“The Astronaut Farmer” Lacks the Right Stuff


I recently rented the movie “The Astronaut Farmer” starring Billy Bob Thornton, thinking this movie about a guy who builds his own rocket in his backyard had the potential to be a good Maker movie. It had the making of a decent DIY setup, like “The World’s Fastest Indian.” Yet this movie turned out to be nothing but ridiculous, defining a new category for space junk. I should have known as much when the movie opened with a grown man (Thornton) riding a horse on a Texas ranch while wearing an astronaut suit. Hey, I walked around in a cowboy outfit when I was five, and I watched all the astronauts go into space on TV, and I can see how someone might be completely infatuated with being an astronaut. I wish the movie was a fantasy. It might have had some charm, like Edward Scissorhands, but it wants us to take this rancher named Charles Farmer seriously.

Because he’s a dreamer. Farmer is ready to sacrifice everything for his dream. This former astronaut who left the program to be with his family is actually building the rocket to take him into space — and he’s doing it for them, his family. He’s willing to bet the ranch. He has built an Atlas-class rocket in his barn, which is right next to his house. On top is a space capsule just like a Gemini capsule. He tells a government agency that he grew up believing he could do anything he dreamed of, and he’s going to do it. All by himself.

Building and launching a rocket into space is hardly a DIY project but Farmer is doing it without seeking the help of friends or supporters or experts. He might have been an astronaut (and no monkey) but does he really have the right stuff to build a rocket himself? We’re asked to give him the benefit of the doubt. His mission controller is his son, who is fifteen, and the equipment itself looks older than anything used in mission control. When Farmer finally does blast off, it should torch the barn and the house but it doesn’t because it’s CGI. He doesn’t even tell anyone he’s doing it, not even his son. The first launch ends up as a horrible mess with the rocket careening out of control. The crash should have killed him but he survives more like Wile E. Coyote than a human being. Once he wakes up in the hospital, he’s completely healed. On his second attempt, in a new rocket named Dreamer, Farmer is successful but his son is so tired while Dad’s in orbit that he has to take a nap. When Farmer lands the space capsule at the end — after eight orbits of the earth, he parachutes to a hard landing on the Texas desert — his family knows just where to find him with the Chevy Suburban and pick him up. It’s contrived and preposterous. There’s not a single serious technical detail in the movie, no pretense to making this story credible.

This kind of movie gives dreamers a bad name but it doesn’t matter — the makers of “The Astronaut Farmer” got it all wrong.

20 thoughts on ““The Astronaut Farmer” Lacks the Right Stuff

  1. Fredex says:

    I think you were spoiled by what you saw at the Experimental Aircraft Association. ;)

  2. digitaltripper says:

    Hm….I disagree…With all of it. It was a cool movie and no, it is not “contrived and preposterous”. It’s been done…little company called scale composites…Yeah they did not orbit but it could be done.

  3. Tercero says:

    How the hell did this make it onto the MAKE blog page archive?
    Seriously, what the heck does this have to do with making anything?

  4. rdarlington says:

    Yah, pretty redonkulous that this made it to the Make page. I thought it was a really fun movie -movie being the effective word. If you didn’t like it, don’t watch it again. Next time try not to give away the end while you’re ranting about something you don’t like.

  5. samurai1200 says:

    I thought I was the only one that used the word ‘redonkulous’…

  6. fstedie says:

    Remove this ridiculous post from here! This is not a place for Ebert wanna-be’s!

  7. philliptorrone says:

    Tercero & fstedie – out of the 15,000 posts here on MAKE i think one about a movie that was supposed to be maker-like is ok.

  8. N0QBH says:

    I’m still trying to figure out how they were able to communicate anywhere in orbit without a satellite network. I like fantasy as much as the next guy, but tell the Polish brothers to hire a technical expert next time they make a movie.

  9. chrisfrelin says:

    Does anybody else remember the show “Salvage 1” with Andy Griffith, circa 1979? He wanted to salvage the junk left by NASA on the moon, so he and his team built a spaceship out of junk and went there. There is no new thing under the sun.

  10. @chrisfrelin says:

    I remember the show “Salvage” with Andy Griffith. When I saw the trailers for “The Astronaut Farmer,” my first thought was about ‘Salvage.” My second thought was “isn’t anything original anymore?”

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DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

View more articles by Dale Dougherty


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