F9, the latest installment in the Fast and Furious franchise, ups the ante on the over-the-top action sequences the films are known for by going into outer space. Toward the end of the film, series regulars Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej Parker (Ludacris) have to disable a satellite, a task they accomplish by—and there’s no not-ridiculous way to say this—strapping rocket engines onto a heavily modified Pontiac Fiero and crashing it into the satellite, then catching a ride back to Earth from a space station. It’s a classic story of pluck, courage, and mid-engine sports cars of the 1980s, and the movie seems quite aware that it’s implausible, but how implausible?
To find out, we described the sequence to Michael Massimino, a former NASA astronaut who made two spaceflights to work on the Hubble Space Telescope. He also co-hosts the 2 Funny Astronauts podcast and insists that 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 Dessem: Let’s talk about the spaceship. It’s a heavily modified Pontiac Fiero. What would you need to do to convert a stock automobile into something capable of spaceflight?
Michael Massimino: Well, it would need to be protected. You know, Elon Musk launched a car.
Right, but he launched it as a payload, like it was inside of the ship.
This, they’re just launching the car. There are booster rockets strapped to it and they put the car into orbit. It doesn’t look much like a Fiero anymore but that’s clearly the base. It seems to me that structurally, that’s not something that could handle a rocket strapped to the side of it without falling apart.
Probably not. It would need to be able to take G forces. All launches on the Space Shuttle, for example, we got up to three Gs. So whatever the G forces were associated with the ride, it would need to be able to take that. It would also need to be able to take vibration, a lot of shaking going on. That’s mainly what you’re worried about during launch. Vibration, G forces, the thrust, the speed at which you’ll be going. A lot of that is a problem in the atmosphere because that’s where you’re getting most of your turbulence. You’re shook around, you’re fighting Earth’s gravity, you’re going through the atmosphere.
Once you get the thing to orbit, all these other things apply. You need oxygen and you need atmosphere. You also are going to need heat rejection, because in direct sunlight, it’s a couple hundred degrees Fahrenheit hitting you. When you go into darkness, it’s a couple hundred degrees below zero. So it’s a huge temperature range. And usually, when you’re in a closed environment like that for the pressure, you can build up heat in the cabin. You need a way to reject the heat or radiate it.
Because they don’t have space suits, they’re wearing what look like deep-sea diving suits, but they’re not the 19th century brass ones—they appear to be made out of rubber. What would your concerns be if you were building a homemade space suit or pressure suit?
I think generally people think, “Well, we need to supply oxygen, breathing air.” But what you also need is pressure—In the vacuum of space there’s no pressure. In our space suits, when we were space walking, for example, we had reduced pressure, but you do need some. So at sea level, we’re at 14.7 PSI, 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, like we did on Earth. When we went out to space walk, though, we’re no longer in the spaceship, we’re in a space suit. That was a reduced pressure, down to 4.3 PSI. You don’t want to go much lower than that. So what I would be most concerned about is can this space suit provide me with adequate pressure?
You’re also going to need a way to scrub the carbon dioxide. And you want to be kept at a good temperature. You can get really hot inside of a spacesuit or really cold, so you want some temperature control. Those are some of the basic things you would want.
I think one way that they get around some of the stresses of the initial launch is to actually launch this thing, they take it up on the back of a cargo plane and then eject it and it fires its rockets in midair and goes up into orbit from there. Could you reach a precise orbit with that sort of mid-air launch?
Sure. I mean, I don’t know about with this car. Richard Branson’s rocket ship kind of works like that, it launches from a mothership and then gets dropped and it can land back on a runway. When you have something like that, the advantage is you can take off wherever there’s a runway big enough for your airplane. So that gives you the opportunity to go into almost any inclination or orbit around the planet.
I see. You get that much flexibility by being able to launch from anywhere instead of just, like a rocket launch facility?
It’s not even where the runway is. It is where your airplane is pointed. You’re picking up the rotation of the Earth and all that. So yeah, you can put stuff into pretty accurate orbit, wherever you wanted it, depending on where the runway is. All this is related, but an airplane gives you a little more flexibility unless you’re stuck at one airfield. You can kind of get headed in the right direction with that airplane.
OK, so their plan to disable the satellite is they’ve got a powerful electromagnet mounted on the front of the thing and they’re going to fry the electronics. Would there be a way to do that without disabling your own systems?
I don’t know. You’re worried about electromagnetic interference, but I don’t know if that would work or not.
Well, it doesn’t work in the movie. So what they end up doing is they just crash the car into the satellite.
That will work. You just need to be able to very accurately have a midair collision with this thing.
Let me put it this way, we were worried about debris on our space missions, about running into things. No one was trying to do us any damage, but if you run into something while you’re in orbit, it can be really bad … In orbit we’re traveling 17,500 miles an hour. When you hit something going fast in a car, a lot of damage can happen just going 25, 30 miles an hour, right? Imagine going 17,500 miles an hour. You hit a speck of paint, you’re asking for trouble, so that could be one way to do it, just putting debris in the path.
So after Roman and Tej survive this crash, they’re still in some kind of orbit.
With the car. I wonder what kind of insurance they had on the car.
Whatever it was, it got totaled out, I’m sure. Because they sort of gloss over what their plan to re-enter was—
And that’s a problem.
It’s kind of an elegant solution by the screenwriters. Like, “There was a plan to reenter, but we’re not going to talk about it because it didn’t work.” What they end up doing instead is, they coast over to a space station. What would the protocol be if someone showed up unannounced like that?
Well, that’s really far-fetched. First of all, it’s really hard to get there. Because once you get into orbit, you can change your altitude up and down. You can go faster, and you’ll go into a higher orbit. Or you can go slower, and you’ll go to a lower orbit. In fact, that’s how we come home: We fire our engine into the velocity vector, which slows you down and lowers your orbit. And then you pick up the atmosphere and you slow down even more, and you lower your orbit even more. And that’s when you come down, that’s how you land. That’s how you re-enter. But to make a left or right-hand turn is really hard. You’re going so fast, to actually change direction, to go to a different inclination, is pretty much impossible.
If I remember correctly, what they say is that they used so much fuel crashing into the satellite that they couldn’t land. But landing, they would just need to slow down?
You need much more energy to change your route. We never change our inclination. You can change your altitude. We do that in every mission. You get into orbit, and then you would go to a higher orbit, and come down to a lower orbit. But it’s always in the same inclination of the orbit, you’re not going to make any lefts or rights. This thing would have to be in the same inclination. And as far as showing up unannounced, that’s so far-fetched that we probably don’t have a procedure. It’s like, what happens if an alien comes? Well, that’s not going to happen—worry about something that could happen.
I have a general question there, though, about the door, which—
How you get in? Yeah, that would be the trick.
Would it be possible? Are the airlocks on things like that built to only attach to those standard docking ports? Or is there any way that someone outside could enter an airlock?
Well, I mean, how do they get in? Just walk in, or does a spaceship attach to it?
They show them outside of the Pontiac Fiero waving at the space station. And then the next thing you see they’re on earth.
So in that scenario, they would need a way to open the outer airlock hatch from the outside. Which typically is not done.
Those doors don’t usually have manual handles?
On our hatch, I don’t think we had that. I can’t remember if you could 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’re not going to lock the door behind you. You would open the door from the inside, and then you would close it from the inside. I can’t remember if we had a handle on both sides of it. We probably did on the inner hatch.
Would having two uninvited guests on a space station cause oxygen or food issues?
You would get by. Typically, believe it or not, the limiting consumable in a lot of this is power. If we would have gotten stuck in orbit and couldn’t come home from Hubble—I never found this out until after I returned to earth because I didn’t want to know how we were going to die—it would have been power. We would have run out of cryogenic fuel—liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. And that would mean that you couldn’t generate power, which meant your ventilation fans would stop, which means you couldn’t scrub the CO2. You would eventually have CO2 poisoning, and you would go to sleep and not wake up. That’s probably the way we would have expired. Now, on this thing, you would have to make sure that there was enough water, food, and air, and enough power, but a space station is powered usually by solar panels, so power is not an issue. It’d be making sure you had enough air. If you started to consume so much oxygen because you have more people there, you need it to scrub it more, and eventually, you could have a problem. But it’s not as big of an issue. I think they’re fine, for a while anyway. You’d have to get them home at some point.
That’s the other thing, it’s not like the missions going back to earth just have extra seats you can deadhead on, right?
You’d have to figure out how to do that. But when it comes to saving lives, we’re usually pretty good at being creative. We would figure out a way to get them home if such a thing happened. But it’s preposterous, so we’re not really worried about it.
Is there anything that you miss about space or anything you wish you’d gotten to do while you were up there that you never got around to?
I miss a lot. I miss going to space. I miss my time at NASA. That job, I feel, was very much the most interesting job I ever had and ever will have. So, yeah. I certainly do …
Would you be willing to go back up to space in a diving suit and a Pontiac Fiero?
I’d have to find out more about that.