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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!

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

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