Gravity's limited horizons

Paul Wells on what the hit film says about humanity's place in space

Sandra Bullock in 'Gravity'

Like just about everyone else, I had a blast watching Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s pulse-pounding, big-hearted space thriller set in near-earth orbit. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are both far more likeable than they seemed in the trailers; Cuarón tells a simple story with awesome focus, and the whole thing is gorgeous to watch. I plan to see it again soon.

Like a lot of lifelong space geeks, I also liked something specific. Cuarón gets the science right, or at least more right than wrong. (One could nitpick the details to death, but the nitpicking is fun precisely because the plot doesn’t have truck-sized holes in it.) For half a century any mildly curious schoolchild has known two things about space travel that most movies cheerfully ignore: the utter silence of vacuum and the endless Newtonian straight-line inertia of any loose object, whether it’s a stray blob of sweat or a spiralling, untethered astronaut. Cuarón heeds these constraints. Bullock and Clooney hear nothing except via vibration from something their space suits are touching. And they carom all over the place, mostly convincingly. I think this discipline affects Gravity’s success in ways that have not much to do with physics. There’s a morality in Cuarón’s decision to accept the universe. It hones the whole enterprise.

Of course the last prominent film to take the rules of space travel this seriously was Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Even Ron Howard’s very good 1995 Apollo 13 cheats on the silence of vacuum.) So much of Clooney and Bullock’s adventure resembles the perils of Bowman and Poole in the middle third of Kubrick’s film that it’s impossible to see the new movie without thinking of the old. And the longer I did that, the worse my mood grew.

Pull back the cameras. Look at the assumptions about humanity’s place in space. Kubrick’s vision was grand. He depicted routine trips by tourists to orbit, colonies circling the earth and on the moon, astronauts on their way to Jupiter, and a humanity whose destiny is the stars. Cuarón shows technicians futzing around among three space stations, two of them decrepit, with no greater hope than to make it back down to Earth where they belong. It’s a fair measure of how far most people’s ambitions for space travel have collapsed in 45 years. Cuarón’s done nothing wrong here. He’s operating within the assumptions of his time, as Kubrick was in his.

But in almost half a century all we’ve managed, as a species, is to get better at imagining and depicting what it would be like to leave Earth. We’re not particularly better at getting off Earth. The biggest plot hole in Gravity is that it opens outside an orbiting space shuttle, because Cuarón hasn’t the heart to admit that the shuttle program is now history and there is, for the moment, nothing much to replace it.  As a kid, I didn’t dream that humanity would get better at make-believe by the time I reached middle age.

The thing is, there is a lot going on in space and among people who still look to space, so much so that it’s possible the past few years will stand, 45 years hence, as a low-water mark for humanity’s spacefaring ambition. Three things are happening that make Gravity look less exciting than real life:

1. A proliferation of private-sector space activity. Thanks in part to a policy shift Barack Obama made soon after becoming president, there’s way more room for private business to provide equipment and services to collaborate with, compete with, or ignore NASA. And entrepreneurs are rushing into the room Obama opened. At the end of September, on the same day, one company launched a Canadian satellite while another resupplied the International Space Station with a robot cargo ship. Space tourism companies backed by deep-pocket eccentrics  are signing up clients. Others eye the floating goldmines in the asteroid belt and hope for a chance to mine them. Still others have designs on the moon. It’s an unprecedented burst of activity, still in its very early stages.

2. Better science to explore Earth’s immediate neighbourhood. The Voyager probes that flew past Jupiter, Saturn and the outer planets more than 20 years ago were almost unbelievably rickety by today’s standards. Of course they were: in 1964 a graduate student named Gary Flandro realized the outer planets would align, and permit flybys by a single well-aimed craft, only a dozen years hence. The timing was amazing. Such “Grand Tour” alignments happen only once every 175 years. If this one had come a decade earlier, the Voyager missions would have been beyond NASA’s technical ability . As it was, the little probes launched with 1/240,000th the memory of an iPhone.

But as technology improves, the newer unmanned probes are almost systematically mapping the solar system. The European Space Agency has a robust slate of missions planned; to me the most exciting is JUICE, which will study three moons of Jupiter, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, all with water oceans under their icy surfaces. That makes all three moons candidates for life.

3. A new era of planetary discovery. Our Kate Lunau wrote in 2011 of the hundreds of planets astronomers have discovered around stars close to our Sun. More are being discovered all the time. By one measure, it’s the greatest period of discovery in human history. Of course, “close” to our sun is a figure of speech. It’s taken 36 years for Voyager to get to the front porch in interstellar terms. It’ll be tens of thousands more years before Voyager wanders past another star. Speeding up interstellar travel to more reasonable time scales takes just unbelievable amounts of energy. But at least we are finally sure those planets are out there, in massive quantity. Space travel, especially human travel, will be confined to the immediate neighbourhood for the foreseeable future. But now we can see the horizon.

Cuarón’s movie opens with the words “Life in Space is Impossible.” Indeed, that’s how things look now. But, I’ll warrant, not forever.

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