Skip to main content

Real space travel much cooler than 'Gravity'

By Leroy Chiao, Special to CNN
October 8, 2013 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Leroy Chiao: Americans love reality shows. When it comes to space program, prefer fiction
  • He says "Gravity" well known, but do people care a crew just rocketed to space station?
  • He says we're inured to space flight, movies make it look, sound cooler, less workaday
  • Chiao: Truth is, space travel trumps all movie cool. Spaceflight surreal, thrilling

Editor's note: Leroy Chiao is a former NASA astronaut and commander of the International Space Station. He served as a member of the 2009 Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, and is the special adviser for human spaceflight to the Space Foundation. He also holds appointments at Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University.

(CNN) -- Sometime around the mid-1990s, the reality show was born. Since then, the genre has taken the world by storm: Audiences continue to love these shows and they cost next to nothing to make (cheap video, cheap sets, amateur "actors," etc.). So the profit margins are huge. If you're a producer, what's not to like? Of course, there are few who would have much positive to say about the artistic values involved. Still, we seem to find reality riveting.

Until it comes to America's space program.

Here, general audiences greatly prefer fiction. The much-anticipated film "Gravity," for example, opened in the United States this past weekend to rave reviews and a record-breaking box office take of $55.8 million. Ask anyone on the street, and chances are they are aware of the film, or at least have heard something about it.

5 things that couldn't happen in 'Gravity'

Leroy Chiao
Leroy Chiao

Then consider: Two weeks ago, a Soyuz rocket launched the next astronaut crew to the International Space Station and there was barely a collective yawn, because practically nobody in the general population knew or cared!

Why do general audiences love "Star Wars," "Star Trek," and other science fiction films, but don't seem to care about what is going on in real space exploration? Here is my take on it:

1. We've made it look easy for so long that the only time people pay attention is when there is an emergency or an accident. People got used to everything going well. That's boring to them. I have to admit that I can't sit through films of myself doing spacewalks. We didn't mess anything up, or go floating off into space to a slow terrifying death, so where's the excitement?

2. Reality space exploration is done by professionals. The back and forth between astronauts and mission control is intentionally succinct and to the point, with no unnecessary emotion. Better to watch an exciting reality TV show with name calling, hair pulling and other tantrums! Who knows what will happen next?

How realistic is 'Gravity'?
Clooney: I'm not interested in space travel

3. Reality space hardware doesn't look cool enough. I was training for my third space mission when Michael Bay and crew came to NASA to film parts of "Armageddon." Later, I had a chance to visit a set in Southern California during additional filming. I have to say that their fake space suits, spacecraft and other hardware looked very cool indeed, much more cool than the reality stuff I was going to use!

4. The physics of reality spaceflight are also boring. Orbital mechanics can be quite complex. Maneuvers and orbit changes are performed precisely and deliberately, and take some time. Much more exciting to have spacecraft "fly" like winged jet fighters in space, like in "Star Wars." How boring would those battle scenes have been had their maneuvers been technically accurate?

What Buzz Aldrin thinks of 'Gravity'

Nonetheless, the actual experience of spaceflight trumps all movie cool. There is nothing like working hard in a space suit helping assemble a space station, while every now and then stealing glimpses of the surreal view of continents and oceans rolling by below.

There is nothing like riding a rocket to orbit, or watching the plasma glow envelop your spacecraft during entry, as bits of burning heat shield go flying past the porthole. There's nothing like approaching a space station and actually flying the spacecraft to a docking. I'll take reality space any day.

Now, having said all that, I have watched "Gravity." Ignoring technical inaccuracies, I enjoyed it. And I am newly grateful that NASA had no such technical inaccuracies during my flights.

Watch for my review!

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Leroy Chiao.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT