Houston, we have a problem

Share this page
<i>Mir</i> with Earth in the background

Michael Foale with a model of Mir. Image © Mathematical Sciences Research Institute.

"That's when I thought, 'this could be the moment we all die'. The de-pressurisation alarm went off and this meant that there really was a hole in the station. I felt the pressure fall in my ears. And then it got cold. Really, really cold."

No, it's not a quote from Gravity, but the words of astronaut Michael Foale recalling an incident in 1997 that nearly cost him his life. Foale's story has all the ingredients for a movie: a damaged space station, no ground communications, no power, and only one chance to get it right. The crew used the soyuz's thrusters — their only means of getting back home — to control the station's chaotic spin. Their main tools were their brains and the basic maths of motion. As Foale put it, "You cannot be an effective mission designer, astronaut, flight controller or engineer if you don't know maths."

Read our interview with Foale for some real-life adventure, space and maths, or watch the Gravity trailer below.

  • Want facts and want them fast? Our Maths in a minute series explores key mathematical concepts in just a few words.