Astronaut Farmer - The Unrealistic Bits
By Michael Mealling
Last weekend I dragged the wife to see The Astronaut Farmer. Big mistake! The movie was unrealistic on several fronts but the one that struck me full in the face was the doe-eyed forgivenes of Audie Farmer (Virginia Madsen) and the complete lack of any financial/business sense in Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton). Yes, you could rail on about the barn not burning down after two engine firings or the land-shark flight that seemed to defy gravity. But this is Hollywood so we should all expect the laws of physics to be ignored with extreme prejudice. But what I didn't expect was the simplistic nature of the characters. You would think Hollywood would try and get that right.
First off, it seemed that Charlie Farmer was selectively intelligent. The man could run a 350 acre cattle ranch and rebuild an Atlas launcher and Mercury capsule, but he couldn't figure out a way to pay his mortgage? That requires an unbelievable level of tunnel vision that would have washed him out of the astronaut corp simply because he couldn't multitask. Did he have any plan for his second flight? Was he just going to find another rich relative that was about to die and squander their entire inheritance all at once?
Secondly, what woman (or bank) would have put up with 6 mortgages? The movie wasn't clear, but one assumes that Audie Farmer met and married Charles Farmer while he was in astronaut training. So you can assume that she knew that her husband had some fairly significant ambitions for the 1960s and that she bought into them to a certain degree. But there are limits that any sane wife would have set. And what about her dreams and aspirations? I half expected to hear Tammy Wynette's “Stand By Your Man” at points. And its something I've seen in business in general and the space business specifically: we neglect our wives. Yes, there are a few 'rocket' couples out there (the Millirons come to mind) but by and large this business causes our significant others a good bit of stress. That willingness to assume someone else's dreams and put up with the financial uncertainty just didn't seem to match Audie's apparent strength and drive. It just didn't seem realistic to see those very different character elements in the same person.But in the end I did get a little misty eyed when he did get into space. I did enjoy the personal validation of seeing my own dreams and aspirations portrayed on the big screen. So yea, I enjoyed the movie. But it would have been 10 times better if the characters had been more completely fleshed out and reasonable.
One a slight different note, I had two specific comments to anyone reading this who isn't from inside the industry:
1) The FAA/AST is NOT like the FAA portrayed in the movie! They are a very professional organization that is out there rooting for us as much as they can. Think about it: if we succeed it means they have job security! They live with and have to enforce a set of regulations. Do we wish some of the regulations were slightly different? Sure. But until we're flying all the time the regulators only have the old way of doing things to go by. 2) The people who really are building rockets in their garages are much more normal than what's portrayed in the movie. We try and treat our wives and families better than that, we do know how to do business and marketing before the fact instead of after it, and we do file our government required paperwork when asked to. We're just like you. Except that we're building rockets in our garages.
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