by Prasad Ganti
“Gravity”, the science fiction movie released a few months back, won accolades at the Oscar awards ceremony this year. It won 7 academy awards-for Best Visual effects, Best Sound mixing, Best Sound editing, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Original score, and Best Director. The movie was based on the idea of a lone Mission Specialist, played by Sandra Bullock, surviving a space disaster and getting stranded in Space.
We sometimes get stranded at places like trains, airports, traffic jams etc. It can be very frustrating. Not being able to move as we had intended to do. We hear stories of adventurers getting stranded in isolated and remote places like deserts or on islands. Like Ernest Shackleton and his crew got stranded on Antarctica for about a couple of years around the time of first world war.
What about getting stranded in Space ? There is no gravity in space. Which is what probably inspired the title of the movie. One just floats away without being anchored to anything. You cannot stand on anything. Neither do you fall. You just drift all over the place unless you bump into something. The bumps can change the direction of drifting unless you get a chance to hold on to something. Even tears from the eyes just float away. They don’t roll down the cheeks. There is no sound. The cries cannot be heard by anyone. However close one may be to another human being.
Space can be very unforgiving. There is no air. Because of which there is no sound. Sound waves require air to travel. The temperatures can be very hot when the Sun is present, and very cold when the Earth shields the Sun. The temperature swing is very wild, much more than that in a desert. Radiation is a major problem. So can be the dust particles and the micro meteorites and the space debris. These unwanted items can be very energetic and even cause problems for spacecraft upon collision. The bulky spacesuit which the astronauts are seen wearing protects them from all these problems. And even provides the air to breathe. Minus the spacesuit, a human being would not survive even a few minutes in space. Certain death would ensue.
That is why manned space missions are lot tougher than unmanned ones. Robots can live easily and work in space. Instruments can be built to function well in space. But the life support systems for human beings are very complex to build and maintain. They are very expensive and risky.
Once inside the relatively cozy confines of a spacecraft, there is no need for a spacesuit. But still there is no gravity. Astronauts float from one point to another. A pen kept on a table will not stay there and will just float away. Unless strapped securely in a pen holder which itself should be anchored to the table. In future, spacecraft will be designed with artificial gravity in which people can know which is the floor and which the ceiling ! But till then, it takes some training to get used to the weightlessness and again some getting used to when back on the Earth. As the spacecraft makes a fiery entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, astronauts start feeling the weight.
What do you miss in Space ? One astronaut who spent a few months on the International Space Station said “I just wanted to feel the wind on my face” ! Some astronauts order pizza for a meal while returning back to Earth. After all, eating all the doctored foods in space can be boring. And eating a pizza slice which will not remain on the plate, but just float away instead may be no fun !
The story ends happily as Sandra Bullock makes it back to the surface of the Earth. People who get stranded would thank the gravity on our mother Earth for rooting us down to the land. After seeing the movie, one might feel that we are better off staying on the Earth. But then the future belongs to the space colonies and interplanetary travel. Such disasters are only the initial stumbling blocks. I would volunteer to be among the first batch of people to move into space !
On a separate but related subject, gravity waves were reported recently by scientists using the Bicep2 telescope at the South pole. These are from the time of Big Bang. These elusive artifacts of the Universe, like the Higgs Boson, is a cause for celebration. But not so soon, unless other teams are able to replicate the findings !