Could the 'F9' Family Really Take a Car to Space?
We asked some physicists about sending a Pontiac Fiero rocket into orbit.
Well, they finally did it. In F9, members of the Fast family go to space. Specifically, Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Ludacris) enter orbit in a souped-up Pontiac Fiero with some help from the dudes from Tokyo Drift as part of a plan to disable a satellite that will give the villainous Otto (Thue Ersted Rasmussen) world domination capabilities. The sequence is just as intended: ridiculous and hilarious. But, as Roman flails around nervously—he was apparently eating candy in the spacecraft—while Tej negs him and tries to maintain his cool as they zoom out of Earth's atmosphere, we had to ask ourselves: Could you really catapult a car into outer space?
Director Justin Lin has been insisting that he did his due diligence, explaining in an interview with Vulture that he consulted with NASA scientists when he was figuring out the details of the excursion. Knowing absolutely nothing about space travel myself, I decided to get on the phone with some actual physicists to unpack just what it would take to get a junky '80s sports car into the sky.
Is Roman and Tej's trip at all plausible? The short answer: Yes, with some caveats, according to Helen Johnston, who is currently pursuing a master's in aerospace engineering. Johnston has not seen the film yet, but examining a photo of the Fiero, she believes the engine strapped to the top of the vehicle would get them into orbit.
"The payload of the car, even accounting for the weight of the engine, is still a lot less than the thrust of one rocket engine," she explains. For example, the Fiero is only about 31 Kilonewtons—equal to 6,969 lbs—compared to the 854 Kilonewtons of the Merlin SpaceX rocket.
Axel Schmidt, an assistant professor at George Washington University specializing in nuclear physics, is concerned that Roman and Tej would not have had enough fuel to get into orbit. (Schmidt also hasn't seen the film yet, as it wasn't released when we spoke. Both he and Johnston are excited to watch it based on everything I told them about the space scenes.)
"To get a rocket to put the Pontiac into orbit would have to be really big," he says. "I was trying to run some numbers. It's something like 7,000 meters per second of orbital velocity that you have to get up to. There's a reason these orbital rockets are multistage, multiple story rockets." He imagines that you might need to strap the rockets to the bottom of the Fiero.
But Johnston isn't too worried about that considering how the guys get into space. Sean (Lucas Black), the hero of the third Fast and Furious installment, pilots the Pontiac into the sky via a plane. "They are starting off high enough and they are trying to use some of the gravity and their velocity from their plane already, which gives themselves a little bit of a head start in terms of getting into orbit," she says. "To get into orbit, you only have to be going 17,000 miles per hour, which seems pretty high, but when you think about the fact that you are already flying at 50,000 feet, there's going to be a lot less air resistance because you are losing atmosphere, the oxygen is going, everything in the atmosphere is basically disappearing."
F9 establishes that Sean, Earl (Virgil Hu), and Twinkie (Bow Wow) have been working on rockets in Cologne, Germany, and Johnston is, frankly, impressed with the work they do outfitting the Fiero for space travel. "I love what they've done with this Fiero here in terms of all the riveting," which is what bolts the outer plating together, she says. "I worked in aerospace for seven years and there are a lot of considerations when you are going even from the ground into cruising altitude and then taking that next step into space. The first one is, you are going through the atmosphere so there's going to be a lot more rattling around. So I love all these rivets: You can really see how they've souped up the car. The worst thing you could have is a single point failure. As soon as you put multiple rivets, each rivet is doing less and less work, you have a higher margin of safety in terms of the potential failure mode for any of those rivets."
The work the Tokyo Drift pals have done outfitting the car means that Roman and Tej could survive the grand finale where they end up having to crash into the satellite to disable it instead of doing so via big, powerful magnets, which was their earlier plan. "If they've ruggedized their car at the beginning of their process to sustain a reentry, then I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility that a smallish explosion of the satellite would have forces and pressures against their car that exceed the ratings of the design," Johnston says.
But one area that tests our open-minded scientists' suspension of disbelief is the fact that Roman and Tej wear deep sea diving suits rather than space suits. "That's the opposite of what you want," Schmidt says. "You need to hold air at pressure to breathe it against space which has zero pressure, and a submarine diving suit is designed to hold an enormous amount of water pressure out and a low pressure of air in." Johnston agrees, but suggested a potential workaround: "They could maybe switch two wires around, and all of a sudden they are negative pressure suits and they work in space."
Ultimately, both Schmidt and Johnston wanted to note that once you're in orbit, the basic rules of driving that have sustained the Fast franchise for so long go out the window. You can't just point a rocket ship Pontiac Fiero at your target and stomp on the gas. In space, no one can hear your NOS.
"You'll get in this big weird elliptical orbit," Schmidt says. "You don't point your nose where you want to go." They are going fast, but not very furious. In fact, you can cut the engines once you reach orbit, Johnston explains. "Most of these satellites that are in low orbit are going 17,000 miles per hour," she says. In the Fast fam's arsenal of earthbound sports cars, "they are usually going 120 miles per hour. So [in orbit], that's, like, 14, 15 times faster. But no engines. I guess it's not so furious if you don't have the engine roaring."