Rebirth of Reason

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The Astronaut Farmer (2007)

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, Bruce Dern, Tim Blake Nelson
Director: Michael Polish
Sanctions: 5
Sanctions: 5
The Astronaut Farmer
WARNING: This review contains both spoilers and buzz killers!  Read at your own risk.

Introduction and Context Setting

Before I even start reviewing the movie, I had better set context with some autobiographical information.

Many readers of this site know that my parents raised me on a cattle farm in North Carolina.  I spent many hours plowing the fields, feeding and herding cows, bailing hay, and harvesting grain.  Fortunately, my parents also had active minds, loved reading and learning, and had a complete set of encyclopedias as well as regular subscriptions to Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Reader's Digest, and numerous other periodicals.

Between access to those reading materials, my adequate education in public school, and the few television channels we could receive, I eventually cultivated an interest in science and especially aerospace engineering.  I had fantasies of building my own airplane or rocket ship right there on the farm and leaving the ground to soar into the heavens.  In the meanwhile, I built and launched model rockets from the kits of such toy manufacturers as Estes and Centuri.  The ample acreage of the farm and considerable safety measures built into the small rockets -- confined small amounts of solid rocket fuel, fire retardant wadding, no altitudes reached to intrude into airplane zones, and so forth -- meant my launches posed no credible hazards to persons or properties.

As I matured in high school and decided to pursue a career with NASA, my advisor suggested mechanical engineering (ME) rather than aerospace engineering (AE) as a college major.  He correctly observed that NASA hires as many or more mechanical engineers than aerospace engineers and that ME majors enjoy a much wider range of occupational choices than do AE majors.  So I majored in ME at North Carolina State University and sure enough, within two years I had managed to land a job as a student intern at NASA in Florida in January 1986.

After completing my degree and internship, I commenced full time work at NASA in January 1989.  Having finally become totally responsible for myself and officially off my parents' dole, I had the good fortune of stumbling across Charles Givens' financial bestseller Wealth without Risk.  I had only just started reading Ayn Rand near the end of college in 1988, so the ideas of capitalism and self-interest I began studying vigorously married well with the Givens book.  Since college curricula teach none of this, I scrutinized Givens with great gusto and began to incorporate his lessons into my financial plan.  I learned all I could about mortgages, foreclosures, insurance, assets, liabilities, taxes, and so forth.  I purchased a house within two years of starting my full time employment, began investing in mutual funds, and implemented other efficiencies to maximize the value of every dollar earned.  His second book, Financial Self-Defense, reinforced much of the material in his first book while also presenting larger, deeper, more profound "life blueprint" concepts such as the dreams list, values list, and goals list.  For Givens, money did not simply represent an end in itself, but ultimately means to ends, with those ends being the realization of dreams and goals in alignment with core values.

This idea of realizing dreams in accordance with values also resonated both with Objectivism and with the NASA mission.  I will do as Ayn Rand did in her essay "Apollo 11" and set aside the problem of government engaging in an activity outside its proper role.  The bottom line remains the same: NASA set an ambitious goal of putting a man on the moon, exercised massive action aligned with reason, and achieved that goal.  The organization did this through a massive learning curve that involved tremendous amounts of manpower, skill, and, yes, money.  Had a private entity undertaken this enterprise, the need for such massive investment of resources would not have changed.

In particular, anyone engaged in this undertaking must necessarily pay attention to issues of safety.  Rockets inherently have massive explosive power that require very judicious preparation and launch to prevent posing undue hazards, not just to those who choose to risk themselves, but all others as well.  Those who have seen footage of rocket disasters will readily grasp this proposition.  Early American rocket launches exploded regularly on the pad or shortly after liftoff.  At least one Russian rocket exploded while technicians worked on it at the pad.  A Chinese rocket recently cleared the launch tower before it turned horizontally, screamed across the land, and exploded in a violent fireball that killed an entire village.

Romantic Realism Revisited

The Objectivist aesthetics holds romantic realism as the artistic ideal.  This means characters taking actions motivated by their own chosen values in a plot that has full credibility.  Even Atlas Shrugged, with its fantastic science fiction concepts of an invisibility screen hiding an entire valley and a power system that generates dynamic current flow from static atmospheric electricity, qualifies because such concepts rely on new physics that the genius inventor John Galt discovers.  In that sense, such fictional abstracts qualify for the realistic part of romantic realism.

As someone familiar with currently accepted physics and sound engineering concepts, I always cringed when I watched television shows like The Cape that abusively distorted such concepts beyond recognition.  That fictional show traced the lives and livelihoods of NASA shuttle astronauts on Earth and in space.  I could never watch the show without rolling my eyes and screaming about the utter impossibility of some of the plot twists.  To keep domestic tranquility, I finally quit trying, handed the remote control to my wife, and left the room.  That show failed the realistic part of romantic realism.

Romanticism Divorced from Realism

All of this background information brings me to the subject of this review, the new film The Astronaut Farmer.  The story centers on Charles Farmer, a family man who earned his way into the astronaut training corps.  He resigned from that program to save his family farm from foreclosure after his father's suicide.  Having forfeited his dream of becoming an official NASA astronaut, he spends all his spare time and every nickel he can earn, beg or borrow to realize his goal of space travel.  Through purchases at spacecraft junkyards and other venues, he manages to build in his barn at Atlas rocket with a Mercury capsule nearly identical to that which launched John Glenn into Earth orbit decades ago.  Farmer's ambitious goal unifies his wife and three children into something his wife says would otherwise qualify as "just another dysfunctional family."  Everyone in Farmer's small rural town knows of Farmer's talk of launching into space, and they all consider him basically either joking or nuts.

After government surveillance discovers Farmer's quest to purchase ten thousand pounds of rocket fuel, a variety of alphabet soup agencies descend to his property to place him "under investigation."  Bruce Willis makes an appearance as a successful astronaut who discourages Farmer from attempting the launch, claiming that "they" do not want Farmer to make NASA people look like fools for spending billions of dollars while Farmer manages to launch into space for hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Meanwhile, Farmer faces numerous challenges from his banker to whom he finds himself in hock for $600,000 in part due to his father's debts.  When the bank threatens to foreclose, Farmer responds by wrapping the foreclosure notice around a brick and throwing the brick through the banker's window.  This act of vandalism leads to a court hearing which sentences Farmer to a psychiatric evaluation that assesses Farmer as psychologically unstable.

Farmer's wife, kept in the dark about the dire straits of their finances, eventually learns the truth about their pending homelessness and destitution and confronts her husband in front of the children.  A fight ensues, and Farmer decides to launch his rocket with no assistance from his family.  The mixture of kerosene and hydrazine does not prove itself and the rocket fails to produce the needed thrust.  Instead, it turns sideways, bursts from the barn and blasts past bystanders, then rockets across the landscape before reaching a rocky knoll that knocks the capsule free and sends it bouncing down a hill and across a flat.  Finding him seriously injured, his family takes him to a hospital to recover.  The town withdraws the moral support they had gradually mounted in his favor, and Farmer's dream seemingly vanishes.

As the family gradually heals both emotionally and physically, a sad event strikes: Farmer's father-in-law dies of old age.  The resulting substantial inheritance not only offers enough cash to bring the bank debt current and thus stop the foreclosure, it leaves enough remaining to purchase the parts needed for Farmer to make a second launch attempt.  With his family's full support, Farmer rebuilds his rocket and eventually launches into space despite the denials to the contrary of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  A technical glitch on orbit nearly leaves Farmer stranded in his Mercury capsule on orbit, but eventually he manages to get his spacecraft working again and conducts his retrorocket burn, experiences a blazing reentry, and parachutes back into the Texas plains for the joyful welcome of his family in their pickup truck.

The closing credits show Farmer hailed as a hero, enjoying parades and interviews and generally having a swell life.

Lord Buzz Killer Speaks

I wanted to like this movie without reservations or complaints.  I really did.  No, really.  The title alone resonated with my soul.  But a little thing called "reality" got in the way.

I have made statements on this site in past years that have had some readers label me as a "buzz killer."  My ruthless adherence to realistic expectations -- my demand that emotion ultimately remain subservient to reason -- has not changed.  While I agreed with the general theme of this film that a man ought to pursue his dreams passionately despite overwhelming obstacles, I could not simply shut from my consciousness or conscience its glaring shortcomings.

Show Me the Cash Flow Statement

For starters, Farmer managed to get himself into this mess in the first place because he quit NASA to "save his family."  This begs many questions, one of which the Willis character asked: Does NASA really want an astronaut in its ranks who cannot deal with the tragic loss of a family member in a productive fashion?  More to the point, if Farmer had such an urge to save the family farm, why does he then put it at risk once again with a high risk venture totally unrelated to farming?  Does his "dream" entitle him to sacrifice the dreams of the banker, his account holders, and all others whose money Farmer puts at risk by not honoring the payback schedule of his many mortgages?

Some Objectivists might see Farmer as an exemplar of the Orren Boyle School of Financial Management.

Show Me the Safety Plan

Objectivists understand that not only do others have no right to sacrifice self but self also has no right to sacrifice others.  This would include not putting others in harm's way without their permission.  As someone with years of experience in the rocket science industry, I can say without compunction that the safety issues alone with Farmer's "dream" would offer adequate motive for government to interfere.  I would expect anyone who values his life and does not want it destroyed would want some rigorous enforcement of property rights so that one man's miscalculation does not result in the deaths of many, many others.

Show Me the Actual Consequences

The entire episode with the sideways rocket failure illustrates my point.  An actual sideways launch as shown in the movie would most likely have resulted in a massive pad explosion.  Even if the sideways journey did take place as the film depicts, its sudden termination at the embankment would still have left enough fuel for a tremendous blast and a resulting toxic cloud.

Furthermore, the exhaust plume would most certainly have engulfed the entire barn in flames and destroyed it.  Even modern launch pads with their heavy gauge steel girders and multiple coatings of paint still experience considerable damage between launches that require constant maintenance.  Farmer's largely wooden barn would not have stood a chance and would most likely have collapsed from the shock wave alone.

The issue of liquid oxygen never even gets a mention in the entire film although without such an oxidizer, this rocket would never even launch.

I could cite many, many other technical shortcomings of this film.  But the bottom line remains the same: In no way, shape or form can this film qualify as romantic realism.


People in the network marketing company Amway have a saying:

"If the dream is big enough, facts don't matter."

That Amway promotes such a blatant myth explains why so many of its zealous followers continue to lose money yet stay in the business.  Fortunately, as an Objectivist, I know better.  Alas, the screenwriters for this movie evidently do not.

This film had a refreshing premise and rich characters coupled with a plot line grossly detached from reality.  It could have worked with a few key changes that would not insult the intelligence of viewers.  For instance, why does Farmer have to risk his family finances to work toward his dream?  Why even rely on old technology to achieve it?  A screenwriter has all the leeway in the world to fantasize ways out of these conundrums.  A genius inventor who cannot patent an invention of, say, an antigravity device because it fails to comply with accepted physics would have worked fine as a central character chasing a dream.  But the screenwriters seem so obsessed with depicting an ordinary man fighting "The Man" to achieve his dream that they ignore facts of reality than any average thinking person ought to see readily.  This evasion only undermines what could have become a truly great theatrical experience.
Added by Luke Setzer
on 3/11/2007, 9:26am

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