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Parmitano EVA image
ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano’s experience on a recent spacewalk serves as a reminder that EVAs, in both fact and fiction, can be dangerous. (credit: NASA)

Death, and life, in space

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“... As I move back along my route towards the airlock, I become more and more certain that the water is increasing. I feel it covering the sponge on my earphones and I wonder whether I’ll lose audio contact. The water has also almost completely covered the front of my visor, sticking to it and obscuring my vision. I realize that to get over one of the antennae on my route I will have to move my body into a vertical position, also in order for my safety cable to rewind normally. At that moment, as I turn ‘upside-down’, two things happen: the Sun sets, and my ability to see—already compromised by the water—completely vanishes, making my eyes useless; but worse than that, the water covers my nose—a really awful sensation that I make worse by my vain attempts to move the water by shaking my head. By now, the upper part of the helmet is full of water and I can't even be sure that the next time I breathe I will fill my lungs with air and not liquid. To make matters worse, I realize that I can’t even understand which direction I should head in to get back to the airlock. I can’t see more than a few centimeters in front of me, not even enough to make out the handles we use to move around the Station.”

EVA 23: exploring the frontier, Luca Parmitano Blog

Who would have thought that an astronaut would drown in space?

Fortunately, Mr. Parmitano did not drown, but his description of what happened during his July EVA demonstrates just how close he came to dying in space, from an entirely unexpected problem. The event reminds me of one of the odder criticisms that I’ve heard of the movie Europa Report. (Warning: this article contains multiple spoilers, so quit now or forever hold your peace.) That criticism is that at least one scene in the movie—an EVA that goes badly resulting in the death of an astronaut—is unrealistic. The criticism seems to be that astronauts would never conduct an unplanned EVA without having backups in place, such as another crewmember ready to assist in an emergency. But this is a rather weak criticism, because the moviemakers did a pretty good job of setting up the situation in a realistic fashion so that there are answers to what happened. It is testimony to the film’s high degree of technical accuracy that you actually have to be relatively familiar with space operations in order to find the inaccuracies.

It is testimony to the film’s high degree of technical accuracy that you actually have to be relatively familiar with space operations in order to find the inaccuracies.

What happens in the movie is this: a major solar flare damages the spacecraft on its way to Europa, frying many of its electronics and in particular damaging its communications system with Earth. Two astronauts, Andrei and James, perform an emergency EVA to repair some of the damage. During the repair Andrei rips his suit and starts to lose oxygen. The two then hurriedly head toward the airlock. But just as they reach it Andrei—on the verge of losing consciousness—notices that James’ spacesuit is covered in hydrazine fuel that must have leaked from the ship and is now eating through his suit. James cannot go into the airlock, because the fumes would contaminate the airlock and kill them both when they remove their helmets. So James pushes his nearly unconscious partner into the airlock, seals the door, and disconnects his tether, floating away as his own suit fails. He dies in the cold darkness, on the way to Europa.

Numerous movies have attempted to show the dangers of spaceflight in a realistic manner. But what is “realistic”? A number of movies starting in the 1950s depicted spaceships and spacewalking astronauts being hit by meteorites, a danger that we now know is incredibly small, and therefore today would seem silly in a movie. Even the contrived space emergency in the 2000 movie Mission to Mars apparently resulted in some audience members laughing out loud.

The most effective space death scene is undoubtedly the sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey where Frank Poole, performing an EVA outside the spaceship Discovery, has his oxygen line snipped by HAL and dies despite the heroic efforts of Dave Bowman. Most commentary about this sequence focuses on the “realism” of Bowman reentering the Discovery’s airlock without his space helmet and surviving a brief exposure to vacuum. But if we want to be totally accurate, we’d have to call the movie on the unrealism of HAL. After all, it is now 2013 and we still lack intelligent computers that occasionally go on murderous rampages (but perhaps the NSA is working on that).

Another criticism of Europa Report is that the alien that is finally revealed at the end of the movie is too complex and in the brief moment it appears on screen looks somewhat like the aliens in The Abyss, or the mechanical squids in The Matrix. This too seems like a bit of a stretch for criticism of the film. The makers of Europa Report sought to depict spaceflight in as realistic a fashion as possible, and compared to just about every other movie ever made about spaceflight, they succeeded. But they still needed a dramatic ending. If there is life on Europa, chances are that it’s microbial, and it is difficult to make microbes seem threatening and exciting. So many things in spaceflight require understanding the context, but a film can only provide so much context and exposition before the audience gets bored. Considering how accurate the film is up to this point, we should be able to accept a little bit of suspension of disbelief without feeling cheated.

Europa Report has its flaws. In a previous review I mostly praised the film (see “Life and death and ice”, The Space Review, July 1, 2013), but felt constrained by not revealing too many plot details in my critique. After considering it a bit more, and reading a few reviews of the movie, I’m finally able to put my concerns with it into more precise form.

We need more movies like Europa Report, but as Luca Parmitano’s experience demonstrated, reality can still be more surprising than fiction.

What I liked about the film was its relatively high scientific and technical realism, its setting, and the fact that it portrayed scientists in a positive light. The film depicted scientists as dedicated and willing to take risks for their work. The scientists and engineers on the Europa mission ultimately die for something they believe in. But although the film portrayed them positively, it did not make them interesting. I didn’t need to see a romance or stereotyped characters, but I did want people who were likeable, intriguing, or at least had more complexity than the ones we saw. Unfortunately, we only got glimpses of that.

I wasn’t able to articulate my other problem with the film until I read a good review that called it somewhat “listless,” a good word that encapsulates the key flaw with the movie. But why was it listless? The reason has to do with the editing.

According to the producer and director, they adopted the “found footage” approach because it was the only way to make the film on a tight budget. Although tired, found footage movies are still doing good business at the box office. One inherent drawback with this approach is that it usually telescopes the ending of any movie—we’re looking at found footage because the people involved are all dead. But the director of Europa Report went one step further and jumped around in the storyline so that some scenes play out, sometimes confusingly, and then the film jumps back in time to show how come people behaved the way they did. In particular, Andrei is emotionally wounded by the EVA accident, and for a portion of the movie we only know that he’s depressed and potentially unstable and that the James is dead, but we don’t find out exactly what happened until halfway through the movie. Andrei suffers survivor’s guilt.

The jumping around in time did not confuse me, nor did it bother me while watching the film. I was able to follow along, and I was really intrigued by the mystery of what had happened to James. But the problem with this approach—what makes the film somewhat “listless”—is that it has the effect of deflating the tension. After we know why Andrei is depressed and James is dead, the increasing suspense has crested, and the film has a harder time building it up again for the ending.

Despite some problems, Europa Report did prove to be one of the most thought-provoking science fiction movies of the summer. Other films too often tried for spectacle and splosions rather than story and ideas. We need more movies like Europa Report, but as Luca Parmitano’s experience demonstrated, reality can still be more surprising than fiction.