Episode 45: Gravity

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Back from the ramparts of Beijing in the last episode, Sean and Cody blast off for another trip to outer space as they set a course for this epic 2013 survival drama directed by Alfonso Cuarón. In Gravity, chatty astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are busy giving the Hubble Telescope a once-over when a wave of supercharged space junk turns their space shuttle into confetti. Drifting off in opposite directions and with the oxygen in their suits running out, the two have to think fast to figure out not only to survive the next 90 minutes, but how to get back on terra firma now that their spaceship is a glitter bomb. Environmental issues discussed include the real-life environment of space, the pollution of Earth orbit with too many satellites and space junk, the scenario of “Kessler Syndrome” which provides the basis of the premise of the film, and the impact back on Earth of the space shuttle program, including pollution and habitat loss from launch facilities.

What exactly is Kessler Syndrome, how common are satellite collisions, and could a scenario like the one shown in this film really occur in real life? How many operational satellites are currently in orbit around the Earth? What was the space shuttle really built to do, and how come NASA didn’t end up doing very much of it despite 30 years and billions of dollars? Why did NASA have to build a manatee sanctuary in Florida? What did Sandra Bullock go through in order to film this movie? Why does Cuarón use so many fewer shots and cuts than most other directors? What did real astronauts think of the film? Is the Sandra Bullock character a strong female lead, or a damsel in distress? Can you believe how much she made from this picture? What other film, yet to be done on the Green Screen list, is Gravity most like, structurally? All these questions are heating up for fiery re-entry in this tropospheric episode of Green Screen.

Original 2013 trailer for Gravity. Warning: sudden loud sounds; don’t have your volume turned up.
In the opening scenario of Gravity, the crew of the space shuttle “Explorer” has their mission canceled and their ship shredded in a matter of minutes. This scene sets up most of the rest of the film.
Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), realizing he is pulling Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) off into space, sacrifices himself by detaching this tether. This is just one of the emotional wallops in Gravity.
After a harrowing traverse to a Russian space capsule, Stone appears to have an encounter with Matt Kowalski. Is he really there, or is her subconscious mind trying to tell her something?
The harrowing and emotional re-entry scene from Gravity. SPOILER ALERT: this is almost the conclusion of the film. Don’t watch if you don’t want to see how it ends.

Additional Materials About This Episode:

Environmental History: Space Junk

NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office main website, the office that deals with everything related to space junk:
https://orbitaldebris.jsc.nasa.gov/

Union of Concerned Scientists’ Satellite Database, where you can track objects in orbit around the Earth:
https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/satellite-database

Donald J. Kessler, “The Kessler Syndrome,” March 8, 2009, liberally quoted in the episode:
https://web.archive.org/web/20100527195029/http://webpages.charter.net/dkessler/files/KesSym.html

Alexandra Witze, “The Quest to Conquer Earth’s Space Junk Program,” Nature.com, September 5, 2018:
https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06170-1

The Space Shuttle Program

Gregg Easterbrook, “Beam Me Out Of This Deathtrap, Scotty,” Washington Monthly cover story, April 1980 (Archive.org link):
https://web.archive.org/web/20030203074859/http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2001/8004.easterbrook-fulltext.html

Dwayne A. Day, “Gazing Back Through the Crystal Ball,” The Space Review, June 27, 2011 (a retrospective on Easterbrook’s article):
https://www.thespacereview.com/article/1872/1

Carlton Raden Hall, Paul A. Schmalzer, David R. Breininger, Brean Wheeler Duncan et al., “Ecological impacts of the Space Shuttle Program at John F. Kennedy Space Center, Florida,” NASA/TM-2014-216639, January 2014:
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/261400960_Ecological_Impacts_of_the_Space_Shuttle_Program_at_John_F_Kennedy_Space_Center_Florida

odyssey 1981

Cover of the March 1981 issue of Odyssey magazine, mentioned in the episode, which heavily promoted the shuttle program in its early days. Note this was before NASA stopped painting the main fuel tank white.

The Movie:

What Astronauts Thought of Gravity

Buzz Aldrin reviews Gravity, The Hollywood Reporter, October 3, 2013:
https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/general-news/gravity-review-by-astronaut-buzz-639883/

Gwynne Watkins, “An Astronaut Fact-Checks Gravity,” Vulture.com, October 7, 2013:
https://www.vulture.com/2013/10/astronaut-fact-checks-gravity.html

Zack Sharf, “NASA Astronaut Looks Back at ‘Gravity’: It’s Harmful For Girls who Want to Go to Space,” IndieWire, March 26, 2020:
https://www.indiewire.com/2020/03/nasa-astronaut-gravity-review-1202220444/

Miscellaneous

Stephen Galloway, “Sandra Bullock to make $70 Million (At Least) for ‘Gravity,'” The Hollywood Reporter, February 26, 2014:
https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/general-news/gravity-sandra-bullock-make-70-683561/

Here is Jonas Cuarón’s short film Aningaaq. This shows the conversation Ryan Stone has in the space capsule from the Inuit’s point of view. Jonas Cuarón, the writer of Gravity and director of this film, is the son of the director.

Mentioned in the Episode

Sean Munger (co-host and producer) will be speaking at PodFest Origins 2021 conference (headquartered in Tampa, but partially virtual) on October 29, 2021 at 12:30 PM Eastern (USA) time. Here is more information on the conference.

Sean Munger’s book, In Deadly Mirrors, a crime novel, releases October 29, 2021. Here is the link to it on Amazon.

Gravity (2013) on IMDB: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1454468/
Gravity (2013) on Letterboxd: https://letterboxd.com/film/gravity-2013/

Next Movie Up: Frogs (1972)

The image associated with Gravity is presumably copyright (C) 2013 by Warner Brothers. Its inclusion here is believed permissible under fair use. We are not the uploader of any YouTube clips embedded here.

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