Feeling Lost In The Void? Help Incoming! 🪐

So: I was recently feeling a bit adrift, for reasons etc., and the images which kept coming to mind were the dizzying scenes in the movie Gravity, where Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone is spinning around in space, reeling, lost…

Now, I don’t like ANY of the characters in that movie, but in a way, that made it easier to see the framework. Bear with:

Mentally I link that movie somewhat to The Martian, one of my fave books of all time and decent movie, because both are about struggle in a hostile environment. And Watney the fictional character is at least ArchAngel-tier as imaginary besties go (y-you guys do this shit too, right? Right?) :laughing:

So anyway, I sat down to re-watch Gravity and took some notes, this is long-winded because I wanted to thrash it all out in detail.

Spoilers for both movies below the image of earth.

The primary theme in both movies is that two specific things will kill: loss of suit/ship/hab integrity, and lack of fuel.


The first of these is losing oxygen: no amount of fuel, jet packs, or supplies are of any use without that.

This is obviously a metaphor, and the one thing that all pressurised containers do, is they mimic earth with her atmosphere and ability to exchange clean air for dirty, and they do it specifically relevant to the individual. Someone else having a working suit won’t save you – in Gravity, the first death is seen when flight engineer Shariff takes a piece of debris right through his head, and it’s quite a shocking image of the hole through both his helmet, and the protection of his skull.

Watney meanwhile fights constant battles against depressurisation, using variously his own blood, gaffa tape, and specialist repair kits to retain some suit & hab integrity.

The lesson I take from this is: you need your own actual world, safe within designated parameters, which (as well as basic needs like food and home) may include time as well as space, with goals of some kind, a vision of what you want to accomplish, and the internal structure to keep that in place. Any damage to those requires prompt maintenance, and any method which repairs that is good, no matter how bodged together at first.

Loss of this world, or allowing it to be damaged and not hastening to repair it, risks everything. Exposure to a vacuum, a (mental) space without boundaries and the ability to replenish, is catastrophic.

And it has to be self-sustaining, not just a bubble of air while will run out. So check your filters, whatever they may be, and see where things are going to be coming from in future as well as right now.


Second of the two must-haves is fuel – the methods of getting from one place to another, and more specifically, the method of pushing towards or against something.

Without that, again, in both movies you die: Kowalski specifically sets himself adrift to die, because he’s run out of fuel in his suit, and his trajectory is pulling Ryan away from the ISS. Later, Ryan uses landing fuel, depressurisation, and a fire extinguisher to push herself towards the things she wants.

In the Martian, despite calculations for the final launch, shortage of ability to push away from Mars’ gravity and towards the Hermes almost kills Watney, and the Hermes finally pushes itself to intercept by depressurising the hull. So in both movies, at desperate extremes, the characters use whatever’s available to give that crucial push.

The lesson I take from this is: going towards a thing or from a thing requires fuel, a burning, a sacrifice of some kind, even a risk of some aspect of one’s “world” (planned depressurisation per above) in order to keep going, or cross a critical distance.

Running out of fuel completely will result in a slow death amongst the absolute nothingness of no-resistance, and might even drag others with you, something Kowalski realised.

And he had ample fuel to begin with, but was using it to putz around – while he can’t have known, it cost him his life.

What fuel do I have? What emergency reserves (fire extinguisher, Hermes’ refill of atmosphere) do I have? Can I add to my backups? Am I wasting fuel because I’ve forgotten the seriousness of my environment?

Those are the two have-or-die elements.


Third and common to both is the danger of false, invalid, or misunderstood, comms, or signals:

In Gravity, after reaching Soyuz and failing to break free with the jets, Ryan discovers the main fuel tank is empty, and she’s also tuning into comms with a man she can’t understand, whose painfully domestic and happy life, laughing, with his dogs and a baby, seems to cause her to feel hopeless.

She’s listening to him sing a lullaby and seems to decide that’s as good as anything to die to (she asks him to keep singing), so she begins shutting down her systems, so she’ll die to the sound of comforting human voice.

In The Martian, Watney’s suit cuts out, causing the crew to believe he’s dead, and that’s how the whole situation starts.

The lesson I take from this is: comms which imply “it’s over” are not relevant, because they may be false, and in any event human will & ingenuity is the deciding factor.

And in Ryan’s case, she hallucinates Kowalski returns, shaking free knowledge at the back of her own mind about a final reserve of fuel, so her inner comms – which are illusory – serve her better than the real radio signal. Watney meanwhile uses existing knowledge of hexadecimals to turn a tiny signal into a complex alphabet.

He also – and this is more powerful in the book than the movie – sets Voyager’s aerial to send and receive from Earth, and waking the next day, sees that it has aligned perfectly, which tells him that not only does he have a link, but also, that people on Earth know he’s alive, and are listening out for him.

This is almost the reverse of Ryan’s comms, but because Watney knows what it means he’s instantly no longer the loneliest man in history, and receives a kind of hug from the entire planet in knowing that someone’s looking for him, that they know he’s still alive.

In both instances, the characters also have to ignore uncertainty: Stone reports “in the blind” to Houston in the hope that someone’s picking up her signals, something which seems more psychologically important given how unlikely rescue is, and it’s also the way she marks, and then moves beyond, Kowalski’s death.

And in The Martian, in the book (but not movie) Watney loses comms again, and has to proceed blindly to the rendezvous at the second MAV, putting faith that he’ll be rescued ahead of seeming loss of connection. Both instances ignore “reality” and focus on moving forward to do the things which grant the best chance of success.


Fourth and common to both: changing an unthinking habit to save your life. Miscategorisation, improvisation, “will anything work?”

Ryan’s hallucination tells her that the Soyuz possesses a small amount of extra fuel to give it a soft-landing, knowledge she possessed but hadn’t reviewed in the context of using it as thrust to travel to the Chinese space station. This saves her life and also, is the crucial moment in which she decides that she’s going to fight, and her physical movements past that point become notably less stiff, she seems less afraid – she’s seen what’s at stake, looked death in the eye, and used it as a springboard.

There are few things more routine than using a lavatory, and yet Watney only saves his own life when he realises the bacteria could be the catalyst for growing food; without dwelling too much, he reverses a habit we’re taught from infancy, get poop as far away as possible, and it saves him.

The lesson I took from this is: habitual things could actually kill you, examine them carefully to discover whether they contain the turning point in any situation. What’s being wasted?


And fifth, as importantly, similar to my insight that our greatest weakness is often the flipside of our greatest strength – without its parachute the Soyuz can’t land, that’s the whole problem, and Watney won’t be pooping long if he starts to starve to death.

In both cases the weakness contained the solution.


Sixth symbol is a return to the beginning, womblike, as a respite:

Ryan enters the ISS and immediately strips off her space suit and curls into a fetal position, it’s the first moment of safety she experiences (albeit temporary) and it comes after she’s lost her entire crew, Kowalski especially, and seen that the Soyuz is unusable. Still, she takes that moment in the weightlessness of space to return to her earliest form. Similar images of female astronauts in a fetal position occur in the Aliens movies, as a punctuation point amidst the various dangers.

Watney (more in the book) realises he’s able to take unlimited hot baths, albeit after almost blowing himself up, and by using a dangerous nuclear core as a heater, and that return to warmth and water helps him keep doing difficult manual work on a restricted diet (plus the whole headfuck of thinking himself totally lost).

The lesson I took from this is that punctuating extreme danger at the edges of human experience with equally extreme reversion to primal safety is highly important. There’s no need to live on the edge all the time, or be always surrounded by objects and signifiers of the difficulties you face.


The seventh symbol is loss & entanglement as being unavoidable:

This is the striking image from Gravity – during Kowalski’s initial rescue, and later when navigating to enter the ISS, and when trying to free the Soyuz from the burning station, the sickening, yawing, pendulum-like ties to another object with mass, in the absence of gravity (and friction) cause damaging collisions and almost cause Ryan’s death several times over – she also expends the Soyuz’s main fuel trying to free the module from its parachute, and, shatteringly, watches Kowalski drift to his death because his tie to her was about to pull her loose as well.

The things she’s tied to are important, anchoring her, saving & carrying her one step further towards final landfall, but they smash her about, as much relative to themselves, and to laws beyond her control, as to her own desired trajectory.

In The Martian, a recurring theme is that each problem Watney solves rapidly brings a new and bigger problem in its wake, and yet (just like Ryan and her ties) each one is a necessary step towards survival and eventual rescue.

Neither character has a clean, problem-free progression from the initial crisis to their final safety, and nor do they allow the fact that each stage carries problems, and is messy, resulting in various irrevocable losses, to ultimately deter them from persevering, and continuing with their quest to survive.

The lesson I took from this is: what may seem like setbacks, or “it’s a sign” etc are probably just unavoidable parts of the progress, and that some losses (Kowalski, Watney’s live soil when the hab depressurises) will be irrevocable, painful, and yet are not a “sign from on high” that it’s all over.


The eighth and final (for now!) thing I took from these is, be mindful with any change-of-state:

Each time Ryan opens an airlock from space into first, the ISS, then the Chinese station, she’s almost thrown clear (and to her death) by the sudden rush of air, although she could have taken a split second to add a fabric tether somewhere nearby (that’s some serious Monday morning quarterbacking, obviously). And then at the end, she blows the Soyuz door, and almost drowns escaping the module. The Soyuz is burning, so not a safe place to stay for long, but she could have removed her suit inside and not had to struggle to swim wearing a gigantic bucket, with its round open neck.

Watney uses the same airlock entrance to the hab as a matter of habit, which weakens it, and he almost dies, and kills all his soil and the possibility of future crops, as a result. If the Hermes crew hadn’t returned for him, that would have killed him despite every effort, just like Ryan surviving space, to almost drown on earth.

The lesson I took from this is: where a portal exists between a condition of relative safety and one which is hostile, remember to be cautious, and don’t let relief or habit cause sloppiness to kick in. If the catches on the battered Russian suit had got stuck, Ryan would have drowned, and that was an avoidable risk, as was Watney’s repeated use of the same airlock on what he knew to be a temporary structure, not built to last.

Taking for granted the ease of switching between states brings risk – remember and check for this. Possibly review your procedures, and consider whether a pattern could backfire. What am I not seeing, which would be obvious to an observer?

… so, that’s my extremely wordy nerdy processing, don’t know whether it’s of use/interest, but I got a lot from it and did find where my mad, bad, but also, interesting, unease was coming from. :thinking:

There may be more to come, there are far more ways to get Home than this post can ever say. :sunglasses:


That’s a lot of words :see_no_evil: but seriously going to book mark this to keep it and actually read. Thank you for posting it!


Omg. Just read all of this. Superb analysis and more importantly superb advice. This honestly reminds me of the way that really smart self help people distill complex and nuanced facts of life into bite sized (comparatively) nuggets of information. Seriously I feel like people could save years of time by understanding and applying this stuff. Thank you again❤

1 Like

Yess, space is great!

Btw, I saw a really interesting YouTube video about Mars. Since it has pretty much no electromagnetic field like Earth does the whole planet has been severly irradiated, so astronauts on Mars couldn’t afford to let any martian dirt enter their stations. They even designed these strange suits with huge backs that connect to the station so you can crawl backwards out of the suit and into the station, as a way to make sure no irradiated dirt gets in.