John Williams Consulted NASA When He Had Doubts About the Science of ‘E.T.’

The legendary composer found out that kids would have to pedal their bikes at 17,500 miles per hour in order to fly past the moon.
E.T., Henry Thomas, E. T., 1982. © Universal Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection
"E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial"
©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

John Williams won his fourth Oscar for his work on “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” and his whimsical music played an undeniably large role in creating the movie magic that turned the film into a childhood favorite for so many cinephiles. But the film still left Williams with some questions that movie magic couldn’t answer.

In a conversation with Steven Spielberg at an American Cinematheque event titled “Spielberg/Williams: 50 Years of Music and Movies,” Williams revealed that “E.T.” is his favorite movie that Spielberg has directed.

“It’s tough to say, because I think ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is the best Second World War story ever made,” Williams said. “But I think ‘E.T.’ might be Steven’s masterpiece. It’s almost a perfect film.”

But the 90-year-old composer is not completely sold on the physics of one of its most famous scenes. Williams went on to explain that he has always been confused about how fast Elliott and his friends would have to be pedaling their bicycles in order to fly past the moon.

“The speed of the bicycles that lift up over the moon… that’s always bothered me a little bit, especially when I’m conducting it,” he said. “I’m always thinking to myself, what is the escape velocity? How fast do you have to be going to be able to lift it out of gravity? I never knew what that was, but it was on my mind.”

After decades of pondering the question, Williams eventually took matters into his own hands. When NASA awarded him its Exceptional Public Achievement Medal in 2022, he took the opportunity to consult an astronaut about the science of “E.T.”

“Last year I went to the Kennedy Center to do something musically and NASA decided to give me an award,” he said. “The man presenting it to me was an astronaut, and in a quiet moment I said to him, ‘What is escape velocity?’ And he said, ‘It’s 17,500 miles an hour. What happens is you get on a spaceship, and it takes eight minutes to get from zero to 17,500 miles per hour.'”

Williams continued: “He said, ‘For eight minutes we’re in the cabin, we’re shaking like crazy, it’s deafening and disorienting. Then you finally get up, you reach 17.5, and suddenly everything stops and there’s no gravity and it’s completely quiet. He said we have a minute of silence before we start our procedures once we break from gravity. And we look at the Earth and we play ‘Star Wars.””

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