'Gravity' Captures 'Visceral' Nature of Spacewalks, Former Astronaut Says

A Scene From Science-Fiction Thriller 'Gravity'
A scene from Warner Bros. Pictures' science-fiction thriller "Gravity," a Warner Bros. Pictures 2013 release. (Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

The movie "Gravity" recreates the spacewalk experience, according to one former NASA astronaut.

Leroy Chiao, a former commander of the International Space Station, thinks that the fictional space thriller "Gravity," which recently pulled in 10 Oscar nominations, captures what it's like to float through the vacuum of space.

"What I really liked about 'Gravity' is that it created the right look and feel of being in space and doing a spacewalk," Chiao told Space.com. "At times, it did remind me or it made me think about my own experiences in a spacesuit. It also taps into that visceral awareness that the worst thing that can happen to you out there is to become detached and thrown off structure by some accident and be tumbling off into space." [See photos from the movie 'Gravity']

"Gravity," set in the not-too-distant future, tells the story of two astronauts fighting to survive after fast-moving space junk destroys their space shuttle. The astronauts (played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) make their way toward the International Space Station in an attempt to survive.

While Leroy Chiao didn't experience anything like the harrowing journey depicted in "Gravity," he still remembers unsettling moments during his spacewalks. The former astronaut remembers floating outside the station during one excursion when he saw that his feet were pointed "downward" toward Earth.

"It was as if I was hanging off a balcony or something," Chiao said. "When I looked down at the Earth, I was able to convince myself that if I let go, I was going to fall. Of course, that wouldn't have happened, but I got that momentary feeling of looking over a bridge or looking over a tall building or something like that where your stomach comes up into your throat."

Other former astronauts, like NASA's Tom Jones, have echoed Chiao's opinions, saying that they too felt that "Gravity" accurately replicates what looking down on the Earth during a spacewalk can feel like.

Films like "Gravity" also go a long way in helping spread the word about NASA missions, Chiao said.

"It's interesting that the pop culture of space travel and space exploration, a lot of people are really into it," Chiao said. "But these same people don't seem to know a lot about the actual space program going on. Certainly more-contemporary type movies like 'Gravity' — which are more or less set in this time frame — help to, generally, build awareness for space exploration. I view that as a positive."

Movies capture the imagination, Chiao said, partially because they have long-running and high-profile promotional campaigns, unlike scientific studies. "Most people, when they're hit with it [news about real space missions], they like it, but they don't have enough time or just raw interest to go out looking for that kind of news."

"Gravity" is nominated for 10 Academy Awards including best picture and best director. The 2014 Academy Awards will air March 2 at 7 p.m. EST (0000 March 3 GMT) on ABC.

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Miriam Kramer
Staff Writer

Miriam Kramer joined Space.com as a Staff Writer in December 2012. Since then, she has floated in weightlessness on a zero-gravity flight, felt the pull of 4-Gs in a trainer aircraft and watched rockets soar into space from Florida and Virginia. She also served as Space.com's lead space entertainment reporter, and enjoys all aspects of space news, astronomy and commercial spaceflight.  Miriam has also presented space stories during live interviews with Fox News and other TV and radio outlets. She originally hails from Knoxville, Tennessee where she and her family would take trips to dark spots on the outskirts of town to watch meteor showers every year. She loves to travel and one day hopes to see the northern lights in person. Miriam is currently a space reporter with Axios, writing the Axios Space newsletter. You can follow Miriam on Twitter.