Suppose you are an astronaut out in space. You have nothing with you except your wits and … a fire extinguisher? Why a fire extinguisher? Because that’s what Sandra Bullock’s character has in the movie Gravity. Because a fire extinguisher shoots out gas (normally to put out a fire), it can also be used to produce thrust and help you maneuver in space. But would this really work? That is what the MythBusters, for whom I’m a science consultant, set out to test in a recent episode.
The MythBusters started by trying to create a similar situation on the surface of the Earth. They used a leaf blower to fashion a one-person hovercraft (it’s not too hard to build one yourself). They let it loose on an ice rink, which pretty much eliminated the frictional force. Then they used a fire extinguisher for thrust and tried maneuvering around on the ice.
It turned out that the fire extinguisher wasn’t so great for controlling the motion of the hovercraft. [...]