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NASA’s Space Cowboys Hollywood-ized

Houston – The astronauts of the new film Space Cowboys are everything NASA wouldn’t want in a space shuttle astronaut – sharp-tongued, hardheaded, hot-dogging cowboys. Even worse, they’ve been out of the pipeline for decades and they’re over the hill.

“It’s a movie. It’s not a documentary. Don’t worry about that,” said Kathryn Clark, senior scientist for NASA’s space station program and a consultant on Space Cowboys, which opens Friday.

Don’t worry about the other incongruities in the film, which was produced and directed by its star, 70-year-old Clint Eastwood. The film costars Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner. Jones is the youngest at 53, Garner the oldest at 72.

“The Ripe Stuff,” teases a newspaper headline in the movie. Space Cowboys is about four Air Force aces who get knocked out of the space race by a chimpanzee in 1958, but who make a comeback as wrinkled rocket-riders. Eastwood is the leader of the geriatric pack, the only one who knows anything about the guidance system on an outdated, out-of-control Russian satellite. Like it or not, NASA needs him. But he won’t go up to fix “the bird” unless his old cronies go, too.

NASA has one month to get the four guys ready to fly on the space shuttle. They’re not being launched in the back seat a la John Glenn, mind you, but up front in the cockpit – in control of liftoff, landing and everything in between.

“Clearly fantasy,” said Clark. “If he had to fix the satellite, you’d put him in back of the ship. Launch him and then take care of the satellite, right?”

Besides bringing Clint and Co. out of retirement, the film resurrects NASA’s Manned Maneuvering Units, throne-like jet packs last used in 1984.

Three spacewalkers go out en masse in the movie, another NASA no-no. Only once has NASA broken its two-at-a-time shuttle spacewalking rule. What’s more, the movie spacewalkers zoom every which way, including down into the bowels of the Russian satellite.

“That’s Hollywood,” observes Marine Col. Terrence Wilcutt, commander of NASA’s next shuttle flight, a September space station mission. He cringes at the thought of his spacewalking crew venturing out into the black void without tethers.

The Mir-cargo ship collision in 1997 was a love tap compared with the abuse the shuttle takes in Space Cowboys. Yet the shuttle miraculously comes in for a landing that would make any pilot proud.

NASA gave Warner Brothers permission to film at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center and the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the authenticity shows, especially in the training and countdown scenes. Launch commentator Lisa Malone, in fact, makes a cameo appearance as herself.

Wilcutt’s co-pilot, Navy Cmdr. Scott Altman, whose flying appeared in the 1986 film Top Gun, said movies can reach out to the public in ways real life does not.

“Top Gun wasn’t exactly a documentary of Navy life, but it did inspire a lot of people to pursue a life of aviation and flying in the military,” Altman noted. “Sometimes space movies can serve that same idea … whether it’s the fantasy world of Star Wars and Star Trek or somewhat more reality-based things like Space Cowboys.”

Despite Eastwood’s attention to detail, Space Cowboys has some very un-NASA-like moments. Flight controllers applauding and cheering at liftoff; no one breathes easy until the shuttle is safe in orbit eight minutes later. Mission managers clutching their hands and staring transfixed at the video beaming down from space. Normally, they’re consulting with one another or peering at their computers. Astronauts making the talk-show rounds before liftoff; that’s saved for when they get back, if then.

The biggest leap of faith is the premise of sending four old guys into space, all at once, on such a treacherous mission.

NASA doesn’t discriminate on the basis of age so there’s no reason why older people couldn’t fly as long as they’re physically fit, said Dr. Julie Swain, one of the space agency’s top doctors.

“I can’t comment on the movie,” she said, “but John Glenn did great.”

Glenn, 77 when he returned to orbit aboard space shuttle Discovery in 1998, rates a passing reference by Eastwood in Space Cowboys.

Never mind the advanced age of Eastwood’s character, retired Col. Frank Corvin – it’s the lack of space shuttle training that would worry Vance Brand. Ten years after commanding a shuttle flight at age 59, Brand still holds the title of oldest space skipper.

“You could get in the shuttle and do a nominal mission if nothing went wrong in less time than six months,” says Brand, who still works for NASA but in a desk job. “It’s just that if anything went wrong, you wouldn’t be as well prepared to take care of it.”

In Space Cowboys, just about everything goes wrong. Nothing is “nominal.” Thank goodness Clint’s there to save the day. “He’ll pull it off, I know,” Brand said with a laugh.

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