We were all impressed with the dramatic trailer for Gravity, with George Clooney weathering an explosion on an orbiting space station and Sandra Bullock spinning off into the void of space. Things like that make good cinema. There are other space crises, though, that will never get their own movies. Here are some space disasters that are just too awkward for the cinema.
If there’s a failing system somewhere on a spaceship in a movie, something that’s spraying things all over, it’s always going to be either water or fire. Possibly, if the movie is set in the future, it’s antimatter. Whatever it is, it’s elemental and anodyne. It lets someone announce over the intercom system, “The coolant leak is shorting out the life support systems!” What it isn’t, however, is literal crap bursting out of the walls and spraying all over the delicate equipment.
This is strange, since biological leavings are the one thing that we’ll never get rid of in human space travel. And, no matter what level of technological sophistication you are at, any sewage spill is always going to be a massive emergency. The most basic, retro movie could have something as simple as, “poop bag explodes!” Because astronauts had to go in a bag, put in some chemicals that dissolve the product, and knead the bag to work the chemicals through, it’s not an unthinkable possibility. Any bursting of the bag would send liquidy poop flying through the capsule, doing a lot of damage. More recent spacecraft have toilets that shunt human leavings to an unheated compartment that then opens into space. This means that solid waste, and sometimes even liquid waste, freezes. Any sort of pressure from the outside would send frozen poop bullets and peecicles flying into the space craft. Again, causing a lot of damage. And not just damage to the equipment. There’s a reason people don’t live in sewers. With the limited availability of cleaning facilities, and the possibility of getting impaled by frozen feces, you’re looking at massive infections for the entire crew.
Even in the future, sewage problems present a major crisis. If you look at the Enterprise, it was a long-haul space ship that was meant to cross vast distances, and when it came across new civilizations it was not allowed to interfere with them in any significant way. This presumably included not dumping megatons of sewage on them and taking all their food. This, in turn, meant that the crew was eating food, and leaving waste. You figure out the connection there. Any problem with the sewage system would mean cutting, or changing, the food supply. Imagine the effect this would have on crew morale. Sure, it’s easy to be an enlightened, peace-loving civilization if every time you want a sundae the computer will give it to you. If Picard, or even Spock, had to chow down on barely-processed crap patties to scrape by on 1200 calories a day, they’d turn into a raiding party in about a week.
Movies are rife with space plagues and space madness and evil space worms that creep into your ear and burst out of your chest — but rarely does any space movie deal with the minor, annoying health problems that inevitably crop up. We know about the host of medical problems brought about by the sudden loss of significant gravity. Generally this causes headache, nausea, and back ache, because the body naturally curves into a fetal position during weightlessness. This, in turn, leads to a hell of a lot of crankiness and, eventually, depression. Even during relatively short voyages, this is a problem – especially when there’s a lot of work to do. There have been missions, even during the hyper-competitive space race days, that have been cut short because the some of the astronauts simply couldn’t take any more. In one case, on Skylab-4, there was a 24-hour mutiny during which the crew switched off communications and relaxed for a day, in rebellion against a punishing work schedule. This isn’t a glamorous fight-the-man kind of problem, but exhaustion, overwork, and a myriad minor pains can make people simply stop working, even if that means cutting off communication with the people whose job it is to keep them alive.
Again, this would be more of a real emergency if this were set in the future. It’s one thing for a crew of five to twenty to have a few aches and pains between them. It’s another when a ship of thousands, complete with families, suddenly loses artificial gravity so that everyone has a health problem. Imagine the chaos if everyone in an entire city got sick. Some are violently nauseous. Some have blinding headaches. Some have minor health problems that are suddenly exacerbated by the crisis. Some just have constant pain that denies them any adequate rest. No place could ever be built to deal with one hundred percent of the population getting hurt. It would be a death of a thousand cuts. A thousand, mundane, annoying little cuts.
Have you ever watched a program about space voyages and thought, “Man, I wish during this amazing age of discovery, I was still on Earth, wearing neutral-colored jumpsuits and growing grapes?" No. Nobody has. Most movies and TV shows get around the fact that it’s cooler to be in space by showing spaceships as grungy or colony worlds as miserable wastelands that look, I’m sure by coincidence, like the bleaker parts of California’s southern deserts. It’s no surprise that no one wants to go there.
And yet, in a future where space ships jet around the galaxy filled with attractive people doing interesting things and discovering worlds that are semi-paradises, it doesn’t seem like the Earth would be a major attraction. Yes, we’ve all seen the nature documentaries. The Earth is a wondrous place. But there are plenty of wondrous places on Earth – wide majestic deserts, fertile rolling valleys, silent solemn mountaintops - that have all been depopulated because some people discovered birth control and others decided that they’re going to New York to make performance art or become a stock broker. The world is full of ghost towns. In a future that, seemingly, has birth control available to everyone and a star ship ready to take you to any planet you desire, would you hang around the Earth? There are movies about space prisons. Maybe they’ve got it the wrong way around. Maybe the only way people will stay on Earth is if it’s turned into a prison.
HAL is one of the best movie villains ever. So is the Terminator. Evil, sentient computers are cool. They make for riveting movies. But there’s no real guarantee that, when a computer gains sentience, it’s going to be evil. The problem is, it’s equally unlikely that its sentience is going to be suited for space travel. The vast majority of people aren't candidates for NASA not because they are serial killers, but because they’re distracted, lazy, ignorant of the subject material, and not interested enough in learning it. They’d be a disaster if they went up on a mission.
But they wouldn’t be a fascinating movie-type disaster. They’d just be a miserable co-worker that everyone around them had to compensate for.
But no one can compensate for the computers on a space ship, or space station, if they turn out to be sentient and lazy. Computers on space ships need to be non-sentient, not because of the remote chance that they’ll be evil, but because of the very real chance that they’ll just not feel like doing the millions of boring things that we require them precisely when we require them to do it. Astronauts would have to spend hours cajoling a computer into doing the calculations necessary for navigation. They’d have to nag it to keep up the air filtration. (I’m guessing maintaining the sewage systems would also be a point of contention.) And that’s just routine maintenance. When timing really counts – like landing on planets, taking space walks, or maneuvering up to other ships – there would be moments of sheer terror while everyone wonders if the computer will be distracted by a cat video and forget to run the numbers at some crucial point. It would be like living with a negligent coworker who could kill you if they don't feel like making a fresh pot of coffee. And that's scary, but not glamorous.
This is the problem with being in an environment where anything that goes wrong can kill you. Anything can go wrong. But not anything makes a death you'd want to admit to. Or watch someone else suffer.