Review: The Davinci Code
The Astronaut Farmer   (2007)
[PGP-13] Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Virginia Madsen, Max Thieriot, Jasper Polish, Logan Polish, Bruce Dern
Directed by: Michael Polish
Written by: Mark Polish, Michael Polish
 

It's a  top  nerd  fantasy, build a rocket and blast off in it. And, as a nerd fantasy, The Farmer Astronaut mostly succeeds, but we did say mostly.

Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton) is a former aerospace engineer turned jet pilot who wanted to be astronaut but was compelled to take up ranching in order to save the family business. Even so, he still pursues his real dream of launching into space, orbiting Earth, and returning safely. Using surplus parts he builds an Atlas rocket topped with a Mercury-type space capsule in his barn.

His offspring--being raised in the nerd tradition-- totally believe in their father's dream as does his wife who cheerily goes along with everything. Okay, this sounds like pure fantasy but keep in mind that women who marry nerds aren't the typical sort. As for children,  in their first  few years, even normal children think father knows best.

When Farmer gets in over his head and faces foreclosure in 30 days, he knows he must move up his launch date. He pulls his children out of school to assist and gives them a pep talk in preparation for the hard work and sleepless nights required for completing such a major undertaking on such a tight schedule. Here's where the fantasy frays. The grueling hours are never depicted. Farmer has time to watch TV, and worry about big issues like, gosh, people thinking his family is not normal--what a surprise. In response, he not only has the time to spend the day at the county fair but  purchase (even though he's nearly bankrupt) and install one of the kiddy rides on his own land. He then kills even more time going round and round in it. Is this supposed to symbolize that a space flight into orbit is nothing more than an adult amusement ride?

Okay, maybe by the time the fair comes to town everything on the Atlas is go, except fueling and getting permission from the FAA to blast off. Certainly, the FAA permission drama and rocket fuel conflict--the FBI has concerns over a civilian buying 10,000 lbs of rocket fuel--along with the opposition of NASA to amateurs in space and the resulting media circus take up much of the movie. It seems like much ado over nothing. If the FAA and NASA really were opposed to amateurs going into space why prevent one from trying? If he killed himself they could say I told you so. If he succeeded they could ride the wave of public interest into a bid for more funding. As for the FBI, it seems like they'd have better things to worry about, like maybe real terrorists.

When it looks like all is lost, Farmer brews up some homemade rocket fuel, decides he doesn't care if he gets arrested (after all how are they going to catch him in outer space), and blasts-off. Unfortunately, the home-brew lacks zing: the rocket lifts a few feet, settles back, and tips over--certainly not a good sign. Although they were made of stainless steel the original Atlas fuel tanks were a bit like giant water balloons. The metal was so thin and had so little support structure that the tanks had to be continually pressurized to keep the rocket from collapsing under its own weight--not exactly a design capable of surviving abuse. Reinforce the tank and the rocket would be too heavy to make it into space

When the rocket tipped over, The space capsule containing Farmer would have fallen downward about 90 feet, but since it was attached to the rocket, it would also have moved sideways as the rocket rotated downward. Just before it hit, the capsule would have been accelerating significantly faster than the acceleration due to gravity and slammed into the ground harder than simply being dropped from 90+ ft.

Falling over would have created a significant bending stress on the rocket's outer shell even before it hit the ground. To demolish large industrial chimneys, explosive charges are detonated in their bases making  the chimneys fall like trees. As they fall, the high bending stress often breaks  the chimneys  in half before they hit the ground. Likewise, a falling rocket might have come apart and exploded even before it hit the ground, but certainly afterwards.

When the rocket tipped over, slamming into the ground would have been difficult to avoid. Newton's first law applies to rotation as well as translation. Once started, an object will continue rotating until something counteracts it.  But with a tipping rocket it's even worse: as soon as the center of mass is no longer over the rocket's supporting base, the weight force acting on the center of mass will create a torque (twisting action) on the rocket that accelerates the downward rotation.

If the rocket's engine were firing incorrectly, it's possible that its thrust force might not act through the rocket's center of mass as it normally does during liftoff. Hence,  it's conceivable that the misdirected thrust could provide the torque needed to counteract the weight force torque and neutralize the downward rotation enough. On the other hand, fat chance.

Of course with typical movie magic, the engine finally kicks in making the rocket fly horizontally out of the barn a few feet off the ground through a group of news crews and a billboard, finally coming to rest a great distance away, all without catching the barn (or for that matter any of the news crews) on fire.

As for Farmer, he ends up comatose in the hospital having suffered just enough injury to facilitate the typical tear jerking wake up scene and some limping around afterwards, but no permanent impairment..  Undoubtedly, he has added thousands of dollars of medical bill to add to his other financial woes, still, it's a pretty mild price to pay for such a major debacle.

We must admit, at first we fell for the ruse: a Hollywood film--a nerd fantasy no less-- with a feel-bad ending. After we got over our outrage, Farmer's  father-in-law had the decency to die, leaving the family some funding. Farmer pulled himself together and built another Atlas in his still standing barn. This time he tricks the authorities with a cleaver ruse, buys some real rocket fuel, loads up, and successfully launches all without permission. (It takes a self-reliant maverick nearly an entire movie to figure out that it's easier to ask forgiveness?) We must say that on launch, our emotions climbed skyward with the rocket--so much for nerdly objectivity.

Afterwards, Farmer's son sits at the controls of the radio communicate room maintaining contact with the orbiting spacecraft. How he expected to maintain contact on the other side of the Earth is a mystery but apparently the lad has somehow worked it out. Alas, even the best laid of plans often goes awry. Farmer's space craft flies beneath a communication satellite that shuts down Farmer's electronics. While we don't know the specifics of Farmer's orbit, it's highly unlikely that it would be high enough to come within the visual range of a communications satellite as depicted in the movie let alone have the satellite shutdown his electrical systems.

Of course, Farmer eventually gets his electrical systems functioning just in time to come back to Earth and touch down, uninjured, in a field near his home. This in itself is remarkable since the original Mercury space capsules were designed to land in water not on hard soil. However, the truly remarkable element of the movie is neither the flight nor the landing.  It's the barn. After not one but two launches from within its interior, the barn still stands--that's some kind of lumber!

In an era when real people (Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie) are journeying into space in a privately owned spacecraft (SpaceShipOne) designed by a self-reliant genius (Burt Rutin) there does seem to be at least a grain of possibility in the plot of The Astronaut Farmer. Still,  SpaceShipOne required newly designed and built  equipment, a team of remarkably talented, dedicated, and courageous individuals as well as a billionaire's backing (Paul Allen) to get it off the ground and then it only achieved suborbital, not full orbital, flight. As nerds, we of all people are obsessed with the notion that dedication, hard work, and cerebral virtue can conquer all, yet even we have to admit that at some point teamwork and serious funding are required. The idea that an individual could run a nearly bankrupt ranch and put together a space launch out of obsolete spacecraft parts with no outside funding is fun but naive.

 


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