If you’re at all interested in the current, real-world efforts to build private spaceships, you’ll be disappointed by this movie about an aerospace engineer/rancher building his own ride to space. Filmmakers Mark and Michael Polish didn’t do their homework on what it actually takes to build a private spaceship, and the film suffers mightily for it.
Michael Polish describes his inspiration for the film this way in an interview on the Smithsonian Air & Space website:
“One day I walked into Mark’s room and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be a neat idea if a guy built a rocket in his barn?” It was that simple. I might have been watching space programs or something on the Discovery Channel.'”
An even neater idea would be to visit one or two people actually building rockets in their barns, garages, or airplane hangars, or hire one of them as an expert adviser. Without this kind of basic research the film looks like someone’s vague idea of what such a project might look like, rife with silly misconceptions.
For instance the plot turns on the FBI moving in to shut the astronaut down before he can launch because he tries to obtain “high-test rocket fuel,” thus creating a national security threat. Apparently the filmmakers didn’t know that rocket fuel is nothing more than kerosene, and not much to get excited about.
Not only the FBI, but also the CIA, NASA, and the FAA, all take a such an interest in the project that they bother to send representatives (including the heads of the FAA and the CIA) to the astronaut’s small town in Texas to interrogate him in a high school gymnasium. During a break in the proceedings, the CIA head threatens the astronaut in the men’s room, saying he’ll bomb the astronaut and his ranch to bits if he tries to launch.
You only have to search on Google for “private spaceflight” to know that homebuilt spaceships got real back in 2004 and that everyone and his mother are building their own spaceships now, no intimidation by the FAA, the CIA, or any other “A” required.
That the Polish brothers missed that is a real shame because their film perpetuates the myth that the government will allow only the government to send people into space and that private spaceflight is only one or two people’s crazy dream with little relevance for everyone else.
An excellent cast, including Billy Bob Thornton as the citizen-astronaut, and Bruce Willis as a NASA astronaut, lend a little shine to an otherwise deeply flawed film. In particular, Thornton’s speech to his interrogators about the importance in believing you can do anything you set your mind to, and a monologue from Willis on the overview effect almost, but not quite, make the movie worth watching.
Update on 2/26/07
Some in the private space community are more forgiving of the film than I. Check out some enthusiastic comments from XCOR Aerospace test pilot Rick Searfoss and Space Frontier Foundation cofounder Rick Tumlinson at Alan Boyle’s Cosmic Log.