Friday, June 05, 2009

Any Political Implications Are Left As An Exercise For The Reader.

I just watched the 2006 movie The Astronaut Farmer on DVD. It's about a guy who never finished astronaut training, thus missing out on his dream of going into space, so he builds his own rocket in his barn. In many respects, it's a reasonably good movie, or at least one with a certain amount of low-key charm. And, man, if they had to pick one ambition that'd be almost guaranteed to resonate with me personally, the desire to get into space is most definitely it.

And yet I have to say, there were a couple of things about it that really rubbed me the wrong way, though I think they're things that are less about this movie in particular and more about movie trends in general. First off, this is one of those classic American celebrations of rugged, can-do individualism. Which I don't actually object to. I happen to think that innovation and individuality are great things, but of course what tends to happen in movies is that if you're celebrating one thing you have to do it by demonizing something else. So here we have NASA and the FAA and various other government agencies acting as the baddies who are actively trying to squelch our poor hero's dreams, apparently because he's attempting to steal their glory or is likely to prove that they're not as necessary as they want people to think. Which strikes me as downright slanderous. The truth is that the private spaceflight industry, while still in its infancy, is growing and thriving, and is in fact getting quite a bit of official encouragement and support. Of course, these aren't guys building rockets in their barns all on their lonesome. These are teams of smart, knowledgeable people working together. Which, y'know, is how we got to the moon in the first place. So, OK, rugged individualism, yay, but let's give a little credit to teamwork, too, huh, because it's achieved some damned impressive things.

The other issue that bugs me is that the theme or moral of this story, as with so very, very many other Hollywood stories, is more or less: "If you believe in your dreams, you can do anything. Never, ever give up, even if people think you're crazy." Which sounds great because, sure, people who don't try don't succeed, and if you want to accomplish great things you have to be willing to take risks and not worry too much about what the neighbors think, and so on. Call me cynical, though, but the extreme version of this that you usually get in these kinds of movies -- and that you certainly get in this one -- strikes me as a really bad message. Because, let's face it, sometimes crazy ideas really are just plain crazy. And more often than not, turning a deaf ear to all attempts to present you with a reality check is a recipe for disaster. I think a much, much better message, and one I'd love to see presented more often, would be "Dream smart." Because dreams are good. But people who dream stupid don't get into outer space. People who dream stupid win Darwin Awards instead.


  1. So did this guy who was "building a rocket in his barn" come up with a Goddard-type rocket, or an honest to goodness get-me-into-space rocket with huge engines and liquid oxygen and other regulated materials that no one noticed he was acquiring (not to mention that 300 foot tall missile sticking out of the middle of all those cows)?

  2. He built an honest-to-goodness get-me-into-space rocket. For which I tried very hard to suspend my disbelief, with not huge amounts of success, although I probably would have done better at it if I'd liked the movie more.

    In fairness, the government did notice he was buying regulated materials and came to investigate. And everybody for miles around knew he was doing it, although he did keep it in the barn. (He put a retractable roof on it.)