A Physicist Breaks Down ‘F9’s’ Death-Defying Stunts—Including Launching a Car Into Space
“As long as we obey the laws of physics, we’ll be fine.”
As of this week, all of us have the opportunity to see culture at its peak: In F9, the ninth installment in the Fast and the Furious franchise, Vin Diesel drives his franchise to the moon. Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson’s forever bickering characters Tej and Roman are the ones who make the giant leap into the cosmos—and as they do, the film taunts us with its audacity.
“As long as we obey the laws of physics,” Tej says, “we’ll be fine.”
In boldly bringing this franchise where no drag racer has gone before, director Justin Lin made sure to consult with experts. “I’m on the phone with scientists, learning about fuel and physics,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “It was great, having the scientists on the other line going, ‘Wait, what? What are you trying to do?’ I love it.”
So, how legit was the end result?
After emailing a healthy chunk of the New York University Physics faculty (you know, mostly the ones who seemed like they know things about space) I spoke with Masha Baryakhtar, a postdoctoral fellow specializing in particle physics who will soon join the University of Washington in a faculty position. Aided by detailed and not at all confusing explanations of the film’s stunts from this whiplashed Fast fanatic, Baryakhtar offered her expert opinion on several of the film’s stunts—including, yes, that rocket-car.
Sending a car to space on a rocket is not a totally outlandish notion; as Baryakhtar pointed out, Elon Musk launched a Tesla into space in 2018 with a dummy passenger named Starman “because he thought it would be cool to send some extra junk into space.”
But in that case, Baryakhtar said, “it took a whole big rocket ship counting down with a huge explosion, and then you kind of launched the car out of that. So if you just tell me that a rocket took a car to space, it takes a lot of work and a lot of money—but in principle, it’s actually been done, right?”
Among the chief concerns in modifying a rocket-car? Keeping the passengers from exploding in a vacuum. A first step, Baryakhtar said, would be strong insulation around the car. The insulation seen in the film does not look particularly thick, but the car did have a heat shield.
Any glass surface, like a windshield, Baryakhtar added, would be a hazard. (The car in the film appears to have modified windows.) And the final hurdle would be making sure there’s actually enough fuel to steer the vehicle afterward. No spoilers, but rest assured F9 has that angle covered.
Okay, but what about the other stunts? If one were to, say, be driving across a rope bridge that happens to rupture behind them, could they make it to the other side by vroom-vroom-ing as fast as they can like Dominic Toretto? Not exactly, Baryakhtar said. They’d drive into a cliff.
Okay, okay. But what about the one where they dash through a minefield where the explosives are spaced something like… maybe 10 feet apart?
“If you’re going very fast… you can’t turn in true sharp angles,” Baryakhtar said. “Because then you would fly out; you wouldn’t have enough friction holding you down.”
One could feasibly navigate a minefield slowly, Baryakhtar said, but not at the speed Dom and his crew tend to like.
By the time I got to Dom driving off a cliff, launching a grappling hook from his car, and then rappelling around a mountain, Baryakhtar had begun to crack the physics of the Fast universe. All of these examples, she said, could work kinematically. “It’s just a question of, like, how big the force is going to be on the people inside the car—and if they’ll all get totally smashed up.”
“All of these things, there’s a grain of truth to them,” Baryakhtar admitted. “But they’re taken to the extreme. That’s what I would say.”
All right, one more: What are the chances that someone could go straight through a billboard while fighting on the back of a moving semi and just keep on truckin’? Response: “I would say that’s a pretty clear ‘no.’”
Okay, but what if that person is John Cena? “Oh, well then yes.”