Mercury-Atlas Rocket Takes Center Stage in 'Astronaut Farmer'
Billy Bob Thornton stars as former astronaut Charles Farmer in "The Astronaut Farmer", opening in theaters on Feb. 23. Sharing screen time with him is a 50-foot, nearly-scale replica of NASA's Mercury- Atlas rocket.
Credit: Warner Brothers.

In the upcoming Warner Brothers' feature film "The Astronaut Farmer," Billy Bob Thornton plays the role of Charles Farmer, a former astronaut who never flew in space but who decides to accomplish his dream of reaching orbit by building his own rocket.

To do so, Farmer draws from designs of the past, basing his spacecraft "The Dreamer," [image] on the historic Mercury-Atlas that carried the first Americans to orbit in the 1960s [image]. "The Astronaut Farmer" opens in theaters 45 years (plus three days) after astronaut John Glenn rode his Mercury-Atlas into U.S. history.

Personally inspired and fascinated by the 1960s space race, independent filmmakers Mark and Michael Polish gave their hero a similar passion. "Charles Farmer is a guy who watched the first man step foot on the moon and that was probably the single most dramatic moment of his childhood," suggested Mark Polish, who co-wrote and was a producer on the film.

Added Michael, his brother, "The story was sparked by our interest in space exploration, but beyond that, it's about a need to dream of adventures, whether it's Neil Armstrong or Lewis and Clark. I think that, as a society, we've stopped dreaming about exploration. With space being the contemporary frontier, we got to thinking how would a common person do this?"

Outside the constructs of the film's plot, it was important to production designer Clark Hunter to accurately rebuild the space hardware used in "The Astronaut Farmer".

It was imperative that the rocket be built as nearly to scale as possible, "based on research and drawings of the Atlas-Mercury rockets and capsules, which are still very recognizable to many people," said Hunter. "For the skin, we used a company that makes skins for 747s. We built it in sections, then stacked them up and fastened them together."

Not only is the vintage design appropriate for the story's timeline, it has become an iconic image.

As Michael Polish explains, "That was the era when everyone was getting interested in the space program for the first time, and that was its primary image. Plus, from Farmer's point of view, it's easier to build a rocket like this than to build the Space Shuttle. If someone wanted to build a car for the first time he would go back to a simpler way of doing it, back to the original Ford design and the combustion engine."

"[Farmer] goes to great lengths to build a replica, based on the Atlas-Mercury model," Michael continued, noting that Farmer is dedicated to, quite literally, the nuts and bolts of his dream."

The companion piece to the rocket was Farmer's mission control, containing all the apparatus that his son Shepard (named after the first astronaut, Alan Shepard) would use to help launch and then monitor the spacecraft's orbit.

"It was an old Air Stream trailer. Inside we packed in a lot of vintage gadgetry and 1960s technology intermixed with modern computer equipment in a kind of Rube Goldberg design, which is what it might realistically look like if he had collected and integrated everything in bits and pieces over the years," said Hunter.

In addition to the rocket and control room, Hunter raised a new barn big enough to accommodate a 50-foot rocket, with roof panels that could be folded open in preparation for launch.

"When I first saw the rocket in the barn, finished and assembled, I was very impressed," said actor Billy Bob Thornton.

Continue reading about the movie's Mercury spacesuit and the real Mercury-Atlas -- plus view more photographs from "The Astronaut Farmer" on collectSPACE.com.

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