F9, the latest installment in The Fast and the Furious The franchise, is upping the ante on the super action sequences that the movies are known for by going into outer space. Towards the end of the movie, series regulars Roman (Therese Gibson) and Tig Parker (Ludacris) have to disable a satellite, a task they accomplish by – and there’s no non-ridiculous way to say it – strapping rocket engines onto a heavily modified Pontiac Fiero and crashing into the moon. Industrial, then flight back to Earth from a space station. A classic tale about the pluck, grit and mid-engine sports cars of the ’80s, the movie seems all too aware that it’s implausible, but How Unbelievable?
To find out, we described the sequence to Michael Massimino, a former NASA astronaut who took two spaceflights to work on the Hubble Space Telescope. Also co-hosted 2 funny astronauts The podcaster insists he doesn’t mind if space movies are scientifically inaccurate “as long as the astronauts look cool.” Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Matthew Decem: Let’s talk about the spaceship. It’s a heavily modified Pontiac Ferro. What do you need to do to turn your stock car into something that can fly in space?
Michael Massimino: Well, you will need protection. As you know, Elon Musk launched a car.
True, but he released it as a cargo, as if it were inside a ship.
That is, they just launch the car. There are booster rockets attached to it and it puts the car into orbit. It doesn’t look like a Fiero anymore but that’s clearly the norm. It seems to me that structurally this is not something that can handle a missile strapped to its side without collapsing.
Mostly not. You will need to be able to take G forces. All launches on the space shuttle, for example, come to three G’s. So whatever G forces are associated with the flight, you’ll need to be able to do that. It will also need to be able to vibrate, as a lot of vibration occurs. This is your main concern during launch. Vibration, G forces, thrust, how fast you’re going. A lot of that is an atmospheric problem because that’s where you get the most turbulence. You’re vibrating, you’re fighting Earth’s gravity, you’re passing through the atmosphere.
Once you get the thing in orbit, all of these other things apply. You need oxygen and you need atmosphere. You’ll also need to expel heat, because in direct sunlight, the temperature can reach a few hundred degrees Fahrenheit. When you go into the dark, the temperatures are a few hundred degrees below zero. So it is a huge temperature range. And usually, when you’re in an enclosed environment like that of pressure, you can increase the heat in the cabin. You need a way to reject or radiate heat.
Because they don’t wear spacesuits, they wear what looks like deep sea diving suits, but they’re not the 19The tenth Brass horn – looks like it’s made of rubber. What are your concerns if you’re building a homemade spacesuit or compression suit?
I think in general people think, “Okay, we need to provide oxygen, breathe air.” But what you also need is pressure – in the vacuum of space there is no pressure. In our spacesuits, when we’ve been in space, for example, we’ve reduced the pressure, but you need some. So at sea level, we’re at 14.7 pounds per square inch. One atmosphere is what we call it. On the space station and on the space shuttle we also had 14.7 psi, as we did on Earth. When we went for a space walk, we’re no longer in a spaceship, we’re wearing a spacesuit. This was reduced pressure, down to 4.3 psi. You don’t want to go much lower. So what concerns me most is can this space suit provide me proper compression?
You will also need a method to clean up the carbon dioxide. And you want to keep it at a good temperature. You can feel the heat inside a spacesuit or it can feel very cold, so you’ll want some temperature control. These are some of the basic things you want.
I think one of the ways they can get around some of the pressure of the initial launch is to actually launch this thing, then take it on the back of a cargo plane and then fling it and launch its rockets into the air and go up into orbit from there. Can you reach a precise orbit with this kind of mid-air launch?
Certainly. I mean, I don’t know anything about this car. Richard Branson’s rocket ship works like this, taking off from a mother ship and then being shot down and can land again on a runway. When you have something like this, the advantage is that you can take off wherever there is a runway big enough for your plane. This gives you the opportunity to go almost any mile or orbit around the planet.
I see. You get that much flexibility by being able to launch from anywhere instead of just launching missiles, like a missile launch facility?
It’s not even where the runway is. It’s where your plane is directed. You capture the Earth’s rotation and all that. Well, you can put things in very precise orbit, wherever you want, depending on where the runway is. It all comes together, but the plane gives you more flexibility unless you’re stuck in one airport. You can head in the right direction with that plane.
OK, so their plan to disable the satellite is that they have a powerful electromagnet attached to the front of the thing and they’re going to fry the electronics. Would there be a way to do this without disrupting your own systems?
I do not know. You are worried about electromagnetic interference, but I don’t know if that will work.
Well, that doesn’t work in the movie. So what they do in the end is they hit the car with the satellite.
This will work. You just need to be able to collide very precisely with this thing.
Let me put it this way, we were worried about debris on our space missions, and about bumping into things. Nobody tried to do us any harm, but if you hit something while you’re in orbit, it could be really bad… In orbit we travel 17,500 miles per hour. When you hit something that’s going fast in a car, it can do a lot of damage when moving at 25 or 30 miles per hour, right? Imagine that you are traveling 17,500 miles per hour. You hit a piece of paint, you’re asking for trouble, so one way to do that could be just putting debris in the track.
So after Roman and Tej survive this crash, they’re still in orbit of sorts.
with the car. I wonder what kind of insurance they have on the car.
Whatever the case, it’s fully assembled, I’m sure. Because they’re kind of covering up what their re-entry plan was.
This is a problem.
It’s kind of an elegant solution by screenwriters. as there I was A plan to re-enter, but we’re not going to talk about it because it didn’t work.” What they do in the end is they go to a space station. What would the protocol be if someone like that showed up without warning?
Well, that’s really far-fetched. First of all, it’s really hard to get there. Because once you’re in orbit, you can change your altitude up and down. You can go faster and you will go to a higher orbit. Or you could go slower, and you’d go into a lower orbit. In fact, this is how we get home: We fire our motor into the velocity vector, which slows you down and lowers your orbit. Then it picks up the atmosphere and slows down more, lowering your orbits even more. And when you go down, this is how you go down. This is how you re-enter. But doing a left or right turn is really difficult. You’re going too fast, to actually change direction, to go in a different direction, is pretty much impossible.
If I remember correctly, what they are saying is that they used so much fuel that they hit the satellite that they couldn’t land. But landing, they’ll just need to slow down?
You need more energy to change course. We never change our inclinations. You can change your height. We do this on every mission. You get into orbit, then you go into a higher orbit, and you go down into a lower orbit. But it is always in the same inclination of the orbit, you will not make any rights or rights. This thing has to be in the same slant. And insofar as they appear without warning, it is so far fetched that we probably have no action. It’s like, what happens if an alien comes in? Well, that won’t happen – worry about something that could happen.
I have a general question there, though, about the door, which–
How do you enter? Yes, that would be the trick.
Is it possible? Are equalization locks on things like this designed to only attach to standard docking ports? Or is there any way someone outside could get into the airlock?
Well, I mean, how do they get in? Just enter, or is the spaceship attached to it?
They show them outside the Pontiac Fierro waving at the space station. Then the next thing you see on Earth.
So in this scenario, they would need a way to open the external airlock hole from the outside. Which is usually not done.
These doors do not usually have hand knobs?
In the slot, I don’t think we got that. I don’t remember if you can open or close it from the outside. You really don’t want to mess around and not be able to get in or out, so you won’t be closing the door behind you. You open the door from the inside and then close it from the inside. I don’t remember if we had a handle on both sides. We probably did it on the inner hatch.
Will having two uninvited guests on a space station cause oxygen or food problems?
You will get it. Usually, believe it or not, reducing consumption in a lot of this is energy. If we were stuck in orbit and couldn’t get home from Hubble – I never found this until after I got back to Earth because I didn’t want to know how we were going to die – it would have been a force. We have run out of coolant fuel – liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. This means that you cannot generate power, which means that your ventilation fans will turn off, which means that you cannot clean up carbon dioxide. You’ll eventually get carbon dioxide poisoning, and you’ll fall asleep and not wake up. Perhaps this is how it would have expired. Now, in this thing, you have to make sure there’s enough water, food, air, and enough energy, but the space station is usually powered by solar panels, so power isn’t an issue. You will make sure you have enough air. If you start consuming a lot of oxygen because you have more people there, you’ll need it to clean it up more, and eventually, you may run into trouble. But it’s not a big problem. I think they’re fine, for a while anyway. You will have to bring them home at some point.
Here’s the other thing, it’s not like the missions back to Earth just have extra seating for you to take on, right?
You will have to know how to do this. But when it comes to saving lives, we’re usually pretty good at getting creative. We’ll find a way to get them home if something like this happens. But that’s unreasonable, so we’re not worried about it.
Is there anything you’re missing about space or anything you wish you could do while you were there and never made it to?
I miss a lot. I miss going to space. I miss my time at NASA. I feel like that was the most interesting job I’ve ever had and I will ever have. So yeah. I definitely do…
Would you like to go back to space wearing a wetsuit and a Pontiac Fiero?
I should know more about it.