Sunday, January 05, 2014

The Universe of GRAVITY

Many of us who have worked in NASA love the movie GRAVITY. One of my NASA co-workers saw the movie 3 times in the first week! GRAVITY may go down in history as one of the top Space movies of all time, alongside 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Kubrick's vision of the year 2001 showed commercial flights to the Moon, a Moon base and a giant orbiting space station. GRAVITY showed us a future where the Space Shuttle is still flying and young women could still dream of being Shuttle astronauts. Like 2001, GRAVITY makes us wish to live in that alternate universe.

In what year does GRAVITY take place? We hear that this is STS-157 when our Shuttle flights ended at STS-135. When the Shuttles were retired, there a plan was floated by a private entity to maintain two orbiters and a flight rate of 1-2 flights per year. This would allow US crews to reach ISS without being overly dependent on Russia. It would also allow missions that are impossible for Orion or Dragon, like Hubble repair or moving modules to a Space Station. After a stand-down of about 2 years, flights would resume around 2013. At 2 flights per year STS-157 would take place around year 2024.

We know that GRAVITY takes place in the 2020's because China plans to launch their Space Station in that period. We don't see any Commercial Space Taxis in the movie, but they could be around. Commercial Space is right in front of our 3-D glasses, because a private entity operates the Space Shuttles. In this future other entities, both private and Chinese military, are in Space.

The 2020's have also brought small improvements to Space Suits. The suits in the movie have helmet-mounted readouts and LCD wrist displays, which don't exist on the current Extravehicular Mobility Unit. The GRAVITY suits are more flexible, because we see Ryan Stone kicking her legs in panic! In this future new suits have replaced the EMU.

The Mission of EXPLORER

In GRAVITY, the Hubble Space Telescope is being repaired yet again. Does this mean that the James Webb Space Telescope, touted as Hubble's successor, has suffered delays or failure? We hope not, for JWST will look into an infrared spectrum that Hubble cannot, giving us glimpses into the early Universe. JWST's orbit at the Earth-Sun L2 point would allow it to escape the movie's orbital debris danger.

JWST will not completely replace Hubble, for Hubble can still observe in optical and ultraviolet bands that Webb cannot. The Hubble would be valuable to astronomers if it could be saved. Telescope time, especially on Space telescopes, is scarce. There will always be more astronomers' projects than there is telescope time. The mission of Explorer is to preserve Hubble for the future.

Hubble currently orbits at 360 miles above Earth's surface while while ISS orbits at about 220 miles. Many people have complained that GRAVITY shows astronauts escaping by EVA between them. This may also have been part of Explorer's mission. The Space Shuttle allows payloads like Hubble to be serviced and also moved. Another mission of Explorer was therefore to move Hubble to the orbit of ISS. The lower orbit would be above less of Earth's atmosphere and require more fuel to maintain, but would allow servicing from ISS when the Shuttle was not available.

An International Future

Viewers have also complained that a Chinese Space Station seems very close to ISS, but that may have been intentional. ISS is planned to deorbit sometime in the 2020's but China plans their own large Space Station. China has already expressed interest in other nations participating in its Station. Placing the Chinese Station near ISS would allow crew and equipment to be transferred between them. Potentially even whole modules of ISS could be moved to another Station.

The movie GRAVITY shows a future where both private entities and other nations are in Space. It shows the capabilities of the Space Shuttle for repairing and moving the Hubble Space Telescope. The movie shows cooperation among nations in exploring Space. Finally it gives us young women a role model in Shuttle Astronaut Ryan Stone. Leaving the movie, we wish to live in her Universe.


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