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Random Thoughts about Science Fiction: Gravity

I first saw the movie Gravity not too long after it was first released in theaters. Smarter people than I have explained what the movie got right and wrong in terms of science, but that’s not what I would like to talk about. I haven’t seen Gravity since I saw it the first time in theaters, so my memory might be a bit fuzzy on what happens in the movie. Fair warning: there are spoilers if you haven’t seen the movie.

The thing that most interested me about the movie was this theme about rebirth and growth that was developed through the movie, starting with Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone and her first spacewalk to service the Hubble Telescope. The Hubble Telescope is, in fact, one of the most important instruments we’ve ever developed, capturing images of the universe with such clarity that they never fail to leave us stunned. To look at one of the images is to see the breathtaking expanse of space laid out before us, each speck of light representing another galaxy.

Gravity is a movie about space, but not in the way that a lot of other movies are. Sure, there’s the typical “space is dangerous” aspect about the movie. Apart from that, though, I think that there’s a great respect for the physical forces we’re dealing with, and what it will take for humanity to meet the challenges in front of us. We have a long way to go before we’re ready to reach out and touch the stars.

In the movie, Ryan Stone’s inexperience is met with the childish antics of veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, played by George Clooney. This is Kowalski’s final mission, so he takes the time to enjoy the view and the experience of being in space by floating around with his manned maneuvering unit. To some degree, there’s less a feeling of exploration and pushing the bounds of human knowledge than there is the feeling that this is becoming old hat. How many people are interested in the minutia of what NASA does on versus the number of people who were watching anxiously as man took his first steps on the moon?

The main problem arises when a Russian missile strike on an old satellite puts debris on a collision course with the team and the Hubble Telescope. What follows is a mad scramble to avoid the collision, but ultimately, both the space shuttle Explorer and Hubble are destroyed, and one of the three astronauts dies. Kowalski and Stone then try to get to the International Space Station before the debris spins around the planet to hit them again.

Without doing an in-depth summary of a movie I haven’t seen in over a year, let me get to the point: after Kowalski dies, Stone is on her own, facing circumstances that nobody has ever faced before. There’s a poignant scene in which Stone, after crawling into the space station and taking off her suit, is curled up by a window.

This image calls to mind the picture of a human developing in the womb, curled up with the umbilical cord. And in a way, the space station is Stone’s womb–it’s the thin skin between the cold void of space and certain death and the warmth and air she needs to survive.

Moving ahead a bit, after she crash lands on the planet in one of the Chinese station’s escape pods, she crawls onto the beach. The movie ends as she takes her first, trembling steps on land, signifying her survival and growth from baby in the womb on the space station.

It’s very human–but more than human, it represents the evolution of life. There’s a an idea in science–not quite a theory–called panspermia. There are a lot of different version of this idea, but for me the most attractive is one which posits simply that life on Earth came from space via microorganisms that survived being carried on asteroids and comets. I don’t subscribe to this idea as a good explanation of life, but there are interesting implications. We do know that organic compounds that life depends on can be found on comets and asteroids–so it is, at least, thinkable that the compounds needed for life could have come from them.

There are clear parallels in Gravity and this idea, and furthermore with the evolution of life. Stone survives reentry as all of the metal of the satellites and the two space stations crashes around her. She emerges from the water–as early life did–crawling onto the beach, then on her hands and knees, and then standing on two feet.

So what does this have to do with space exploration and humanity? We reach for space, but come crashing back to Earth. What Gravity does is highlight how hostile space is and how much we actually rely on the safety of Earth. There’s a narrow window in which humans can survive, and once that’s gone, that’s it. As Carl Sagan said in Pale Blue Dot:

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

We reborn onto the planet Earth, with a new respect for it. We’re ready to take our first steps into space, but with humility and awareness that Earth is who we are. We’re drawn to it, literally and figuratively. From space we can marvel at its beauty, and from the surface we can appreciate how it has nurtured us.

Maybe one day we’ll find life on another planet, or maybe even settle and build on other planets. I tend to think that the future holds boundless potential for humanity, as long as we remember that, when we look at the big picture, life is fragile. Earth is all we have.

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