September 13, 2013
— Cady Coleman had just finished watching Sandra Bullock in the "The Blind Side" when the actress reached out to her for advice.
Coleman, a self-described fan, had never met or spoken to Bullock before and so the contact in the spring of 2011 came out of the blue, or more appropriately, the blackness of outer space.
A veteran NASA astronaut, Coleman was about two-thirds of her way through a 5-month stay aboard the International Space Station at the time. Bullock, meanwhile, was set to portray an astronaut in director Alfonso Cuarón's movie, "Gravity" (opening in theaters on Oct. 4).
In the highly-anticipated film, Bullock and co-star George Clooney are astronauts on a routine spacewalk when they are violently separated from their space shuttle. Bullock's performance as "Dr. Ryan Stone" needed to be believable if "Gravity" was to convey to audiences the experience of being stranded in space.
But it wasn't Cuarón or Warner Brothers Pictures, or even NASA, that brought the real and on-screen space travelers in touch. Instead, it was a chance meeting between their family members.
Sandra Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone shown floating inside a space station from the Alfonso Cuarón film "Gravity." (Warner Brothers)
"It was through my younger brother who's in the innovative wine packaging business," Coleman told collectSPACE in her first interview about advising Bullock for the film. "He met Sandra Bullock's sister, who is a chef."
The astronaut's and actress' siblings spoke and Bullock's sister asked if Coleman would be amenable to answering some questions from space.
As it just so happened, Coleman was watching Bullock's Academy Award-winning performance in "The Blind Side" when the two first connected.
"It was really ironic that I'd be watching this movie while running on the [space station's] treadmill and the next day receive an email with her contact information," Coleman said.
Aligning the star with space
Coleman and Bullock exchanged emails but they agreed it would be nicer if they could talk by phone. That required a bit of space-to-ground coordination.
"The big problem is you can't really call us on the station, unless it is an emergency or official," Coleman explained. "But we can call you because we have an internet protocol phone."
"So the only way we could really talk was for her to share her phone number and a list of times when we could talk," Coleman said.
NASA astronaut Cady Coleman is seen inside the Cupola of the International Space Station. Earth's horizon and the blackness of space are visible through the windows. (NASA)
It was Bullock's first lesson about living in space.
"She wanted to know about what it is like to physically live up there and physically move around. 'What would you do with your hands? With your feet? What would be a natural position to work? How often do you see your crewmates? Where do you meet each other?' It was those kinds of things," Coleman recalled.
Bullock, who didn't share much about the movie she was making ("I didn't want to push her to share that," Coleman said), expressed a general interest about life in space.
"We did not share any secrets, personal or professional. I don't know if I have any," Coleman remarked. "It was just a genuine exchange of information. She asked really good questions. I came out of it thinking 'I am really glad that this woman is making a movie about what it is like to live in space.'"
But it wasn't just helping to make a movie that Coleman relished from her conversation with Bullock.
"We talked on the phone for that one long time, which was certainly a nice morale thing for me," the astronaut told collectSPACE. "I'm up there on the station with five guys and to get to talk to somebody who, even instantly on the phone, is so personable, it was like talking to a girlfriend."
NASA astronaut Cady Coleman works in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station, as seen in May 2011. (NASA)
Coleman and Bullock were only able to arrange one call but Coleman then followed up with e-mailed audio clips, as she and her crewmates thought of more things to tell the actress.
"I took the questions that Sandra asked me and I brought them to the dinner table," Coleman said. "My crew and I would talk about what we thought about them or what else we would tell her."
"We're working hard up there and the days are really long, so it was pretty neat to have somebody that you've looked up to on the screen from afar to [get in touch]," she said.
The 'Gravity' of the situation
Coleman doesn't know yet how Bullock applied her advice to the performance.
"I haven't actually seen the movie, so I don't know how it turned out," she said.
But the astronaut was able to see one of the early movie trailers released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Back on Earth since May 2011, Coleman now directs the "comings and goings" of the robotic spacecraft that resupply the space station.
"I have actually only seen one trailer, and that is because it's just such a busy time in the space program right now," she explained.
"So I have only seen the one trailer and it is the one where they're on a spacewalk and devastating things happen," Coleman said. "I actually first saw that trailer when I was helping to escort one of the families of our spacewalkers earlier this year, and I just thought, 'Oh my goodness! I just hope his family is not watching this trailer before he goes out on a spacewalk. It sensationalizes a lot of things we do actually very carefully."
Coleman said that with her own family she acknowledges the real risks of spaceflight but tries to avoid dwelling on the "what if all four of these things were to happen at the same time" questions.
"For something that is dangerous and that we do take very seriously, to see your worst fears realized in 30 seconds is scary," Coleman admitted.
Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) grasps for a tether outside of the International Space Station in the movie "Gravity." (Warner Bros.)
But there is a value in such "scares-my-mom" scenes, the astronaut said.
"I think the work we do in space is so important and it just can't be done in other places. And I think exploring space and going out further in the universe are things mankind will do no matter what, you just cannot stop it," Coleman said. "Yet, it's very imperative to have the support for that, to have us as a nation or as a world supporting this kind of exploration."
"In some ways I will take any type of publicity that shows people out in the world that people can live in space," she said. "So even though it might portray the scarier aspects of exploring, those aspects exist. There is risk in what we do."
"Yet the fact that it highlights the real people, including women — smart, strong women that go to space and live up there and work up there — the fact that it would bring attention to that, I think is a valuable thing."