Bringing the Reality of “Gravity” Back to Earth

Real-life astronaut Catherine Coleman reached out to to actress Sandra Bullock from the International Space Station

When Sandra Bullock needed a little extra insight to help prepare for her role as an astronaut trapped in orbit for her new film “Gravity,” she got some answers in a phone call – from outer space.

Bulock says that while the film – in which she co-stars with George Clooney as part of a NASA team on space mission that goes catastrophically awry – employed a series of consultants to advise her on how to perform the technical aspects of her character’s mission, she had other questions about the physical realities of life in zero g.

“There’s no one to ask about that,” says Bullock. “You have people explaining, “Well, this is what happens,” and I was like, ‘It’s just not registering.’”

But a chance encounter at a wine packaging outlet put Bullock on the path to enlightenment when her brother-in-law met the brother of Dr. Catherine “Cady” Coleman, a former Air Force chemist-turned-NASA astronaut and a veteran of two missions aboard the International Space Station. In fact, Coleman happened to be aboard the ISS when she got the message that Bullock would like to quiz her and the actress and astronaut were quickly in contact. “I was up on my space station expedition when I actually called her,” reveals Coleman. “I got to talk to her a little bit about what it really felt like to live up there and move around up there."

“We had one phone conversation – apparently they’re not allowed to just accept calls whenever you feel like calling the ISS,” says Bullock with a laugh. “She called and I was able to literally ask someone who’s experiencing the things that I was trying to physically learn about how the body works, and what you do, and what I need to re-teach my body to do, physically, that cannot happen on Earth. It’s just the oddest thing to reprogram your reactions. It was just a really coincidental, fortuitous thing that happened – over wine – that got me the final piece of the information that I needed.”

“It's not clear to anybody who hasn't been there how little effort it takes to move,” says Coleman. “It took hearing somebody really swear to it and explain it for them to realize how delicate they had to be and how slow they had to be with the movements.”

“I tell people it’s one of the most remarkable things about being in space and living up there is the magic of flying from place to place,” says Coleman. “It’s like living the life of Peter Pan. If I could have had my family up there, I never would have come home.”

Beyond the practical considerations, the astronaut wanted to communicate her philosophical feelings about venturing into orbit. “I wanted her to understand that it wasn't about the mechanics of living up there,” explains Coleman. “It's just about the human presence in space, and that's a very special thing. Not that I gave that to her, but I see that everywhere in the movie.”

The message was not lost on Bullock. “What I did learn, which was so beautiful, is their emotional point of view on life,” she says. “Why they go up there, why they specialize in something on Earth, and why they want to go into space to see how it operates, so that we all benefit from it when they get back.”

“Gravity” director Alfonso Cuaron calls his interaction with the many real-life space experts consulted for the film “very humbling. You can write a whole fiction, and you’re talking to people who have gone through that, in real life.

Coleman says she was definitely affected by the finished film and its attempt to authentically portray both the majesty and the inherent risks of space travel. “I love space, and I love that they made this movie because I think it brings a lot of people from here on Earth up to space,” she says. “I have this very special job, where not too many people get to do it, and there’s a lot people I would bring with me if I could, and I can’t. And with this movie, my mother will get to understand a little bit about what it was like for me – not the disaster things, but I think they were so great about the environment, and the visuals are astounding.”

"Gravity" opens in theaters on October, 4.

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