Gravity Won’t Let You Go

gpWhat Alfonso Cuarón, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney pull off with the film Gravity is nearly miraculous. It’s astonishingly accurate in its depiction of being in outer space, as we experience its dangerous but beautiful aspects.

Director Alfonso Cuarón triumphantly filmed this unforgettable movie experience starting with the very first shot. It’s one of his signature minutes-long takes that begins with the majestic vista of the Earth seen from orbit as a space shuttle slowly appears, seemingly out of nowhere. The spacecraft gradually fills the screen as we are introduced to Gravity’s main characters. Darting around the shuttle are Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a rookie astronaut, who is repairing the Hubble telescope that is docked to the shuttle’s main bay. Darting around her and the ship, almost playfully, is retiring veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who still can’t get enough of the space experience. Stone, on the other hand, seems unimpressed with the magnitude of where she is and is somewhat withdrawn. Later in the film, we learn why.

GRAVITY

Before Gravity can turn into another one of those pleasantly relaxing IMAX films about space travel, the astronauts are abruptly warned about an approaching debris field from a destroyed satellite. Then the chilling terror begins as metal debris showers the shuttle. The astronauts are thrown about like rag dolls and the shuttle is damaged beyond use. These pulse-pounding scenes create a sense of terror since we see early on how fragile our heroes are and realize the enormity of their life-and-death situation. Despite the turmoil, Kowalski stays cool and collected, while Stone, like most of us, is in panic mode and for good reason. Somehow, she has to fight her terror and find a way to safely return to Earth.

Bullock gives one of her very best performances in this film. Through minimal dialogue and tension-filled sequences we feel an empathy for her. Stone is a rather nuanced person; GRAVITYwhen we first meet her she is passive and gives in to her feelings of helplessness. She almost seems innocent, and the moments when she is floating in a space station curled up like an infant drive this point home. But by the end of the film, she undergoes a rebirth of sorts as an intense, spiritual metamorphosis takes place. Stone develops an inner, steely resolve. She becomes a fighter, not in the screaming warrior sense, but as someone who can think clearly during a crisis, while displaying a indomitable fighting spirit.

The director uses a minimalist approach to express these themes. There aren’t any great mysteries or philosophical questions to ponder. It’s a movie about survival and finding that inner strength that most of us have to fight against the odds. In this case, Stone has to find a way to return to Earth despite overwhelming odds and her tenuous circumstances. That’s what is so inspiring about Gravity.

GRAVITYAlfonso Cuarón demonstrates why he is a filmmaker to be revered. His work drew me into the film and made me feel like I was there. There are so many little touches that sell the impression that the characters are in space. Things like the lack of sound, except what is heard inside the spacesuits, and the cramped interiors of the I.S.S. with all the floating objects. It’s so realistically rendered that a part of me wondered at times how he filmed all those scenes of weightlessness. It seems like Cuarón took a camera up to the I.S.S. and filmed segments in zero gravity. It’s needless to say that the special effects and cinematography are beyond flawless.

Are there flaws with Gravity? Of course, there are. But so does Star Wars, Avatar, 2001: A Space Odyssey and other groundbreaking movies. Without going into details, let’s just say that a careful observer can spot when dramatic licenses were taken during pivotal moments. But that’s just nitpicking, and such instances don’t approach the level of inaccuracies and plot flaws seen in other recent blockbuster films. Without sounding too hyperbolic, Gravity is a game changer. We see the majestic wonder of observing the Earth from above, but are made too aware of how precarious life is outside of the world’s protective influence. However, its core message was about the resiliency of the human spirit and the fragile but beauteous nature of life. That along with breathtaking visuals, auteur direction and bravura performances, is why Gravity won’t let you go long after seeing it.

José Soto

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Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

About an hour east of Orlando in Merritt Island, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex cannot be called a theme park or a museum but it has elements of both. Like any healthy attraction, it’s constantly evolving and offering something new for visitors. And coming soon, the Complex will be the home for the just-retired Space Shuttle Atlantis.

Even though the shuttle isn’t ready for viewing yet that shouldn’t stop anyone whether they’re a space buff or not from visiting the Complex. There are plenty of displays, exhibits and fantastic presentations. It’s hard to see everything the Complex offers in a single day visit. This was not so in its past and it’s a testament to how the place has grown as a viable attraction.

The basic admission includes the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Tour, IMAX presentations (many of which are in 3D), the nearby U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame and the Complex’s grounds.

A popular attraction is the Shuttle Launch Experience, which simulates a shuttle launch for visitors. It’s a lot like the Mission: Space ride at Epcot only without the nausea, but it’s still a rough ride and according to many astronauts an authentic recreation of a shuttle liftoff. Next to the facility that houses the Shuttle Launch Experience is a well-detailed mock up of a shuttle called the Explorer. Visitors ascend a winding staircase to get into the craft’s hangar and further up for the cockpit.  And next to the Explorer are mock ups of the space shuttle’s external fuel tank and boosters, those and the shuttle make for memorable photo ops.

Other places to get photos include the Rocket Garden, an outdoor showcase of the rockets and capsules used during the ’60s. These include the Titan and Atlas rockets (plus a huge Saturn IB) and the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules. In fact, visitors are allowed to climb into the claustrophobic. Nearby is the Early Space Exploration facility that features the actual capsules, artifacts and mission control consoles from the ’60s.

But the highlight of any visit is the KSC Tour. Although in-depth guided tours are available for additional fees, anyone can get a thorough visit with the KSC Tour. Buses at a terminal located off to the right of the Complex’s entrance plaza leave for the tour every fifteen minutes. A short ride will take visitors to the shuttles’ launch pads at the LC-39 Observation Gantry and even glimpse off in the distance the air force’s rocket launch pads. The next and final stop of the tour is a grand finale indeed. The Apollo/Saturn V Center boasts an overhead, mammoth 363-foot-long Saturn V rocket which rivals any giant dinosaur fossil display in a museum. There are also space suits, tools, a moon buggy and even a piece of moon rock that can be touched. Visitors can stay as long as they like in the Center before taking a bus back.

But the Complex isn’t just a place that looks at NASA’s past glories, there are many exhibits and attractions devoted to today’s space exploration. At the Astronaut Encounter Theater, visitors can meet and question guest astronauts. The Theater is also playing through December Star Trek Live, an engaging stage show featuring science facts and a time-travel themed storyline. Elsewhere, visitors can see up-close images from the Hubble Space Telescope or be part of Exploration Space: Explorers Wanted. An interactive, multimedia presentation on the possible future of space travel. There are even play areas in the Complex for children, a nature exhibit, an Astronaut Memorial, an art gallery and of course, souvenir shops.

To see everything at the Complex in one day is very difficult and not practical. So consider returning for a second visit. In fact, visitors who get their tickets validated when leaving can return for a second visit within a week. The admission prices are very favorable when compared to Orlando’s theme parks and the experience is much more educational and inspiring especially for future generations.

Article and Images by José Soto

NASA’s Next Chapter Awaits

The space shuttle Atlantis lifted off today on its final shuttle mission closing a 30-year chapter in NASA’s manned space program. Looking around the news casts obsessed with Casey Anthony, the dismal jobs report, and other headlines it was hard to find substantial mention of Atlantis’ mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

This just underscores the sad state of America’s space program and it seems as if the shuttle fleet is being retired with a whimper. It’s almost as if NASA and the government want to downplay the fact that there are no concrete future plans.

After President Obama all but scuttled NASA’s manned space program, the agency has been left grasping at straws to remain relevant. Meanwhile Russia, China and other nations are pushing on with their space efforts. So why not us? Blame it on cost-cutting politicians, an apathetic public and NASA’s bureaucracy; there are plenty of reasons. But it could be traced to a lack of long-term planning.

Back in the 1960s, President Kennedy proclaimed his famous goal of landing a man on the moon before the decade ended. Then the U.S. was in a very public space race with a very competitive Soviet Union. One added impetus was that the Russians were winning. It fired the public’s imagination and will for America to forge ahead despite setbacks like the Apollo 1 tragedy. Once Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon, everyone celebrated and collectively went on the next thing. NASA’s budget was slashed and bit by bit the agency’s ambition withered; goals like sending astronauts to Mars by the 1980s went by the wayside. The most recent setback was with Obama effectively killing the agency’s plans to return to the moon in a few years.

Now with the shuttle fleet retired, current plans are to develop a new successor to the mammoth Saturn rockets, building spacecraft that can leave Earth’s lower orbit and vague plans to reach an asteroid by 2025 and orbit (not land on) Mars in the 2030s. Frankly that is too far away in time to capture the public’s imagination. For all the hand wringing by NASA, the fact is that the technology to send people to Mars and colonize our moon exists today, actually it has existed for years. What kept that from happening was the lack of will from everyone. Politicians didn’t want to invest their capital on projects that paid off way into the future, NASA seemed to be more interested in conducting tests in space that the average Joe didn’t care about, and the public complained about the costs and necessity of the space program. In truth, the budget for the space program is very small compared to other expenses. To do away with it completely won’t cure our financial woes.

NASA needs clear goals that regains the public’s interest, and more importantly the drive to push the envelope. It may take another nation pulling off a genuine feat to light America’s fire again. Perhaps commercial space craft development will do it (the company SpaceX has plans for a test run to the ISS this year). Or maybe the sight of American astronauts piggybacking on Russian space capsules might do something to boost our motivation. For now though, the next chapter in the U.S. manned space program is still on the launch pad.

J.L. Soto