Slight Spoiler Warning:
Does the surprising success of the motion picture “Gravity” foretell an ominous future for the International Space Station? Leaving aside the numerous logical gaps in the movie, which to some least, are even more disconcerting in an effort which otherwise succeeds in achieving a hyper realism than they would be in a run of the mill sci-fi movie, could the portrayal of the abandoned station have an effect on the future of the real thing?
Specifically, is it possible that the depiction of ISS being shredded in orbit, with the pieces left to follow the equally unfortunate Chinese station plummeting through the upper atmosphere, not in a Sy-Fy channel Saturday night gore fest, but in a movie described as transformational, reviewed in almost uniformly glowing terms and finding a widespread audience, may influence public perception of when it should come down in real life?
Whether intentionally or not, and presumably the latter, Gravity hits right at the heart of the most significant space policy issue facing the United States over the next few years, the future of the International Space Station. Although funding for the Station program appears secure out to 2020, beyond that point, the case is not nearly so certain. Absent an unlikely increase in NASA’s budget, it is difficult to envision how both the ISS and SLS programs can both be funded at necessary levels.
So a simple question; leaving other issues of merit aside, after having witnessed its destruction rendered gloriously and with striking realism on the big screen, would the public more readily accept a decision to terminate the program sooner rather than later. Alternatively, might the sweeping sense of size, complexity, and dare we say it, gravitas, which the move also portrays, draw out the opposite response, and lead to a verdict that is just too big to cast away so soon?
Some of course, will point out that after being prominently featured in the film, more than a few will be surprised to learn that ISS really exists. At the same time, they may be even more upset to learn that the Shuttle is retired.
But what about the perception of those who know perfectly well that the ISS is up there somewhere, but are not really that clear on why, or what function it serves?
Does the presentation of the facility in the movie, in all its gritty realism, including the real but exaggerated risk of impact from orbital debris, add to, or subtract from, the general regard for the sometimes unloved and under-appreciated ISS? Perhaps we will find out when the issue of its future comes up for real. More likely the effect will be negligible, but one can never say for sure. Movies sometimes have a way of weaving themselves into the national psyche, and based on the initial response, this film could be one that does just that.
A final, and admittedly whimsical note. As depicted in Gravity, ISS shows at least one Progress resupply ship, and very prominently, a European ATV. What it did not show, at least from a cursory perspective, was a commercial crew or resupply vessel. In an era of alternate endings, it might have been entertaining to see that after having tried and failed to escape via a Soyuz, the marooned Shuttle crew returned to ISS, making use of an attached cargo Dragon instead. Clooney’s character, having made it that far, would still have had the chance to sacrifice himself by staying behind to detach the Dragon’s CBM, thereby still giving Bullock’s character the opportunity for a metaphorical re-birth. As it was, the ending on the big screen, complete with an unauthorized test drive of China’s Shenzhou, (which succeeded no less!) must have given Congressman Frank Wolf worse indigestion than a bad egg roll at the Virginia State fair.
Nah, come to think of it, the ending was perfect.