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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Growing Threat of Space Junk

Gravity’s Astronaut Describes the Trials of Space

Although the life-threatening situation Gravity depicts is fictional, the new film faithfully captures the beauty of orbit, says a former space station crew member
NASA astronaut Cady Coleman floats by the International Space Station's cupola window with her flute



NASA

Cady Coleman is the real-life Sandra Bullock—sort of. Coleman is a NASA astronaut, like Bullock’s character, Ryan Stone, in the new film Gravity, out October 4. As Bullock prepared for the role, she spoke with Coleman about the unique challenges and dangers astronauts face, and Coleman described her daily life in orbit as a member of the crew living on the International Space Station.

Gravity illustrates a lot of what can go wrong in space. During its 90-minute run time the film depicts a harrowing parade of calamity after catastrophe: space debris, fire, asphyxiation and hardware failure. They’re also a stunningly beautiful simulacrum of the awesome feeling of floating above Earth, and a meditation on bravery, isolation, loneliness and fortitude.

Whereas Coleman’s job has never been as dramatic as Stone’s ordeal, the astronaut said she related to the film’s visuals and story. Coleman, a chemist and former U.S. Air Force colonel, is a veteran of two space shuttle missions and five and a half months on the space station during the December 2010 to May 2011 Expedition 27 mission. The space flyer spoke with Scientific American about seeing her job on the big screen, advising the film’s actors and why she wants her mom to see the movie.

[An edited transcript of the conversation follows.]

What did you think when you saw the film?
I loved it. I wasn’t expecting to. I really felt that it brought people to space in both an emotional and a physical way. I love my job and I feel lucky to go to space, but I don’t get to bring the people I love with me. I can’t wait to bring my mother to this movie. It’s a human drama, but the human drama takes place in a place that is very special to me and that I wish everybody understood is out there.

You want your mother to see a movie that shows just how dangerous your job can be?
Is my mom going to be scared? I don’t think so. It’s a movie. Every one of the risks that they talk about is real, to some extent. The question is, are they so insurmountable that we shouldn’t be in space? The fact that we have people living in space tells you that they’re not. In the movie orbital debris plays a large part, and it plays a large part in our lives as well, but it’s something we are managing. Even though I know there are a lot of dangers in our job and I’m on board to work within those risks, I still have some sense that I will be coming home.

gravity movie
DEFYING GRAVITY: The visuals in the new film Gravity come close to reproducing the feeling of being in space, says astronaut Cady Coleman.
Image: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The film is just gorgeous visually, and really gave me a sense of what it might be like to fly in space. How accurate do you think that sense was? Does the movie capture any of the reality of being there and seeing that view?
I think the movie did that well. It’s a visceral feeling, that view of the Earth. Nothing that I had seen previous to this captured the feeling of having that view. It brought me back to what it felt like to be up there flying.

I’m also thinking that when my husband sees this movie he’s going to realize how hard and strenuous and mentally taxing my job can be and maybe he can forgive me just a little bit for leaving my stuff all over the house!

The film uses space travel to explore themes of disconnectedness and isolation. How did you approach those issues when you were living in space?
Our e-mail is limited up there. Our phone is limited. If you miss the mail sync you have to wait, and it makes a conversation take two days instead of one. When I was up there it was a little painful to be separated in that way, but it was also kind of peaceful and protected. It was interesting to come home and suddenly just have tons of e-mail. I didn’t go into our building [at work] very much when I first got home because it was just overwhelming and bewildering to see so many people at once and talk to them.

While I was up there, Scott Kelly was there, and his sister-in-law Gabrielle Giffords was shot. To be so far from home—he’s a pretty pragmatic guy, but it’s hard. We talked about it. Scott by nature is a fairly quiet person that isn’t inclined to do a lot of chattering about personal things. But we are living in space and we have a responsibility to each other to understand our readiness and focus. He said, “I’m going to be on the phone a lot. I’m probably going to spend all my free time in my cabin. Realize I’m okay, but there’s a lot of supporting I want to do remotely.”

Were you sometimes too busy living in space to really reflect on where you were?
I would say it’s not something I’m very good at even when I’m here on the ground, which is to make some kind of empty philosophical space where I just think and be and live. We work between 12- and 18-hour days up there, and even when you’re done you’re thinking about the next day. But when you look out the window and see the view, it’s so addictive and alluring and irresistible. Often at the end of the day I would go up to the cupola [panoramic window] and play my flute and look out.

The movie centers around Sandra Bullock’s character, a female astronaut, as opposed to one of the male crew members, and it struck me that that’s not the norm we usually see being portrayed. What did you think of her character?
I was glad to see it be a woman because I do consider they have been a really huge part of the more modern space program. But when I go out and I talk at schools, it’s clear to me that even though things are different now, we actually still need to hit our girls over the head to make them realize they can do wild and amazing things, too. It’s important to be obvious about portraying women as very capable people in these kinds of roles. I think there is room for these things to be improving.

What kinds of things did you and Bullock talk about in preparation for this film?
She wanted to know how we moved around in space. I told her you can move yourself around sometimes with just a single hair. You could take it, like a piece of dental floss, and use it to push off, and it could move you across the entire space station. If you do it slowly and carefully, that’s how much force it takes. I think that was significant to her. We also talked about what it was like as a mom and as a person to be passionate about what you do and at the same time have to do it someplace where your family isn’t.

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