The legendary composer discovered that children would have to pedal their bikes at 17,500 miles per hour to fly past the moon.
John Williams won his fourth Academy Award for “” and his whimsical music undeniably played a big part in creating the film’s magic that turned it into a childhood favorite of many cinephiles. But the film still raises questions for Williams that movie magic couldn’t answer.
In a conversation with Steven Spielberg at the US Cinematheque’s ‘Spielberg/Williams: 50 Years of Music and Movies’ event, Williams revealed that ‘ET’ is his favorite film directed by Spielberg.
“It’s hard to say because I think Saving Private Ryan is the best World War II story ever made,” Williams said. But I think “ET” is Steven’s masterpiece. It’s almost a perfect movie.”
But the 90-year-old composer didn’t completely sell the physics of one of his most famous scenes. Williams explained that it always bothered him how fast Elliott and his friends had to pedal their bikes to fly by the moon.
“The speed of the bikes going up over the moon … it always bothered me a little bit, especially when I was driving,” he said. “I always think to myself, what’s the escape velocity? How fast do you have to be to lift it out of gravity? I never knew what it was, but it was on my mind.”
After pondering the question for decades, Williams finally took matters into his own hands. When NASA awarded him the Outstanding Public Life Achievement Medal in 2022, he took the opportunity to consult with an astronaut about the science of “ET”.
“I went to the Kennedy Center last year to do something musically, and NASA decided to give me an award,” he said. “The man who introduced it to me was an astronaut, and in a quiet moment I asked him, ‘What is escape velocity?’ And he said, “17,500 miles per hour. What happens is you get on a spaceship and go from zero to 17,500 miles per hour in eight minutes.
Williams continued: “He said, ‘We’re in the cabin for eight minutes, shaking like crazy, it’s deafening and confusing. Then you finally get up, you reach 17.5 and suddenly everything stops and there is no gravity and there is complete silence. He said there is a minute of silence before we begin the procedures after we break out of gravity. And let’s look at Earth and play “Star Wars”.
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