Escaping to the ISS

‘Gravity’ – Art Imitating Fact

Art Imitating Reality

I had the pleasure of visiting the cinema recently and viewing the much lauded and Oscar winning film Gravity. This film has won numerous awards including the best director award at the recent Oscar’s ceremony, along with many more for the incredible special effects, which were devised by the UK based company Framestore.

Astronaut Ryan Stone working outside of the ISS.
Image taken from the film Gravity, shows Astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) working outside of the International Space Station. Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers.

The film is a visual tour-de-force in that the special effects are absolutely immersive, leaving you feeling that you are actually out there in Earth orbit with the two leading actors – Sandra Bullock playing the part of astronaut ‘Ryan Stone and George Clooney playing the part of veteran astronaut, Matt Kowalski for whom this will be his last space flight before retiring.

The Ryan Stone character is a very deep character for whom initially we know little about, other than that she is a pre-eminent medical engineer who is now working as a Mission Specialist for NASA. The objective of this space flight are docking and temporarily retrieving the Hubble Space Telescope, assisted by the Space Shuttles robotic arm with her attached to it, replacing some faulty circuit boards.

Whilst Ryan Stone is carrying out this complex operation, the Matt Kowalski character is attached to a Manned Maneuvering Unit and is busying himself jetting in and around the Space Shuttle in an attempt to clock up more hours on this EVA (extra vehicular activity) in an attempt to break any previous records for the most hours working in space.

Potential Danger

All is not going to well for Astronaut Stone, as she tries to repair the errant circuit board and we hear her discussing the technicalities of the with Mission Control in Houston, Texas back on Earth. It is during in one of these exchanges that both her and the rest of the Space Shuttle crew, are notified of a potential danger in that an orbiting Russian satellite has been destroyed and the resulting debris cloud could potentially hit them.

Mission Control urgently requests that they immediately stop what they are doing and withdraw to the relative safety of the Space Shuttle

Upon hearing of this life potentially life threatening situation, Astronaut Matt Kowalksi joins Ryan Stone and with her, tries to assist in finishing the repair and getting her and one other astronaut who is also outside of the Space Shuttle, back inside of it. Whilst they are closing out the repair, Mission Control urgently requests that they immediately stop what they are doing and withdraw to the relative safety of the Space Shuttle, as the resultant space debris has now collided with numerous other satellites in orbit and as such, is now on a direct collision course with both them and the nearby International Space Station.

Astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is seen here trying to release the parachute from the Soyuz spacecraft.
In this image from the film Gravity, Astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is seen here trying to release the parachute from the Soyuz spacecraft as the cloud of debris from the destroyed orbiting Russian satellite strikes both it and the International Space Station. Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers.

As they attempt to withdraw back into the Space Shuttle, the debris cloud strikes both it and Ryan Stone, who is still attached to one end of the robotic arm. The robotic arm and her are sent spinning off into space as they are both ripped away from it. One of the other victims of the debris cloud is the Space Shuttle itself along with numerous global communications satellites. This renders all communication with Mission Control as now useless and her left tumbling through space in Earth orbit.

Irretrievably Damaged

The Space Shuttle has been irretrievably damaged and all the crew that were inside have been killed, either by being hit directly by the debris cloud or through the explosive decompression experienced as the cabin atmosphere is vented out into space. Ryan Stone is now contemplating a slow, lingering death as she floats helplessly in space with her remaining oxygen slowly decreasing. We hear here calling out in vain to the Mission Controllers or any other surviving members of the Space Shuttle, as she sickeningly tumbles out of control. We see the Earth and Sun spinning before her and the sense of helplessness of her situation to rectify the predicament she now finds herself in, is overwhelming to the viewer.

. . . advises her to reduce her rate of breathing and to stop flailing her arms and limbs as all this succeeds in doing is raising her anxiety and stress levels . . .

Just as we begin to think that this is to be her fate, one of her calls to anyone who may be out there and listening, is miraculously answered. Astronaut Matt Kowalski has survived the debris cloud also. He replies to her and in an effort to assist her from losing any more oxygen, advises her to reduce her rate of breathing and to stop flailing her arms and limbs, as all this will succeed in doing is raising her anxiety and stress levels, resulting in her inadvertently increasing her rate of breathing and oxygen usage and perpetuating her rate of spin. He also asks her to switch her suit torch lights on and off, thus allowing him to get a visual sighting of her in the distance.

Astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is inside of a Russian Soyuz space vehicle
Astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is seen here inside of a Russian Soyuz space vehicle docked to the International Space Station, trying to power it up in an attempt to locate and dock with an orbiting Chinese space station. Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers.

At last, Kowalski gets sight of her in the distance and subsequently reaches her using his attached Manned Maneuvering Unit. He then successfully attaches a tether to her and using the thrusters on the unit, takes her in tow as they make their way back towards the damaged Space Shuttle. Upon reaching it and observing the severity of the damage, they are also presented with the grisly scene of their now dead crew mates. They realise now that their only hope of survival, is to make towards the International Space Station and use the attached Russian Soyuz space vehicle as a means of extricating themselves from Earth orbit and back to the planets surface.

The rest of the film revolves around their subsequent attempts at reaching the International Space Station and coping with what at times seems like insurmountable obstacles that the fates put in their way, as they seek a safe return home.

Astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) in a scene from the film 'Gravity'.
Astronaut Matt Kowalski (played by actor, George Clooney) is seen here in his extra vehicular space suit (EVA) looking at the Earth, which you can see reflected in the face plate of his space helmet. Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers.

I could say a lot more about the film at this point, but I will not. It would spoil it for those of you who are thinking of going to see it. Suffice to say that you are left feeling the vulnerability and isolation of the two surviving crew members as the storyline unfolds and with it, also learning more of why they are where they are and sharing those feelings with them.

The film is a visual feast. I saw the it in 3D at my local cinema and so realistic are the visual effects, that at points throughout its screening, I physically flinched during the scenes where both the Space Shuttle and International Space Station were struck and decimated by the orbiting space debris, as it sliced through everything in its path.

The grandeur of the vistas of the Earth slowly revolving beneath them and during the scenes where they are desperately trying to reach the International Space Station, are totally convincing. This film succeeds at many different levels. It is an adventure and disaster moving all rolled into one, as the principal characters try, using a combination of wit, bravery and skill attempt to extract themselves form what seems a hopeless set of circumstances. The film will – in my opinion – appeal to anyone who enjoys these types of film genre and to those people who follow with interest, space exploration. The hardware which is depicted is meticulously accurate and faithful to that which it is trying to portray in reality.

Russian Space Station Mir, backdropped against Earth
Russian Space Station Mir, backdropped against Earth, taken from the Space Shuttle Atlantis following undocking from the station at the end of STS-71 on the 4th of July, 1995. On the 29th of June, 1995, STS-71 became the first Shuttle mission ever to dock with the station. Image and Caption – Courtesy of NASA.

The ‘Reality’

I was minded whilst watching this film of the real life disasters which befell the MIR space station back in the late 1990s, when it had the misfortune of not only having an onboard fire but also at a later date, being struck by an automated ‘Progress’ resupply space vehicle which was trying to dock with it.

Probably the most well known factual space disaster is that which occurred during the ill starred Apollo 13 Moon landing mission. Much has been written about Apollo 13 and the drama, ingenuity and courage of the participants in returning the crew safely back to Earth. It has also been the subject of an immensely successful film being made about it, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks as the veteran Mission Commander, James Lovell.

The MIR accidents are less well known, but after viewing ‘Gravity’ I hope some of those film goers who also have more than a passing interest in all things spaceflight, might care to re-visit the ill fortune that befell it and subsequently, admire the bravery and coolness of those involved in those ill fated missions when the accidents occurred.


The joint American/Russian crewed MIR mission started with the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery STS-63 mission, which successfully executed a night launch from NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center, Florida on 3rd February 1995. This would be the first of many such joint American and Russian manned mission to the orbiting MIR space station.

This was not the first time that both the American and Russian space agencies had embarked on joint space missions in Earth orbit.

The first of these missions occurred in 1975 when a Russian Soyuz manned space vehicle docked with the last use of a manned American Apollo Command and Service Module to enter Earth orbit. Attached to the front of the Apollo Command Module was a docking adaptor which when both craft had successfully docked with each other, would proceed to equalise the cabin atmospheres of each of the two docked vehicles. After successfully equalising the cabin pressures and atmospheres, a hatch which until then had separated the two crews from each other, was unlocked allowing both sets of crews to participate in joint ceremonies, followed by three days of in-orbit experiments.

Soyuz spacecraft seen in Earth orbit from Apollo Command Module.
Soyuz viewed in Earth orbit from Apollo Command Module during the Apollo/Soyuz Test Project. Image Courtesy of NASA.

Apollo/Soyuz Test Project

This was a much lauded and celebrated missions and was probably the first manifestation of the thawing of the ‘Cold War’ that had existed since the end of the Second World War in Europe in May 1945. No other joint space ventures were undertaken between the then Soviet Union and the United States. The Apollo Command and Service Modules, along with the Saturn V launch vehicle were subsequently retired to make way for the next generation of American manned space craft – the re-usable Space Shuttle. With the launch of the first of these craft – Columbia – in April 1981, a new era of manned space flight was ushered in.

Apollo Command Module with attached dock in module.
Apollo Command Module seen here with docking adapter attached to its front, as pictured in Earth Orbit from Soyuz space vehicle during the Apollo/Soyuz Test Project. Image Courtesy of NASA.

It was envisaged that the space shuttle would dramatically reduce the cost of placing payloads into low Earth orbit and with the shuttle being able to return back to its place of launch and be continually refurbished and used again, would allow for the launch, retrieval and construction of all manner of payloads.

A view of the Russian space station Mir as seen from the Space Shuttle Atlantis.
A view of the Russian space station Mir as seen from the Space Shuttle Atlantis while docked at the station during STS-81. The crew compartment, nose and a portion of the payload bay of Atlantis are visible, behind Mir’s Kristall and docking modules. Image and Caption – Courtesy of NASA.

Alas, the Space Shuttle Programme did not significantly reduce the costs of entering low Earth orbit. It ticked many of the boxes that it had initially been intended for, but because it was manned and was at the time of its inception, the most complex space craft ever created, the cost of refurbishing the heat absorbent tiles that protected it from the searing heat of re-entry and the loss of the huge external tank containing propellent each time it was launched, the Space Shuttle was never going to achieve the savings that were initially planned for it.

STS-60 Launch from John F. Kennedy Space Center
Kennedy Space Centre, Florida – Space Shuttle Discovery launches at the beginning of STS-60, the first mission in the Shuttle-Mir programme, carrying the first Russian cosmonaut ever to fly aboard the US Shuttle. Image and Caption – Courtesy of NASA.

However, the fact that it did have a cavernous cargo bay, did allow for the possibility of carrying aloft and retrieving all manner of cargoes into Earth orbit. Towards the end of the 1980s, the United States announced that it intended to construct a brand new orbiting space station named ‘Freedom’ in which it was hoped that eventually both America and its allies, would be able to maintain a permanent presence in low Earth orbit. It was hoped that this space station would become an international orbiting laboratory, where extended research could be carried out for the creation, testing and manufacture of all manner of drugs, materials along with research being undertaken on the effects of long duration exposure of the human body to weightlessness and space weather.

It was intended that the Space Shuttle would carry aloft within its cargo bay completed sections of the ISS over multiple missions, taking the best part of 10 years in until it reached its final configuration. In the mean time, the Russians had already placed aloft the largest manned space station to date – the venerable MIR. Once again in the spirit of the end of the then Soviet Union, it was agreed that the Russians would also become a partner in the International Space Station project and would too – along with the rest of the international partnership that had agreed to become part of the project – manufacture and place into orbit sections of the ISS.

Until the first section of the ISS was constructed and ready to placed into Earth orbit 1998, it was agreed between NASA and the Russian Space Agency, that they would allow the Space Shuttle to bring up American crew members and supplies and make use of this orbiting laboratory, in readiness for the construction and habitation at the turn of the century of the first phase of orbital construction of the ISS.

Astronaut Jerry Linenger wears a respirator mask
Space Station Mir – Astronaut Jerry Linenger wears a respirator mask following the 1997 fire aboard Mir. Image and Caption – Courtesy of NASA.

With this agreed STS-63 successfully deposited the first American crew members to the orbiting MIR space station in February 1995. Two year later in 1997, after numerous missions too and from the MIR, the first of two major emergencies occurred. Aboard the MIR at the time of the fire were American astronaut Gerry Linenger and fellow Russian cosmonauts Vasili Tsibliyev and Aleksandr Lazutkin. This was to be the most severe onboard fire occurring on a manned space vehicle whilst in Earth orbit. The cause of this fire was the failure of the onboard backup oxygen generator. A further major incident occurred during an orbital test of an unmanned and automated ‘Progress’ re-supply vessel. An ensuing problem resulted in it nearly colliding headlong with MIR. However, it did strike a glancing blow with it, damaging a number of solar panels, causing a total loss of the space stations electrical power. Because of this loss of power, the MIR lost use of its attitude control systems resulting in it going into an unctronllable ‘tumble’ through space.


After Jerry Linenger’s eventful visit to MIR, the next American astronaut to spend some time in Earth orbit within it, was English born Michael Foale. He was sent aloft in the space shuttle ‘Atlantis’ during the STS-84 mission. Once again, because of the cargo carrying capacity of the space shuttle and the generous space it had for carrying up to eight persons, this was also a good opportunity to re-supply MIR and retrieve any materials and experiments and bring them back to Earth upon it return. During the transfer of crew and personnel, Michael Foale de-camped from the space shuttle to accompany Elena Kondakova a Russian Cosmonaut who accompanied him, during this re-supply mission. In all, over 249 items were transferred between the two craft including water, food and hardware.

Principal among the items transferred from Atlantis to MIR was the Elektron oxygen-generating unit to replace the one that had failed previously.

After successfully transferring across to MIR, his initial stay was relatively uneventful compared to what was to follow. On June 25, an automated ‘Progress’ resupply craft inadvertently collided with solar arrays on the Spektr module during the second test of the Progress manual docking system, TORU.

What follows is a description of the events as recited from official NASA’s documents of the time which I have retrieved from Wikipaedia. I would like to acknowledge theses as my sources for the description of the events which follow.

The module’s outer shell was hit and holed, which caused the station to lose pressure. This was the first on-orbit depressurization in the history of spaceflight. The crew quickly cut cables leading to the module and closed Spektr’s hatch in order to prevent the need to abandon the station in their Soyuz lifeboat. Their efforts stabilized the station’s air pressure, whilst the pressure in Spektr, containing many of Foale’s experiments and personal effects, dropped to a vacuum. Fortunately, food, water and other vital supplies were stored in other modules, and salvage and replanning effort by Foale and the science community minimized the loss of research data and capability.

MIR collision damage.
MIR collision damage after being struck by automated ‘Progress’ resupply automated spacecraft. Image Courtesy of NASA.

In an effort to restore some of the power and systems lost following the isolation of Spektr and to attempt to locate the leak, Mir’s new commander Anatoly Solovyev and flight engineer Pavel Vinogradov carried out a salvage operation later in the mission. They entered the empty module during a so-called “IVA” spacewalk, inspecting the condition of hardware and running cables through a special hatch from Spektr’s systems to the rest of the station. Following these first investigations, Foale and Solovyev conducted a 6-hour EVA on the surface of Spektr to inspect the damaged module.

After these incidents, the US Congress and NASA considered whether to abandon the program out of concern for astronauts’ safety but NASA administrator Daniel Goldin decided to continue the program.

Shuttle Atlantis, showing the station's Kvant-2, Priroda, Spektr & Kristall modules
A view of the Russian space station Mir from the window of Space Shuttle Atlantis, showing the station’s Kvant-2, Priroda, Spektr & Kristall modules and the docked Soyuz TM-26 capsule during STS-86. Image and Caption – Courtesy of NASA.

In Conclusion

I hope after reading my recollections of those near disasters that happened in Earth orbit during the MIR programme, that you can see why I included a brief history of these events, alongside my review of the film ‘Gravity’. Whilst the film was obviously a work of entertaining fiction, I hope now that you can see that a lot of what was shown on the big screen was well and truly rooted in fact. To me, it just goes to show that no matter how many times human beings enter and return from space, it can never be regarded as routine and that because of the harsh vacuum and complexity of the machines that men use to enter this realm, it will always be dangerous and need to be treated with the utmost respect.

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