After three weeks atop the US box office charts, the movie Gravity was finally dethroned last weekend, beat out by the cinematic masterpiece Bad Grandpa. (Yeah.) Still, the success of the film made it an inevitable hook for essays using the film to make space policy points of one kind or another. But, just as the film itself contained a number of technical flaws, using the movie to make policy arguments can also run into problems.
In an essay for The Huffington Post, Lauren Lyons sees a “parable” in the existence of the separate Chinese space station and Shenzhou spacecraft that one character in the movie is forced to use: “isolated, yet still there, and pushing on, whether part of the team or not.” She uses that to criticize the lack of cooperation between the US and China because of policy issues (including the ban on bilateral cooperation between NASA and its Chinese counterparts imposed by Congress) and criticism of what she calls a rhetoric of “American exceptionalism” in space, despite NASA’s various problems.
“[I]f it weren’t for international partnerships,” she concludes, “the movie would have ended a lot less optimistically.” Ironically, the type of increased partnership she seeks—greater cooperation between the US and China—would have resulted in a far less optimistic outcome for the movie. If there were lower barriers to US-China cooperation, it’s likely China would be invited to participate in the International Space Station, likely in place of a standalone station such as the one depicted in the movie—thus depriving Sandra Bullock’s character of a means home.
Lyons at least assumes that, weeks after its premiere, readers of her essay have seen the movie: “By now, you have already seen the new space thriller, Gravity (spoilers ahead),” she writes. In an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun last week, though, Douglas MacKinnon makes no such assumption. “Without giving away any of the plot, I found it amusing and very telling that later in the film, China and elements of its manned space program play a significant and positive role,” he writes.
MacKinnon uses the film to criticize the Obama Administration, whose staff, he believes, “have basically shut down our entire human spaceflight program.” He continues: “As the movie came to a close, it was repeatedly reinforced to me that President Obama had made a serious error in judgment which may very well adversely affect our nation for decades to come.” He makes no mention, though, that the decision to retire the Space Shuttle dates back to the Bush Administration in 2004, or that NASA is both funding development of commercial crew vehicles as well as the Space Launch System and Orion.
Those commercial crew vehicles that MacKinnon overlooked also don’t appear in the movie, much to the consternation of Greg Autry, in another Huffington Post essay. Director Alfonso Cuarón, he writes, “might have maintained Gravity’s sense of realism and captured relevance by flying our heroine to orbit in one of America’s new commercial spacecraft.” (How such a vehicle could have been used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, the activity taking place as the movie began, isn’t clear, but perhaps such a vehicle could explain why the ISS was uninhabited when Bullock’s character arrived, even though a Soyuz was still docked.)
“We look forward to seeing Bullock relaxing on a safe, commercial flight to a commercial Bigelow space habitat in Gravity 2,” Autry concludes. Of course, given the debris-filled state of low Earth orbit by the movie’s end, she might have to wait a long time for such a flight.