Tuesday, October 08, 2013


Where? Oil on linen 50 x 50 cm 2013

Yesterday I saw the new movie GRAVITY starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. I LOVED it. I was on the edge of my seat, totally gripped, for the entire film.

So why did I love it? Apart from the beauty of Earth seen from space and the excitement of a catastrophic disaster in space, with people attempting to overcome unimaginable obstacles [one after the other], GRAVITY, at one level, is a story based on a real concern. And, it is a story that needs to be told in the 21st century because of this concern. Essentially the film is about manmade space debris causing mayhem as it hurtles, in this case, at great speed in repeated orbit around the Earth.

The space debris in GRAVITY is the result of two satellites colliding, causing large and small pieces of super engineered craft to become a repeating debris hailstorm. Catastrophically, some of these pieces of debris smash into other satellites, including the one, Hubble, our protagonists are working on. And, when I say working on... they are literally outside, attempting to make repairs.

Other Worlds Ahoy! Oil on linen 80 x 90 cm 2013

Now, at this point we need to remember that GRAVITY is a story, a fiction. Indeed, there have been a number of scientists who have clearly detailed how many of the actions, situations, pieces of equipment etc are not factually correct or possible [you can Google them].

And, as the director Alphonso Cuaron has said, It is not a documentary. It is a piece of fiction. http://edition.cnn.com/2013/10/07/showbiz/movies/gravity-scientists/ 

But, many stories/fictions are sparked by reality where a fear, a desire, a suggestion, a possibility, especially proposed by science, stimulates creative juices.

So let's talk reality! In 2009 there was an actual collision between two satellites. Yep! The US Motorola owned Iridium communications satellite and an old deactivated Russian Cosmos 2251 satellite collided on February 10th 2009. [You can read a 2009 ABC news item HERE plus many other sites.] This collision added to already existing list of manmade debris in space.

Space debris has become a concern and NASA tracks every identified piece. Why? Because, debris, even one piece, may hit something important! And, the more debris there is, the likelihood of impacts is increased.  Orbital debris is considered the biggest threat to each shuttle mission, and every orbiter comes back with a number of small dings. [ABC News: An Unprecedented Space Collision, Feb 2009]

Here's some examples of space debris, as described on NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office: Derelict spacecraft and upper stages of launch vehicles, carriers for multiple payloads, debris intentionally released during spacecraft separation from its launch vehicle or during mission operations, debris created as a result of spacecraft or upper stage explosions or collisions, solid rocket motor effluents, and tiny flecks of paint released by thermal stress or small particle impacts.

Please read more at NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office...fascinating reading. Yes, they will shift the International Space Station [ISS] to avoid space debris! About once a year apparently.Return to Top

How long has it taken humankind to set up a situation where manmade space debris is a concern, so much so that it provides a stimulus for artistic license to incredibly extrapolate fears and dangers in a film like GRAVITY? Well, that would be since 1957 when the Russians launched the first satellite, Sputnik 1. It has taken us only around 55 years to litter space...or a part of space that's really important to us. The part where satellites, that keep us communicating, navigating, orientating, entertained, observing and more, orbit. Space debris is a 21st century problem!

GRAVITY is a reminder that our environment extends beyond our planet and its atmosphere!

An image of space debris from NASA's Orbital Digital Graphics
on NASA's Orbital Debris Program Office Check out the site, there are more images too.

So, this brings me to something I wondered about when I watched GRAVITY. In the film the hailstorm of debris wipes out numerous satellites, including the International Space Station [ISS]. I wondered if back-on-Earth, as a result of satellite reliant systems failure, airplanes fell out of the sky, the internet collapsed, ships went off course, financial systems went array...and more. The film gives few clues to what happened on Earth while feats of super human endurance were enacted in space by Sandra Bullock's character, Dr. Stone...oh that's right it's just a story!

There are some visual metaphors that create subliminal connectors throughout the film. These relate to foetal positions, pods, first steps, umbilical cords, birth and birth canals, letting go, rebirth... Mother. I could write more on this, but maybe another time!

GRAVITY, whilst it deals with only a miniscule section of space, clearly sends a message that 'environment' is something more than our planet Earth.

Southern Hemisphere Summer Space Program
In January2013 I attended the Southern Hemisphere Summer Space Program White Paper: Common Horizons delivery at the University of South Australia. The program is a five week intensive interdisciplinary program from the International Space University, hosted by the University of South Australia. My daughter attended the program...and did not want it to end because it was so wonderful, stimulating and challenging. The White Paper focuses upon the management of space resources whilst providing recommendations on space sustainability through policy, awareness and technology. You can watch the delivery HERE

The White Paper discusses, amongst other issues, the topic of space debris addressing it as a threat to space sustainability.

My daughter and I would highly recommend anyone with an interest in space and the various issues that are confronting us and will confront us as we move through the 21st century, to undertake the Southern Hemisphere Summer Space Program. Check out their site HERE 

In 2013 about 40 people completed the course. Some were undergrads, some graduates, some PhD students and some who were already working in the industry or associated. Most were from a science or engineering background, but there was one from a law/humanities stance...my daughter. Yes, the program is definitely cross and inter disciplinary! Apart from the science and engineering aspects, the program deals with legal and policy issues, cultural impacts, environmental horizons, international collaboration and more.


Gravity has won 7 Oscars, including best Director. Full list of winners HERE
Knew it was a great movie!


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