[Note: I originally wrote this back on March 7th, but in going through old posts, I noticed that I never published it. The movie has been out a sufficient amount of time now that there are no spoilers…]
OK, so we went and saw the Astronaut Farmer this past weekend (I should add, parenthetically, that it’s the second movie I’ve seen in a theatre since I moved down here, two and a half years ago.
Forget about “suspension of disbelief.” Think complete abandonment of disbelief. On rocketry, on combustion, on radio communications, on basic physics, on how the government works, on how people work, on…almost anything correlating to reality that you want to imagine.
But I’m not panning the movie. As long as you follow my advice, and empty your head of the notion that this is a movie about how a private citizen might actually get into space, it’s an enjoyable flick, and entertaining for the whole family (well, other than a couple naughty words).
Yes, I could spend the evening disquisiting on all the things they got wrong in the flick–the notion that one could launch from a barn without it being a smoldering crater afterward; the notion that a rocket could propel itself a few feet off the ground horizontally for miles, with gravity having no effect; the notion that a Mercury capsule could survive the end of that trip, after being launched off a cliff and roll amidst the desert scrub, intact with its occupant alive; the notion that the government would assemble a team from every conceivable (and several unconceivable) government entities in a high-school gym to determine whether or not he could fly; the notion that a man and his fifteen-year-old son could single (OK, dual) handedly assemble an Atlas-Mercury from antique spare parts scrounged from NASA junkyards and have it work, and not only work, but magically have it land where it took off (even though the original landed in the ocean, and not the desert southwest) after a power failure that was fixed (as all things are fixed in movies, by banging on the equipment with a closed fist). Forget all that.
With a little consulting from people who actually understand this stuff, it could have been made a little more realistic, but realism didn’t seen ti be the film makers’ goal–magic was. It’s a movie about dreams, and governments, and the intrinsic conflict between the two. Forget the physics and politics, and focus on the metaphor.
In fact, the movie hit very close to home for me, because I and my family have sacrificed a great deal for a similar dream for many years, with success still eluding us (though perhaps that situation is improving). But nowhere to the same extent as Charles Farmer, and I’d like to think that (despite his movie success) I understand a little more about how politics, business and even rockets work than he seemed to.
In a sense, the way that the development of space will eventually play out is somewhere in between the two cartoonish extremes depicted in the movie. It won’t be done by a big-govenment program, and it won’t be done by a determined man in his garage. It will be done by private entities that are already formed and forming, that will take the smart things that NASA has learned over the years (like range safety, and not launching your rocket next to the house), and try to shed a lot of the unproductive ones that are driven by pork-driven politics and institutional inertia. The minimal hope for from government, for both terrestrial and extraterrestrial endeavors, is to facilitate their dreams, rather than hinder them.