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Life on space station imitates art of 'Gravity' movie

Luca Parmitano / ESA via Twitter

A picture from the International Space Station glitters with city lights along the U.S.-Canadian border, plus the northern lights, plus the airglow of Earth's upper atmosphere. A solar panel and antenna dish are silhouetted against the lights on the right side of the image, distributed by Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano.

One of the most awe-inspiring scenes of the hit movie "Gravity" shows a beautiful panorama of Earth as seen from orbit, just after something bad happened, with the green glow of the auroral lights dancing above our planet's surface. There's been some discussion over what "Gravity" did or didn't get right, but the movie's light show definitely has the Right Stuff.

The "life-imitates-art" truism was demonstrated by a photo that Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano tweeted from the International Space Station over the weekend. Parmitano's picture shows the glitter of city lights straddling the U.S.-Canadian border, with the northern lights above. NASA's Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth has lots more views of the aurora from orbit.

"Gravity" took the top spot on last weekend's box-office list, grossing an October record of $55.6 million. While film critics are raving, some space experts are ranting about the plot elements that don't jibe with space realities.

I linked to some of the reality checks in Friday's item about "Gravity," but there have been more since then (SPOILER ALERT!):

Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait touches on the plot's main snags, including a literal snag that didn't have to end as badly as it was shown in the movie.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweaked "Gravity" on Sunday in a series of tweets about orbital mechanics and zero-G dynamics, as well as the finer points. For example, why was a medical doctor doing a spacewalk to fix the Hubble Space Telescope? (Ask former astronaut Scott Parazynski, M.D., a veteran spacewalker.) And why didn't Sandra Bullock's hair float in zero-G? (Ask astronaut Peggy Whitson, who sported a similar non-floating hairstyle on the space station.)

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted a few tweaks to the filmmakers behind "Gravity" over the weekend. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

Space KSC's Stephen C. Smith complains that the movie emphasizes escapism over plausibility, and that it gets a lot of its spaceflight facts and figures wrong unnecessarily. "'Gravity' will make a huge profit for Warner Bros., but it will probably mislead the public into more misunderstandings about the human spaceflight programs," he writes.

The Space Review's Jeff Foust rounds up all the online critiques but arrives at the same bottom line I reached:

"In the end, 'Gravity' is a drama, and not a documentary (and thank goodness for that, given all the destruction that takes place in orbit during the film!) Yes, it gets things wrong, and glosses over the complexities of spaceflight. Yes, it’s possible some viewers will come away from the movie with a distorted view of space. But, if you’re willing to suspend disbelief for an hour and a half (and, perhaps, later use the movie as a 'teachable moment' to tell the public about the real state of spaceflight and the actual dangers of orbital debris), Gravity becomes a powerful drama about isolation, fear, and finding the willingness to live against all odds — elements that can have a strong gravitational pull on audiences regardless of setting."

And if you need any more convincing that modern spaceflight still holds perils as well as pleasures, you need look no further than Luca Parmitano's close call with a water-filled helmet in July. Now there's a plot twist worth working into a movie script. 

Update for 7:40 p.m. ET Oct. 7: As pointed out in the comments and on NASA Watch, other spacewalkers with M.D.s include David Wolf, who served for a time as a senior spacewalk instructor; and Story Musgrave, whose Hubble repair spacewalks were legendary.

Update for 8:30 a.m. ET Oct. 8: In a review for Space.com, former NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao says "Gravity" is great, if you don't focus on the physics. He listed six or seven major inaccuracies, starting with the fact that Sandra Bullock and George Clooney "are way too good-looking to be astronauts." Chiao's bottom line? 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Update for 10:45 a.m. ET Oct. 8: Former spacewalker Scott Parazynski fact-checks "Gravity" for Vulture, while astronaut Mike Massimino talks about "Gravity" and spacewalking on OpenMinds.tv.

More about 'Gravity':

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.