How realistic is ‘Gravity’? Astronauts and scientists react

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Warning: This post contains minor spoilers for "Gravity."

Apparently the prospect of seeing Sandra Bullock and George Clooney struggle to survive the dangers of space was an attractive one for moviegoers. Filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón's harrowing space drama "Gravity" set an October box office record over the weekend, thrilling audiences with its mix of stunning visuals, terrifying realism, and emotional character moments.

But how realistic was "Gravity"? While small scientific inaccuracies and liberties taken in the name of "art" might not concern the average moviegoer, what do real-life astronauts and scientists think of director Alfonso Cuarón’s gripping techno-thriller?

If you’re looking for someone to weigh in on a movie like “Gravity,” there is likely no one better to ask than Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, a spacewalk pioneer and the second person to set foot on the Moon.

“We were probably not as lighthearted as Clooney and Sandra Bullock,” Aldrin recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “We didn't tell too many jokes when people were in some position of jeopardy outside the spacecraft, but I think that's the humanity coming through in the characters.”

Aldrin also said he thought the filmmakers might have made the Earth look too good from orbit.

“This movie gave great clarity to looking down and seeing the features of Earth but there weren't enough clouds,” he said. “Maybe there was too precise a delineation from space.”

Several other astronauts, including Space Shuttle veterans Leroy Chiao, Mark Uhran, and Michael Massimino, have weighed in with opinions of "Gravity's" science -- or lack thereof, with most of them saying that "Gravity" gets things mostly right. The astronauts also seemed to agree that while the destructive chain reaction of satellite debris seen in the film is highly unlikely, such an event is not impossible.

Famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson -- Internet icon, Pluto-hater, and director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium -- was far more critical of “Gravity.” After seeing the film this weekend, the scientist took to Twitter to express everything that miffed him about the movie in a series of tweets titled “Mysteries of Gravity.”

Mysteries of #Gravity: Satellite communications were disrupted at 230 mi up, but communications satellites orbit 100x higher.

— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) October 6, 2013

Tyson also took issue with the film’s title, jokingly suggesting it should be called “Zero Gravity” or “Angular Momentum” for accuracy’s sake.

Physicist Rhett Allain also did a lengthy point-by-point takedown of the scientific errors in "Gravity" for Wired, explaining among other things that the International Space Station doesn't orbit at 372 miles above Earth and that the kind of air resistance experienced by Bullock's character in the film's finale probably wouldn't be so dramatic. What a party pooper!

Another hilarious scientific reaction to the movie came courtesy of Indiewire critic Eric Kohn, whose former NASA engineer father relayed his issues with "Gravity" as only a former NASA engineer dad could.

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Though the astronauts and scientists may have expressed concerns about "Gravity's" scientific realism, their reactions to the film as a whole have been very positive.

“The visuals are spectacularly good in this film. I don’t understand how (Cuarón) did that,” Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield said at a Q&A after the premiere of “Gravity” at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. “If I were to ever fly in space again, I want to fly with Sandra . . Fortunately, the five months that I spent on the space station went way calmer."

Despite flinging a series of scientific criticisms at “Gravity,” even Degrasse-Tyson admitted that he got a kick out of the film.

“My tweets hardly ever convey opinion. Mostly perspectives on the world,” Degrasse-Tyson tweeted. “But if you must know, I enjoyed ‘Gravity’ very much.”

Aldrin, a strong advocate of science education and renewed investment in space exploration, believes that “Gravity” is the perfect vehicle to get people excited about space again.

“We're in a very precarious position of losing all the advancements we've made in space that we did 40 years ago, 50 years ago,” the 83-year-old said. “From my perspective, this movie couldn't have come at a better time to really stimulate the public. I was very, very impressed with it.”

“Gravity” is now playing in theatres.

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