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The astronaut dreamers

OK, so maybe a rancher couldn't build an orbital rocket in his barn, as the main character does in the newly released movie "The Astronaut Farmer." But putting the technical details aside, players in the private-sector space race say the movie does reflect the feelings and the dreams of those who are trying to make the final frontier accessible to regular folks.

They have one quibble, though: The bad guys in the movie are actually the good guys in real life.

Warner Bros.
Charles Farmer (played by Billy
Bob Thornton) is silhouetted
against his homemade Atlas
rocket in a scene from "The
Astronaut Farmer."

Outside the space community, "The Astronaut Farmer" has gotten mixed reviews: Some film critics say the Billy Bob Thornton vehicle "fails to launch." Others salute the flick's "independent spirit."

Space buffs see the film through different eyes, of course. On one level, they could dissect every scene to point out how Hollywood has bent the facts in the service of the story. For instance, in the middle of the movie, one launch attempt takes a dramatic and nearly deadly turn. If that scenario happened in real life, "you'd be dead after about five seconds, and the movie would have to end," quipped Rick Searfoss, a retired shuttle astronaut who now works as a test pilot for California-based XCOR Aerospace.

But Searfoss doesn't think space-savvy spectators should dwell on the improbable plot.  "If you're obsessing on that, if you're one of these techno-detail people, I'd say, 'Get a life," he told me today.

Rick Tumlinson, one of the founders of the Space Frontier Foundation, agreed. "If you pick on that, you've totally missed the point," he said. "That's like trying to figure out how a light saber works. For me, I think they've made a beautiful movie."

The movie starts out with the space obsession of Texas rancher Charles Farmer (played by Thornton), who happens to have built a shiny Atlas-style rocket, topped by a Mercury-style space capsule, right inside his barn. The plot traces his efforts to launch himself into orbit, over the objections of the Federal Aviation Administration, the FBI, NASA and a host of other government types wearing dark glasses.

As the movie unfolds,  what stands out is how Farmer single-mindedly pursues his dream of experiencing space - supported, of course, by his family and neighbors (plus a guy with a tankerful of high-grade rocket fuel who shows up at just the right moment).

Searfoss and Tumlinson were particularly taken with a line Farmer delivers during an FAA hearing: "Somewhere along the line, we stopped believing that we could do anything. And if we don't have our dreams, we have nothing."

The dream of achieving something great is one of the big factors driving real-life rocketeers, Searfoss said.

"This stuff's happening in reality," he told me. "It's a different dynamic. It's small companies doing this, rather than someone in the barn, and they're not doing it as an orbital initiative - except for [SpaceX millionaire] Elon Musk. He's got a little more money than the rest of us. But these people have the same dream as Charlie Farmer."

He said Farmer's reaction to the glories of space - "This is where the dreams live" - also struck a strong chord.

"Those guys nailed it on the head," said Searfoss, a veteran of three space missions. "It was almost as if I had written the screenplay."

Tumlinson felt the same way: "I swear it's as if somebody who worked on that film went to our Web site."

He said the movie's main message - to pursue that dream even if the odds are against you, because it's the dream that defines you - needn't be limited to outer-space aspirations:

"You, Mr. and Mrs. America, have the right and ability to go and push open any frontier that you want. For us, it's space. For other people, it could be anything.

"It's a cultural spirit that we are sorely lacking right now. Why are people so interested in bling, or whether Britney Spears has shaved her head or not? It's because they're not getting real messages to translate into something important. ... That's what the movie gives to me. These are frontier values, and we need frontier values right now - of family, of caring, of respect, of passion."

Tumlinson and Searfoss, who both saw the movie at a Hollywood premiere earlier this week, said their only caveat about applying "The Astronaut Farmer" to the private-sector space race had to do with the FAA's role as the movie's main villain.

"I know they needed a heavy to move the story forward, but I think it's unfortunate that the FAA was given the role of the heavy - because as we in the frontier movement know, the FAA has been bending over backward to help us out," Tumlinson said. "It's obvious they didn't talk to anybody in the new-space movement."

If the filmmakers wanted to remedy that oversight, Tumlinson said he'd be only too happy to help out.

"We'll take 'em out and show 'em some real rockets," he said. "Mojave is not that far away from Hollywood."