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Backyard astronauts

What a wonderful fantasy: build yourself a backyard rocketship and fly it into space. Thats the premise of a recent Hollywood movie, titled The Astronaut Farmer, starring quirky actor Billy Bob Thornton. The movie storyline, without giving away too much of the plot, involves a retired, farmbound NASA astronaut who decides to set out and build a multi-million dollar Atlas rocket and phone booth- sized Mercury capsule (all constructed in his spare time). The movie, much like the classic 1990s fantasy film Field of Dreams, celebrates the individual and the can-do spirit of America. It also symbolically unites familiar icons of Americas expanding frontiershorses, the West, and the high frontier of space. While entertaining and inspiring, the whole premise of The Astronaut Farmer is absurd. It takes hundreds of skilled Lockheed-Martin technicians and engineers to build and launch todays big Atlas-V rocket, the current edition of Billy Bob Thorntons 1960s-era Atlas-Mercury combo. Also, the real Atlas missile has no structural integrity of its own; pressure in its fuel tanks provides the only rigidity required for an Atlas to flya tough engineering trick for one man to pull off. Unlike the Wright Brothers, and todays recreational pilots who build experimental kitplanes in their garages, amateur astronauts dont have the resources to build, let alone launch, manned rockets. These junior John Glenns will have to be content with donning costume spacesuits on Halloween. The U.S. Government issurprisecast as the usual heavy in The Astronaut Farmer. Astronaut Thorntons attempt to buy blackmarket rocket fuel and parts does not endear him to the governmenthe could be a terrorist. The government, we are told, does not like do-it-yourself astronauts. Darn, shouldnt every aspiring Buck Rogers be permitted to build an intercontinental ballastic missile at home? Aviation enthusiasts have long lamented the demise of the romance of seat-of-the-pants flying with the rise of the Federal Aviation Administration in this country. Too many rules, too many inspections, some aviation purists argue; these anti-authority types arent satisfied with the FAAs liberal Paragraph 103 ruling that permits single-seat ultralight planes and their pilots to fly without any need of a pilots certificate or routine inspections. So, if these farmer pilots want to crash and burn solo, Uncle Sam is only too happy to get out of the way. But we can thank excessive FAA regulations for a few thingsyou dont have a lot of commercial airliners or recreational planes falling out of the sky and onto neighborhood rooftops (consider the sheer number of auto accidents). Yes, there may be a lot of government red tape when it comes to the aerospace field, but much of its there for a reason. Someday soon, civilians with enough spending cash will gain access to outer space. Entrepreneurs such as billionaire Sir Richard Branson and Space Ship 1-designer Burt Rutan, are making the new era of space tourism possible. Unlike the realm of todays amateur recreational plane builders, you wont get to space with a homemade kit on a shoestring budget. Sorry to disappoint the daydreamer in us all. Whats in the Sky: On March 2, the Moon and Jupiter will be side by side at dawn. Jupiter is left of the Moon.

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