Science At The Movies: Apollo 13


It’s the final week of my look back at science in movies. The last movie I will be discussing is based on a true story and does a pretty good job being historically as well as scientifically accurate. It’s Ron Howard’s 1995 masterpiece Apollo 13. The film boasts a stellar cast, including Tom Hanks, Gary Sinise, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, and Ed Harris.

Apollo 13 tells the story of the aborted 1970 mission to the moon. It was based on the book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, written by astronaut Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger. The film opens with a brief history of the Apollo program and picks up after the successful 1969 mission to the moon. Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) hosts a house party to watch the moon landing, and vows to get there himself one day. In April of 1970, that dream comes true when Flight Director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) announces the Apollo 13 mission has been greenlit, and Lovell will lead the mission.

All seems well and good. The Apollo 13 crew even has a successful television broadcast once they get into space. But trouble strikes three days into the mission. When Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) does the routine stirring of the liquid oxygen tanks, one of them explodes, venting the contents out into space and shaking the ship around. Then another oxygen tank starts to leak. The crew tries shutting off a couple of the fuel cells to stop the leak, but it is unsuccessful. What ends up needing to be done is quickly power up the lunar module. What was supposed to get them to the moon becomes a lifeboat. It then falls to Kranz and Mission Control to come up with a procedure to get the Apollo 13 crew home.

The crew ends up having to combat several problems, including the carbon dioxide levels in the shuttle becoming toxic and freezing conditions when they have to run on minimal power. Eventually the Service Module is jettisoned to provide the command module the power it needs to get the astronauts safely back to Earth. The big question surrounding the return is whether or not the module’s heat shield will hold, since it was badly damaged when the oxygen tank exploded. *Spoiler alert!* It works, And the astronauts are safe.

Apollo 13 rightly avoids adding a lot of human melodrama to the story. The tale of how the Apollo 13 crew in space and the Mission Control team on Earth worked together to solve such a difficult problem is compelling enough. The film benefits from its talented cast, led by Hanks. The two real shinning supporting performances come from Ed Harris as Gene Kranz and Gary Sinise as Ken Mattingly (the astronaut who was bumped from the mission when medical saw the potential for him to develop the measles while in space, but then ended up being instrumental in developing the procedure to get the Apollo 13 crew home). The movie is a riveting entertainment, and was my choice for the Best Picture of 1999.

How does the science/history in the film measure up? One thing Apollo 13 got right was how it portrayed the scenes of weightlessness. As noted in an article from The Guardian titled Apollo 13: In Space, No One Can See You Exaggerate notes,

The zero-gravity scenes in the movie are extremely convincing, because they’re real. Director Ron Howard persuaded NASA to let him film on its reduced-gravity aircraft, known as the Vomit Comet.–

An omission made by the film was a mid-course correction that was made while en route to the moon, As IMDB notes,

The movie makes no mention of a mid-course correction made while en route to the moon which took the spacecraft off of a free return trajectory. After the explosion, a second correction was successfully made to put the spacecraft back on a free return trajectory. Without this correction, the astronauts still would have swung around the moon, but would have missed the earth on the return leg. Although a free return trajectory was agreed upon in the movie, the engine burn to accomplish this was not portrayed. The astronauts also made a four-minute engine burn after swinging around the moon to gain additional speed and to enable them to splash down in the Pacific Ocean. There is a brief reference to this in the movie, but this maneuver was not portrayed.–IMDB

There was also some creative license taken in the launch sequence.

The scene of the Saturn V launch shows the horizontal service arms swinging back after the rocket’s ignition. The arms swung back in milliseconds after ignition, once the rocket climbed to a height of two inches. In the movie the service-arms goes in one by one, but in reality they went simultaneously.–IMDB

What about the procedure developed in the movie to combat the toxic carbon dioxide level in the shuttle? The real Ken Mattingly tells a story slightly different from the movie. As noted in Ken Mattingly Explains How the Apollo 13 Movie Differed From Real Life,

In the movie, as the crew faces a deadly buildup of carbon dioxide, a team in mission control builds a new system on the spot that adapts an originally incompatible filter. “Well, the real world is better than that,” Mattingly explained, saying there was a simulation for the Apollo 8 mission where a cabin fan was jammed due to a loose screw.The solution that they came up with was that they could make a way to use the vacuum cleaner in the command module with some plastic bags cut up and taped to the lithium hydroxide cartridges and blow through it with a vacuum cleaner. So, having discovered it, they said, “Okay, it’s time for beer.” Well, on 13, someone says, “You remember what we did on that sim? Who did that?” So in nothing short, Joe [Joseph P.] Kerwin showed up, and we talked about “How did you build that bag and what did you do?” … Of course it worked like a gem.

There’s some fact and fiction in the history as well as the science of Apollo 13. But the minor inaccuracies never feel lazy. Rather, they provide some tension in the narrative. And the little things it gets wrong are outweighed by Ron Howard’s attention to detail in major aspects of the story and the science of it. Apollo 13 was a big part of what got me interested in NASA. And for that, I am eternally gratefully. It’s as compelling to watch after multiple viewings.


Science At The Movies: Interstellar


Greetings readers! I hope you’re enjoying this month’s spotlight on movies attempting to get science right. Last week I discussed 1950’s Destination Moon. This week I’m leaping all the way to 2014 and will be discussing Christopher Nolan’s mind-blowing film Interstellar. While Destination Moon was groundbreaking for its time, the filmmakers did not have any idea of what space travel was really like because we had not landed on the moon yet. Interstellar benefits from all the modern breakthroughs of NASA and 21st century special effects. What separates the film from much of today’s science fiction pictures is that it doesn’t sacrifice story and accurate science all in the name of spectacle. More films could learn from its example.

Interstellar is set during a turbulent time for planet earth. It is the middle of the 21st century and the planet is plagued by crop blights and dust storms. Life on planet earth is becoming unsustainable. A widowed engineer and former NASA pilot named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is running a farm with his father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow). Also with Cooper on the farm are his son Tom and daughter Murph. One day Cooper is reprimanded for telling Murph that the Apollo missions were real. Instead of disciplining her for speaking up at school, he encourages her curiosity by telling her to be an active observer and record what she sees.

One day they discover strange dust patterns forming in their house. At first Murph thinks it’s a ghost. Further study show they are the result of gravity variations that translate to geographic coordinates. Cooper and Murph follow the coordinates and discover a secret NASA facility. It is led by Cooper’s former supervisor: Professor John Brand (Michael Caine). It’s at this point that the science part of the science fiction movie really kicks into high gear.

Brand explains to Cooper that 48 years earlier, a wormhole appeared near Saturn, opening a pathway to a far off galaxy that has potentially habitable planets. The planets are located near a black hole name Gargantua. Volunteers have been traveling through the black hole to evaluate the planets. Three astronauts brought back desirable results: Miller, Edmunds, and Mann, Then Brand lays out his two plans to ensure the survival of humanity: The first one relies on gravitational propulsion theory and a mass exodus of earth. The other plan involves launching the spacecraft Endurance with 5,000 frozen embryos to colonize a habitable planet. Cooper is recruited for the mission, leaving his family behind. His is join in the mission by Professor Brand’s daughter, Dr. Emilia Brand (Anne Hathaway) Dr. Romilly (David Gyasi), and Dr. Doyle (Wes Bentley). Without giving too much away, the mission does not go as planned. If it did, there wouldn’t be any suspense. All I’ll reveal is that one of the scientists that reported back good results turns out to be not completely truthful. This results in some great plot twists and builds to an ending that is both dazzling and profound.

Now that I’ve laid out the plot, let’s look at the science behind Interstellar. One of the smartest moves director Christopher Nolan made was hiring theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Kip Thorn as a scientific advisor for the film. So  what does it get right and what does it get wrong? There was a great article in TIME published around the film’s release. It breaks down the films scientific accuracies and inaccuracies. First, there’s how the film depicted wormholes. That’s a big part of the plot. Could a wormhole provide a shortcut from one universe to another? The odds are pretty good. As the article notes,

Worm holes are a pretty well-accepted part of modern cosmology and it’s Thorne’s theorems that have helped make them that way. The idea is that if you think of space-time less as a void than as a sort of fabric—which it is—it could, under the right circumstances fold over on itself. Punching the necessary holes in that fabric so that you could make your universe-transiting trip would be a bit more difficult. That would require what’s known as negative energy—an energetic state less than zero—to create the portal and keep it open, says Princeton cosmologist J. Richard Gott. There have been attempts to create such conditions in the lab, which is a long way from a real wormhole but at least helps prove the theory.–What Interstellar Got Right and Wrong About Science, Jefrey Kluger

Kluger notes that how the wormhole came into existence, however, is a plot point that involves creative license.

It takes a massive object to generate a gravity field sufficient to fold space-time in half, and the one in the movie would have to be the equivalent of 100 million of our suns, says Gott. Depending on where in the universe you placed an object with that kind of mass, it could make a real mess of the surrounding worlds—but it doesn’t in the movie.–Kluger

Interstellar does manage to get right how being too close to a black hole can impact how fast time moves. As Kluger notes,

Stay with space-time as a fabric—a stretched one, like a trampoline. Now place a 500-lb. cannon ball on it. That’s your black hole with its massive gravity field. The vertical threads in the weave of the fabric are space, the horizontal ones are time, and the cannon ball can’t distort one without distorting the other, too. That means that everything—including how soon your next birthday comes—will be stretched out. Really, it’s as simple as that—unless you want to spend some time with the equations that prove the point, which, trust us, you don’t.–Kluger

Kluger’s article also notes that being able to communicate with Earth from a black hole is remotely possibly, but unlikely. So there’s some good science but still a few leaps of faith.

Another good read on the science behind Interstellar appeared in the The Telegraph. It was called The Science of Interstellar: Fact or Fiction? One thing the article by Sarah Napton notes the film got wrong was the notion that you could slingshot around a neutron star.

The crew of Interstellar’s Endurance spaceship faced a headache when trying to get to Miller’s planet because it is trapped within the control of the huge black hole Gargantua. To avoid being sucked into the black hole, the spaceship had to be travelling at high-speed to escape the huge gravitational and centrifugal forces. In Interstellar, Cooper gets round his speed dilemma by slingshotting around a the black hole. Actually this isn’t as wacky as it sounds. In fact the Rosetta mission skipped around Earth and Mars to pick up enough speed to chase comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. However the speed needed to escape something is massive as Gargantua is huge. The Endurance would need to be travelling at close to the speed of light to escape the huge pull of the black hole, and then quickly slow down so it could land on the planet. The sudden change in momentum would almost certainly tear the ship apart. In Interstellar, the crew uses the slow spin of Neutron star to slow down, but it is unlikely to work. Only another black hole, around the size of the Earth would have been able to slow the craft down.–Napton

Napton does however note that the portrayal of the black hole Gargantua is accurate.

The film depicts the huge black hole of Gargantua as a black circle surrounded by a swirling mass of stars and galaxies, almost like a human eye. The distortion of the stars, known as ‘gravitational lensing’ was generated by computer models. In fact, the computer simulations were so accurate that Thorne and the team discovered that black holes are slightly concave on one side and have a bulge on the other. It is the first time the phenomenon has ever been seen, and Thorne has now produced a scientific paper detailing the discovery. The black hole depicted in Interstellar is probably the only known accurate example of what it would look like to a human if you could ever get close enough to view it.–Napton

But what about the film’s premise of a blight wiping out most of our grains except corn? Well, that seems unlikely.

It is true that most people today do not grow their own food and rely on a global system of production and distribution. It is quite possible that the system could break down on a small-scale however the film doesn’t seem to address that humans eat a lot of other things, like animals and fish. And lethal blights usually only attack one group of plants and do not cross species. Blights which affect more species are generally not that harmful. Biologist Elliot Meyerowitz of the California Institute of Technology said it might be possible for a pathogen to evolve which attacks chloroplasts – cells which are crucial for photosynthesis. “Without chloroplasts a plant will die. Now suppose that some new pathogen evolves , for example in the oceans, that wipes out all algae and plant life in the oceans and jumps to land where it wipes out all land plants,” he said. “This is possible. I see nothing to prevent it. But it’s not very plausible. It is unlikely to even happen.”–Napton

There’s enough science and ideas in Interstellar to fill multiple blog entries. But I covered enough that I hope you’ll see or revisit the film and do a little research on its science yourself. Interstellar succeeds as a space epic as well as a human story. There’s a tendency in this day and age to sacrifice a film’s human touch in favor of bloated effects. Christopher Nolan pulled off a solid balancing act so that one aspect didn’t overshadow the other. All of this means nothing without a strong cast to make the material accessible and believable. Matthew McConaughey in particular shines. Interstellar is thought-provoking as well as visually striking. It’s further proof that science fiction films don’t have to dumb down science in a movie.

Science At The Movies: Destination Moon


Science rules! It’s week two of my spotlight on movies that get science right. My pick this week isn’t the greatest movie ever made and its effects seem dated now. But it stands out for being one of the first attempts to accurately portray space travel in a movie. I’m speaking of Destination Moon from 1950. It came out decades before we put a man on the moon. But it was an earnest attempt to show audiences what it would be like to travel on a space shuttle.

Destination Moon chronicles how a rocket scientist named Dr. Cargraves (Warner Anderson) and space enthusiast General Thayer (Tom Powers) team up with aircraft magnate Jim Barnes (John Archer) after their latest rocket test fails and their government funding falls through. The team manages to raise the funds through donations by patriotic U.S. industrialists. Their mission? Construct a single-stage-to-orbit atomic powered spaceship. Appropriately enough they call their spaceship Luna. After their venture is briefly derailed by a contrived public uproar over radiation safety at their test facility, the team gets around legal obstacles by launching the world’s first Moon mission way ahead of schedule.

From that point on, the science of space travel takes center stage. It shows them learning how to deal with the reality of zero gravity, having to jettison things such as the ship’s radio to have the right weight so that the ship can return safely to Earth, etc. Watching the characters being forced to think on their feet to solve scientific problems is where the real drama is. And that’s why the movie works, dated look and all. The film was produced by George Pal, who also was a big part of the science fiction classic The War of the Worlds. Pal knew how to tell intelligent science fiction stories and not just make mindless special effects extravaganzas.

So, what of the science in Destination Moon? It set the stage for films that accurately portrayed space travel, including 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of the first things that should be noted about Destination Moon is that it go the design of a space shuttle as accurate as was possible before the Apollo program came into existence. As noted in the Gizmodo article Three Scifi Pioneers Talk About Making The First Great Space Movie,

The spaceship Luna, designed by art director Ernst Fegté and based loosely on the cover art for the Heinlein novel, was 150 feet tall with a loaded weight of 250 tons. Of this, 200 tons is “fuel”: ordinary water to provide reaction mass for the atomic motor (a detail only briefly alluded to in the film), 40 tons is the spaceship itself, and 10 tons for the four passengers, their accommodations, equipment, supplies, etc.–Ron Miller, 7/22/13

The filmmakers pulled this off with not much to go on. Another thing that makes this film stand out is that it was an attempt to treat the subject of space flight seriously, which was not the norm at the time. You have to remember that it was made in the era of the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials. And those were good fun. But they didn’t help the science fiction genre get taken seriously. As noted in the Gizmodo article mentioned above,

Destination Moon was the first motion picture to deal realistically with the subject of spaceflight since the silent Frau im Mond (1929) (…) The screenplay was written by Alford (Rip) van Ronkel and Robert A. Heinlein—almost unrecognizably based upon the latter’s young adult novel, Rocketship Galileo.Heinlein also acted as the film’s technical adviser. It is to the credit of producer Pal and director Irving Pichel that the intention was from the very beginning to make a motion picture about spaceflight that was as accurate as possible—against all Hollywood science fiction tradition. (…) The state of the art of special effects at the time was stretched to its limit to recreate free fall, extravehicular maneuvers, moonwalks and so forth. At no time did the producers take the easy way out by saying “no one will know the difference.” The film is filled with accurate and often prescient details easily overlooked or taken for granted today, with the 20/20 hindsight of viewers who have witnessed manned moon landings, space shuttles and rovers on Mars.–Miller, 7/22/13

Ah yes, the good old days when films treated the audience with respect and didn’t just throw in junk science and bloated CGI to sell a movie to the public. But I digress.

Of course Destination Moon does have its scientific foul ups. According to the article Destination Moon on the science website EarthSky by Larry Sessions, it gets quite a few things wrong. Among the scientific cardinal sins of the film? The image of the moon itself.

The first error is using the wrong image for a full moon. Take a look at the moon image we have here. It’s the full moon, right? Not exactly. As seen from Earth, the full moon shows a particular pattern of light and dark areas, typically highlands and maria. This constitutes the face of the “Man in the Moon.” Month after month, year after year, it is the same pattern, the same face that we see. Geographic location introduces differences in orientation, but it is the same face wherever you are on Earth. What we see as the Full Moon appears “upside down” to observers in Australia, for example, but pattern itself is unchanged.–Sessions, 2/6/10

This is a perfectly valid gripe. The other major error related to this is the size of the sun and the Moon as portrayed in the film. As Sessions also notes,

And finally, perhaps the worst and to me the most obvious and annoying transgression, is exaggerating the size of the Sun or Moon. Now, truth be told, displaying the Sun or more frequently the Moon at proper scale just doesn’t look right. It honestly does look too small. Somehow our brains are wired to insist that the Moon and Sun appear larger than they really are. In fact, it has been common practice for decades in planetariums to display the Moon about 4 times its true angular diameter. When shown at actual scale, people uniformly complain that it appears too small. SO a little exaggeration here is appropriate, I believe, if not entirely accurate. However, on TV and in movies the Moon in particular is often shown 10, 20 or even 50 times its correct scale. It’s like the old song about “When the Moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie! even though the real Moon is only about half the size of a penny held at arm’s length!–Sessions, 2/6/10

But Sessions does give Destination Moon credit for treating physics with respect.

In “Destination Moon,” physics was treated with respect, and I have to say that today many major motion pictures hire legitimate science advisors (to whom they do not always listen), and many make an effort for scientific plausibility. It doesn’t always work. As much as I loved “Avatar,” some aspects (floating mountains, for example) are scientifically absurd. Obviously, without speculation or extrapolation from the known, there would be no such thing as science fiction.–Sessions, 2/6/10

Destination Moon has not aged as well as films that came out closer to the moon landing and after the event. But it’s worthy of study as a time capsule of what we imagined space travel would be like. And the cast make the scientific struggles and their solutions seem as plausible as possible for the time. It is flawed. But it should be applauded for being one of the first attempts to bring credibility to the movie genre of science fiction.

Science At The Movies: Gattaca


How many times have you watched a science fiction movie and thought,”I know this is fiction, but why didn’t they even try to have one bit of sound science in the story?” Movies are certainly a place to suspend disbelief. But sometimes that’s done to the point of being so ludicrous that we can’t take any of the movie seriously. Armageddon comes to mind. But there have been some movies over the years that have been earnest attempts to accurately portray science (Interstellar) or tell stories relating to science (Apollo 13). This month I will be honoring films that managed to not just be fun entertainment, but potentially put viewers on the path to scientific literacy. My first selection is an all too often overlooked film from 1997 called Gattaca. A story that seemed intriguing but slightly far-fetched back doesn’t seem all that crazy in 2018.

The world of Gattaca is rooted in futuristic eugenics run amok. Society has developed a genetic database. Biometrics are used to separate society into two groups: valids (people conceived by traditional means) and invalids (people more susceptible to genetic disorders). Your DNA is used to determine your entire path in life: your job, who you marry, etc. Of course if you’re an in-valid you are doomed to a life working a menial job. The powers that be have set up a class system based on genotype profiling. The thinking is that through this system, the human race will develop the best people possible.

But not everyone is onboard. Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) is an in-valid, one of the unlucky few conceived without the benefit of genetic selection. He is predicted to develop a number of genetic disorders and make it to just shy of 31 years old. Vincent’s parents regret that decision and use genetic selection for their next son, Anton (Elias Koteas). Growing up, the two brothers often play a game of chicken in the pool, trying to beat each other at swimming. Vincent always loses. But one day he does beat Anton. Sadly at the end Anton starts to drown. Vincent manages to save him and then leaves home.

The film then flashes forward several years. Vincent is now working as an in-valid cleaning office spaces, including that of Gattaca Aerospace Corporation. It’s a space-flight conglomerate. Vincent dreams of going to space, but his genetics prevent him from ever hoping to obtain that dream job. All seems lost, until he meets Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law). Morrow works at Gattaca (he used to be a star swimmer, but was paralyzed by a car accident) and Vincent uses Morrow’s DNA samples to work his way up the Gattaca employment ladder. Eventually Vincent is assigned to be a navigator on an upcoming mission to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. All seems to be going according to plan. But then Vincent hits a snag,

Gattaca becomes embroiled in scandal when one of its administrators is murdered. a week before the flight to Titan. Police find one of Vincent’s eyelashes at the scene. He becomes a murder suspect and must race to prove his innocence and go on his space flight. There are some great twists and turns in the story at the end that I don’t want to spoil if you haven’t seen it. Gattaca is an engaging blend of science fiction and film noir. It bombed at the box office but has since gained a cult following.

The movie benefits from the leading performances of Hawke and Law. There’s also a couple of great supporting ones from Uma Thurman as one of Hawke’s co-workers who becomes a love interest and Alan Arkin as one of the police investigating the murder case.

So, what of the science portrayed in Gattaca? It may not be as far off as you think. In the article Are We Too Close to Making Gattaca a Reality?, author Ferris Jabr notes,

When Gattaca premiered in 1997, doctors had been using laboratory techniques to help women and men overcome infertility for more than a decade. In 1978, Louise Brown of the U.K. became the world’s first “test tube baby”—the first person conceived through in vitro fertilization (IVF), a procedure in which sperm and eggs are combined in the lab to create several viable embryos that are subsequently implanted in a woman’s womb. The first IVF clinic opened in the U.S. in 1980. Today, hundreds of fertility clinics in the country offer IVF and more than one percent of children born in the U.S. are conceived this way.

In the years surrounding Gattaca’s release, doctors were also talking about how to responsibly use another, more controversial technique to help people have children: preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). In this procedure, clinicians vacuum up one of eight cells in a three-day-old embryo created through IVF and analyze the DNA within to find genes associated with debilitating and potentially fatal diseases. Sometimes, doctors wait two more days, when the embryo has become what is known as a blastocyst—a mostly hollow ball of around 100 cells—and collect between 5 and 20 cells for DNA analysis. In most cases, this extraction does not significantly disturb the embryo’s development. PGD can identify embryos that will almost certainly develop disorders caused by a mutation in a single gene, such as cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell disease, Tay-Sachs and Huntington’s, as well as disorders that result from an extra chromosome, such as Down syndrome. From its earliest days, PGD has been principally intended for people who have a high risk of conceiving a child with a particular disorder, because it runs in the family or because they happen to harbor a certain genetic mutation.–Scientific America, October 28, 2013

We’ve been dabbling in eugenics to improve our genetic outcomes for a while now. Being more selective to wipe out diseases doesn’t seem like that crazy of a next step. However, the speed at which the genetic tests are done is a bit of a leap from reality. As the article Still Relevant: Gattaca at 14 on the National Science Teacher’s Association website notes,

The most obvious difference is the speed with which a DNA sample can be sequenced, since present-day technology requires days or even weeks to return a partial sequence. Some prenatal genetic screening is possible today through tests such as amniocentesis or maternal blood protein tests, which can detect Down Syndrome, spina bifida, or Tay Sachs in the first or second trimester of pregnancy. However, this is a far cry from being able to select the child’s hair color and skin tone, and avoid having him or her wear glasses or braces, as shown in the movie. The probability of premature death is now predicted through behaviors (smoking and seat-belt use, for example) rather than genetic testing.–NSTA WebNews Digest, 4/18/2011

Gene sequencing is not as instantaneous as it is in the film. But if it happened in real-time, it would slow the narrative to a complete halt.

Gattaca offers viewers a lot of scientific food for thought. Its science and ethics are still being debated over 20 years after its release. Is it ethical to plan an entire person’s DNA sequence and use that as a way to choose a path for them? That’s one of the film’s burning questions you’ll be debating long after the end credits roll.