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'It's the worst': Astronauts sound off on what Hollywood gets right and wrong about space


This story is part of Moon Landing: 50th Anniversary, a series from CBC News examining how far we’ve come since the first humans landed on the moon.


In space, they say no one can hear you scream, but take away the sound effects from Star Wars and half the magic is gone.

The film and TV industry has never let facts get in the way of a good story, but here’s a few selections about outer space that set astronauts’ heads spinning. 

The bad

The worst offender, according Canadian Space Agency (CSA) experts? 1998’s Armageddon

Former CSA astronaut Robert Thirsk said the epic directed by Michael Bay is the most problematic. 

“They made little effort to inform the audience of what the capabilities of the space shuttle actually are and about the impact of blowing up objects like asteroids in space.”

Another space veteran, Gov. Gen. Julie Payette said the way Armageddon features two shuttles launching in quick succession is impossible. 

CSA astronaut Jennifer Sidey-Gibbons said simply: “They got so much wrong.” 

(CBC/Getty Images/Canadian Space Agency)

Another film that wasn’t up to spec for CSA astronauts is Gravity, the winner of seven Oscars.  

The movie starring Sandra Bullock as an astronaut detached from the space shuttle featured stunning visuals. But CSA astronaut Jeremy Hansen wasn’t impressed by the way Bullock’s character went from station to station, 

CBC/Warner Bros. Pictures/Canadian Space Agency

“Just to go from the International Space Station over to a Chinese space station, it actually takes a tremendous amount of energy to change orbits,” Hansen said. “Like when they were fixing the Hubble space telescope and then went over to the space station. In fact, there’s not enough energy in a space shuttle to make that kind of change, once you’re in space.”  

As far as the film’s stunning vistas, as an astronaut who spent over 204 days in space, Robert Thirsk said the simulated views of Earth can’t compete with what he witnessed. ​​​​​But he commends the way the film recreated zero gravity.

With her engineering background, what frustrates Canadian astronaut Jennifer Sidey-Gibbons are unrealistic spacecraft with “wonky power or combustion systems.”  In particular, she said some of the spacecraft from the Marvel universe of super hero movies are a little silly. 

“I think not all the vehicles that fly in the Avengers would necessarily fly, maybe they have some technologies that we don’t, but I just always look at that and think, hmmm, not quite.”

The good

When it comes to what works, nearly every Canadian astronaut CBC spoke with singled out Matt Damon’s The Martian

(CBC/20th Century Fox/Canadian Space Agency)

The survival story received top marks from Robert Thirsk who said much of the technology that Damon’s character uses either exists today or is in development including, “the habitat growing crops in space, the space suit that Matt Damon wore for space walks, or the rover that he drove around the planetary surface.” 

One film with a less realistic view of space travel that received a thumbs up is the reality-warping Interstellar starring Matthew McConaughey. The film finds a team of explorers venturing outside our solar system to give humanity a second chance. 

CBC/Paramount Pictures/Canadian Space Agency

Astronaut Jeremy Hansen appreciated the way the film stretched his imagination, exploring the effects of gravity on time. “Those are things that are really hard for us to even talk (about) today. It really gets your mind going.” 

For the movie that got him hooked on the space program, Robert Thirsk credits 2001: A Space Odyssey. He points out the scene featuring the docking of a shuttle craft with the circular space station. Thirsk said 2001 demonstrated how “the rates and the velocity of the two vehicles need to be matched precisely” and how the rotating space station was perfect to create a livable environment.

Talk to the women and men of NASA and one movie that many recommend is the 1995 film Apollo 13, starring Tom Hanks. Many of the NASA staff appreciated how it captured the challenges the crew faced and the support from mission control. 

In the film, Ed Harris played Gene Kranz, the flight director with the iconic phrase, “Failure is not an option.” 

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Flight director Pooja Jesrani is a modern day Kranz, currently overseeing a new generation of astronauts. She said the night before her job interview for the position, she watched Apollo 13 to prepare. 

But ask 85-year-old Kranz his favourite space film, and you get a very different answer: Silent Running. The film stars Bruce Dern as an astronaut watching over a spaceship filled with Earth’s remaining plant life. 

“The government decided it can’t afford it anymore,” Kranz said. “They send word to the crew to destroy it.” Something about it, he said, really grabbed him. 

From the final frontier to Ms. Frizzle

CSA astronaut Jennifer Sidey-Gibbons credits The Magic School Bus TV show with fuelling her interest in science. (TVO)

For the visions that fuelled Canada’s new generation of explorers, there’s a wide range of inspirations. Jennifer Sidey-Gibbons was a major fan of the cartoon The Magic School Bus. “Ms. Frizzle is my jam,” she said, crediting the educational show with kick-starting her love of science. 

For fighter pilot turned astronaut Jeremy Hansen, it was the television show Star Trek that allowed him to believe that humanity will venture beyond our universe with faster-than-light travel, 

“They gave me a vision of what that might look like and also what kind of person I’d need to be to take on those challenges.” 


Here’s a few other films NASA and CSA experts recommended: 

First Man: A personal view of the challenges faced by astronaut Neil Armstrong starring Ryan Gosling.

Mission Control: A documentary currently available on Netflix. 

Apollo 11: A recently released documentary featuring never-before seen footage of the mission to land on the moon. 

From the Earth to the Moon: The 1998 HBO mini-series is being relaunched with new HD special effects. 

Contact: A film about faith, science and the search for extraterrestrial life starring Jodi Foster. 





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