The Astronaut Farmer

The Astronaut Farmer. Spring Creek Pictures 2006.

Before watching the movie:

What I’m most interested in about this story of an ex-astronaut who had to quit NASA to save the farm, but then decides to build his own rocket, is how the movie makes it plausible that one man can build a rocket on his own. The farm must be doing really well to be able to afford that kind of DIY equipment.

It’s meant as a feel-good story about Following Your Dreams™, but it’s just about the most extreme way to depict it. Solo rocketry projects are most likely to end up with the hobbyist spread across the landscape, no matter how much of an expert in engineering the rocketeer is.

After watching the movie:

Everyone in his small Texas town knows Charles Farmer is building a rocket in his barn. Most think his obsession with going to space, a dream deferred when his father died and he had to leave his “astronaut” career path and take over the ranch, is a fantasy he’s overindulging. His family is entirely behind him, but maybe they wouldn’t be if they knew the bank is at least as close to foreclosing as he is to liftoff, or would be if Homeland Security wasn’t determined to ground his “missile”.

Charles’s hobby doesn’t seem to be nearly the financial drain one would expect. Of course, the fuel be needs costs him a seventh mortgage, but the hardware seems to be treated as trivial. Much of it is salvaged from scrap, but even so, I doubt scrap parts turn into a rocket that’s not only space worthy, but impressive to everyone who sees it, with just hard work and engineering knowhow. That’s what makes it science fiction. The FAA inquisitor suggests that the orbit is much more difficult than Charles thinks, but as long as you have a good craft, the trajectories are just math.

Even for a rural town, I was surprised how out of time the setting seemed to be. There’s a passing reference to the internet, and the FBI agents are the only ones who use cell phones. Then I realized that the modern technology I was expecting to see didn’t exist until after smartphones went mainstream the following year. The computers we do see wouldn’t seem too out of place in a space race story because the software is custom and so just text readout terminals. All the styles could be from the 60s because it’s a small town where styles don’t change much and the newest architecture was built decades ago.

The extreme lengths this story takes the Follow Your Dreams moral to is often outlandish. The main character is trying to do something everyone knows can’t be done, and then he goes and makes it happen anyway. Despite resolute ridicule and opposition. The real dream is that such a thing could actually work, and if he can make it to his dream, so can we. A dream not well endorsed by the absurdity of the example shown.

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