The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

movie scene
Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) embraces his wife (Virginia Madsen) before embarking on his flight. (credit: Warner Bros.)

Review: The Astronaut Farmer

The Astronaut Farmer
Warner Bros., 2007
104 mins., rated PG

While there have been many movies that have featured contemporary or near-future NASA astronauts, there have been far fewer about private people in the same time period traveling in space on their own, for profit or other motives. (One of the few to come to mind was actually a TV series from over 25 years ago: Salvage 1, where Andy Griffith put together a spacecraft dubbed the Vulture to go to the Moon and retrieve items left behind on the Apollo missions to later sell for profit.) With Friday’s release of The Astronaut Farmer, though, some wondered if this would be the movie that attracts the public’s interest in entrepreneurial space movement. Is this the ultimate NewSpace movie? The answer is generally—but not absolutely—no.

For those few of you who haven’t heard of the movie, a short synopsis is in order. The title character, Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton), is actually a rancher in Texas. His lifelong dream of flying in space was derailed when he left the Air Force after his father committed suicide and he had to take over the family ranch. However, while his hope of flying into space as a NASA astronaut was lost, he didn’t give up his core dream. Improbably, and quixotically, he is building a replica of an Atlas launcher and Mercury capsule in his barn; these are nearly complete when the movie begins. He has the support of his family, including wife Audie (Virginia Madsen), despite putting the ranch at risk of foreclosure, and nearby townsfolk are willing to shrug him off as just another eccentric. However, when Farmer tries to buy “10,000 pounds of rocket fuel”, he attracts some unwanted attention from the Feds; what follows, for the course of the movie, is Farmer’s battle to launch his rocket while fighting the government and racing the bank’s plans to foreclose on the ranch.

This movie isn’t meant to be a literal tale of how one man can build a rocket that can carry him into space.

If you are going into The Astronaut Farmer looking for even a moderately realistic portrayal of a private effort to reach space, you’ll be very disappointed. The idea that a single person (with some help from his teenaged son and a ranch hand who speaks only Spanish) could assemble a compete rocket and capsule on a very tight budget stretches credulity, to say the least. (The movie explains that he scavenged the parts from junkyards, but even that can’t explain matters to the literally-minded.) Technical nit-pickers will have a field day with this movie, from a barn that withstands not one but two launch attempts unscathed to a capsule oxygen supply that lasts much longer than previously stated without explanation. The filmmakers also, arguably, pick the wrong agencies as the bad guys when they single out NASA and the FAA (one of the movie’s major villains is the FAA administrator.) NASA is certainly more supportive of private space ventures now than at any point in its recent history, and the FAA has been even more willing to promote emerging space transportation efforts.

Of course, this movie isn’t meant to be a literal tale of how one man can build a rocket that can carry him into space. It’s more of a parable about the importance of following your dreams, regardless of the forces arrayed against you and the setbacks you may experience along the way, provided you have a little bit of help from your friends and family. Flying into space—reaching for the stars, in a more literal sense than usual—is simply the somewhat novel way the filmmakers chose to communicate this age-old message, and the film will be better appreciated when that thought is kept in mind.

But then, the filmmakers aren’t completely off-base with some elements of this tale. The movie takes some digs at the old belief, stated in the movie at one point by an astronaut (Bruce Willis, in an uncredited cameo), that space is for professionals only, a sore point for many NewSpace advocates. Charles Farmer is driven by a dream in this movie, and doesn’t show any interest in commercializing his vehicle for, say, space tourism, unlike many of the entrepreneurs in the real world. Yet, many of these entrepreneurs are driven in large part by their own personal dreams of spaceflight that are just as powerful as Farmer’s: after all, there are a lot of easier, faster, and higher-payoff ways for skilled businesspeople to make money than on space travel. One of them, it turns out, is actually building a rocket on a ranch in west Texas. The difference, though, is that Jeff Bezos is a billionaire who doesn’t have to worry about the bank foreclosing on his ranch. At least, not yet.