“Moonfall” came out this weekend as a popcorn movie. If you don’t think too hard about what you’re watching on the big screen, you can enjoy the movie. After you watch the movie, you can nitpick over some of the more unrealistic details. Here are the three things wrong about the space shuttle in this movie.
“Moonfall” opens with Space Shuttle Endeavour orbiting the Earth in 2011. The mission is a satellite repair job with a crew of three astronauts. Everything is routine until a swarm of nanonites attack the satellite on its way to the Moon. One astronaut flies off into space and the other two astronauts return to the Earth.
There are two things wrong with the opening scene: the satellite repair mission and the small crew size.
Satellite Repair Mission
In 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia had a catastrophic re-entry. Insulation broke off from the external fuel tank to damage the shuttle during launch. Hot gases penetrated the damaged heat shield tiles on re-entry. The shuttle broke apart over Texas and killing all seven astronauts.
NASA restricted shuttle flights to the International Space Station. A damaged shuttle could dock at the space station until a rescue shuttle picks up the crew. NASA could have return the damaged shuttle to Earth via remote control.
In 2009, the fifth and final repair job for the Hubble Space Telescope was a high-risk mission. The Hubble flew in a different orbit than the space station. A damaged shuttle couldn’t dock at the space station. The crew would have to transfer between shuttles via spacesuits and a rescue ball.
The final shuttle flight on July 8, 2011, had no rescue shuttle on standby. If the shuttle got damaged, it would dock at the space station. The shuttle crew would wait their turn for a spare seat on a Russian space capsule over the course of a year.
Neither a rescue shuttle nor remote controlled shuttle landing was ever needed.
NASA wouldn’t have approved a satellite repair mission in 2011. Especially if the operational parameters were like the Hubble Space Telescope. A damaged shuttle couldn’t reach the space station, and, being the last shuttle flight, no standby shuttle was available for a rescue mission.
Small Crew Size
The last shuttle mission with only two crew members was in the early 1980s. The smallest crew size since then was four astronauts. A shuttle mission with three astronauts would have been quite odd (pun intended).
A shuttle crew has a commander, pilot, mission specialists and/or payload specialists. The commander and pilot are responsible for flying the space shuttle. I doubt either one would be outside of the space shuttle during the mission.
In the opening scene, an astronaut goes flying off into space. He must have been the mission specialist. If he was the commander or the pilot, the mission specialist couldn’t assist in flying the shuttle. If this was the last mission, they had no access to the International Space Station or a rescue shuttle. The only available option would be an untried remote-controlled landing of the shuttle.
Why three astronauts at the beginning of the movie? The movie ends with two astronauts and a conspiracy theorist going to the Moon in the space shuttle. Spoiler alert! Only the two astronauts return to Earth.
Writers call this a symmetrical plot. Where the events from the first half is mirrored in the second half of the story.
“Moonfall” fast forward to 2021 when the Moon is falling out of Earth orbit. NASA decides to put the Space Shuttle Endeavour back into service. The military moves the shuttle from a Los Angeles museum to the airport to Vandenberg Air Force Base.
The shuttle launches with two out of three engines, a booster rocket fails, and the fuel tank runs out of fuel. With the Moon so close to Earth, the shuttle gets caught by the Moon’s gravity. I had a lot of fun watching this part of the movie.
Director Roland Emmerich was under the impression that the museum shuttles could still fly. Putting a museum space shuttle back into service would never happen in real life.
When NASA decommissioned the space shuttles, they removed almost all the flight hardware.
- The main engines were gone and the nozzles are replicas.
- The toilet wasn’t installed and has its own display elsewhere in the museum.
- The last external fuel tank made wasn’t flight worthy.
Even if the hardware was still functional, there’s no way to reprogram the software on the shuttle.
Vandenberg had never launched a space shuttle. The Air Force cancelled the contract after the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The space shuttle wasn’t reliable enough to launch military payloads like unmanned rockets. The shuttle launch complex got rebuilt for launching other rockets over the years. Vandenberg in the movie no longer exists.
DISCLAIMER: I own stock in AMC Theatres and I’m a member of the Investor Connect program. I saw an advance screening of “Moonfall” nine days before it opened to the general public. AMC Theatres provided no compensation or editorial guidance.