Monday, 3 March 2014

Gravity - it's the real thing

The technical prowess of Alfonso CuarĂ³n's sci-fi drama ‘Gravity’ meant it took seven Oscars at the 86th Academy Awards last night, including visual effects, sound editing, sound mixing, cinematography, editing and original score. 

In the Warner Bros movie two astronauts find themselves adrift in space and struggling for survival after their spacecraft is destroyed by space debris. 

The scenario makes for gripping Hollywood entertainment and is not million miles from reality - NASA actively works to protect its astronauts and vehicles from such dangers and has occasionally had to adjust its orbit to avoid colliding with items in its path.

From protective material coating the outside of the International Space Station (ISS) to meticulous training on the ground and in space, covering everything from spacewalking to fires or decompression inside the station itself, NASA's ground crews and astronauts are as prepared as they can be for potential anomaly.

Back in September NASA astronaut Cady Coleman (Expedition 26) spoke with actress Sandra Bullock to discuss Bullock’s character in the movie. The two had previously conversed while Coleman was onboard the orbiting space station.

Sandra Bullock in the Oscar-winning 'Gravity'.
Of course, featured alongside Bullock and George Clooney, ‘Gravity’ has another major star - the International Space Station itself. 

Look closely during the film’s interior shots of the space station and you may get a glimpse into what’s really going on 240 miles above Earth. 

To focus on the facts behind the fiction, Coleman recalled her own experience living and working in space aboard the orbiting laboratory after an advanced screening of the film.  “This isn’t a documentary - it’s a movie,” she said.  “It transports people from this planet into space. I am really lucky, as an astronaut, to get to go and live there.”

Observant viewers of the movie may have noticed that free water forms spheres in space. Although special effects helped this occur in the film, this is a true phenomenon and is the result of surface tension.

Onboard the space station and experiment called the Capillary Flow Experiment (CFE) is helping predict liquid behavior in microgravity. 

Such findings provide help improve ground water transportation on Earth, better cooling capabilities for electronics using heat pipes, as well as benefiting the design for fuel tanks in spacecraft for long duration exploration.

Fire also plays a role in the movie, and two studies underway on the space station touch on this topic - the Burning and Suppression of Solids (BASS) investigation and the Flame Extinguishment Experiment (FLEX). 

Findings from BASS may contribute to improved fire suppression methods for spacecraft and FLEX may lead to improved fuel efficiency on Earth and minimise pollutants associated with combustion in Earth’s atmosphere.

Space station research will continue for years to come as the findings from the many studies build on the current collection of human knowledge. The work done aboard the ISS goes far beyond entertainment value, Coleman pointed out, touching on the nature of the human spirit. 

“Our planet sits in a neighbourhood within the universe, and we are all space explorers," said Coleman. 

"I think space movies, in general, bring that message home to us. Whether we live with our feet on the planet or whether we live on the space station, we are all space travellers and we are a people of space exploration.”

A bright sun greets the International Space Station in this view from the Russian 
section of the orbital outpost, photographed by one of the STS-129 crew members in 2009.