint to boosters, rockets and entire dead spacecraft. There have been incidents that in some ways echo the storyline of Gravity including an event in 2006 when a the space shuttle Atlantis collided with a fragment of microchip – the tiny piece of debris blew a hole in the shuttle’s cargo bay radiator panels – and another in June 2012 when a micrometeoroid hit International Space Station’s Cupola. If mankind is to learn the lessons of polluting our own planet, we should be extremely careful about leaving waste in the Earth’s orbit and deep space. As Gravity suggests, the space debris issue is getting alarming, and engage in mitigation and remediation measures to solve the issue. This will be crucial for the safety of future space exploration.