Like Sandra Bullock’s character in the movie Gravity, Cady Coleman is both an astronaut and a scientist—which made her the perfect person for Bullock to consult on the realities of life in space. Coleman studied polymer chemistry and worked in the US Air Force research lab, where she developed new materials for airplanes and optical coatings for pilots’ visors. “I always loved science and I like lab work,” she says. “But suddenly I realized I always wanted to fly. There’s something about doing something so physical and so impossible—it was really just fun for me.” Coleman has now logged more than 4,330 hours in space. She was also one of the first people to use a robotic arm to capture a free-flying supply ship from the space station, and last Sunday she served as the CAPCOM, or communications link from mission control, for the astronaut who captured the first Orbital Sciences supply ship. This week, we asked Coleman about both her career and her opinion of Gravity.
Popular Science: What did you think of the movie?
Cady Coleman: I really liked it. It’s catastrophic; it’s sensational; it’s based on a really bad day. But I don’t think that’s what the movie’s about. It’s a human drama set in space and it really highlights the dangers of space. I talked to Sandra Bullock when I was up on the space station and she told me that 25 percent of the movie was about space, and the rest was a human drama about a woman finding her way home. And I took that to mean that only 25 percent of it was shot in space. When I saw the trailer, I was really puzzled. I thought either the movie changed, or people were going to get there and be really disappointed. When I started thinking about it I realized what she said was true.
As you said, the characters have a really bad day. Does NASA prepare you for that?
Nobody would watch a documentary about my day-to-day life because it would just be too boring. We make it look easy, in part because we have thought all about those things. We never go out on spacewalks unless we are tethered in at least two ways and we have a jetpack—which doesn’t have as much fuel as George [Clooney]’s. When you do get thrown off structure, you’re going to activate your jetpack and its first job is to physically stop you from tumbling. And you’re going to yaw around until you see where you came from, which is the only place in town, and then you’re going to head that way—and we have enough fuel to do that.
Was there anything in the movie that took you aback?
The movie shows a lot of things very accurately, in terms of how it is to live up there and how things function and how you function in that environment. But in the movie she flies by two little flames. I watched with another astronaut, a new guy who’s never been to space, and it was the only time I reached over and said, you would never do that. Don’t ever fly by small fires—stop and put them out.
It’s very meaningful to me that the hero in this movie is a woman.
We do a lot of research about combustion up in space. It has to do with wanting to understand it for life down here and wanting to make sure we can build a spacecraft and emergency equipment that’s really safe for going on these longer journeys. We can actually use the fact that we have a millionth of a bit of the gravity on Earth. When you light a flame, the lighter gases rise and new fuel rushes in, which is how you achieve a candle flame shape down here on Earth. In space our flames are more like circles, or spheres. There are measurements we make to determine the slope of a line that’s gong to be the burning constant. You have to make them in less than second on Earth, and those same measurements up in space can take data for 30 to 40 seconds. It’s a place that quiets down all the wildness of combustion and let’s us understand in a different way how things burn.
Did the movie’s plot tap into any secret astronaut anxieties?
Gravity takes ordinary people and brings them to space and let’s them see why it’s so amazing and special to be one of the space travelers that’s not living on the Earth. It’s a very special view up there, and this movie lets you understand the feeling of having that view and how remote and lonely it is and the reality of the dangers. The night before launch everybody deals with it in their own way. In my family, it’s an emotional time. It is hard to be away from your kids. As a mom, in order to go to work every day I have to compartmentalize. In my job I have to be fully present. And yet when there’s a time I can try on that emotion or deal with the fact that I do miss my family and wish I can see them more it’s pretty emotional. I try not to watch movies on airplane when kids die or something happens to the family. So this is a pretty emotional movie for me.
What do you hope other people will take away from watching the film?
It’s very meaningful to me that the hero in this movie is a woman. And at the end, things are just not going her way. Four things go wrong and she’s still trying. I’m that person—I’m better trained, but I’m a scientist astronaut, and so to me, it’s perfectly logical and normal that she’d be able to figure things out, because I know how to figure things out. It’s the people around you who underestimate you. I like the fact that there’s a bunch of girls that are going to see a woman and think that’s really normal. That’s why I think this could be a really important movie.
I watched [the movie] with another astronaut, a new guy who’s never been to space, and it was the only time I reached over and said, you would never do that.
I was born in 1960, so I was nine when they landed on the moon. When I thought of being an astronaut, I thought of those seven guys standing in front of that airplane. They’re all a bunch of old guys with no hair. None of them made me feel like it could be me. It wasn’t until I met Dr. Sally Ride when I was in college, and I just thought—wow. A light bulb went on for me. People need to see somebody they can identify with in some way. My son’s 13 now but when he was younger, we’d be at some reception where there’d be a spacesuit picture. And you don’t know who’s in the suit because the visor’s down. And one time he said, mommy, is that you in that spacesuit? And I said, I don’t think so, sweetie. And he said, well, if it’s not you, then whose mommy is it? So I think it could make that difference.
Do you think private space will also help change that perception?
I think everything helps. People are sad about the space shuttle, but it took a lot of resources and money, and it actually sort of paralyzed the space program after a certain point. We couldn’t get on with things. And so now, our commercial partners are doing the things that NASA already knows how to do. We know how to get stuff and people up and down in space. It doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that we’re going to do it casually. It doesn’t mean that they can afford to have accidents either. But it does mean that NASA can get on with the business of exploration outside of low Earth orbit.
Do you think we’re making progress toward exploring an asteroid or Mars?
We’re making progress. Unfortunately, those steps are slow. We voted 12 years ago not to fund the new vehicle to the extent it would already be complete a couple years ago, but the first tests of the new vehicle are in 1014. It’s soon. That’s coming. It might look like an Apollo capsule, but inside it’s really different, and it has very different capabilities. And it’s using so many of the things we’ve learned about how to bring people into space.
We’re attacking some of those smaller steps—how do you communicate, how do you get data up and down, how do you have a conference and show somebody something? I did a space lab mission in STS-73 [in 1995] and we had six channels of video and none of them was big enough bandwidth that scientists could see their stuff well enough. I had to be trained to identify crystals that are growing well or not—there are people who spend their whole lives doing that. Now all those people are doing their own science on the ground because we have high-def video.
The really big success story is the bone loss story. We used to lose about a percent and a half a month. What a woman with osteoporosis loses in a year, I lose in a month in space if I do nothing. We’re doing different drug experiments, one of which I did; we have a new piece of exercise equipment. The results aren’t official, but it turns out the new exercise equipment seems to be the key. I came back with the same physical amount of bone than I left with. It’s not because I’m superwoman it’s because we learned what to do for exercise. It doesn’t mean my bones are the same; they’re almost certainly different. What does that mean for later on in life? We have data that helps us really understand these things.