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Film / Space Cowboys

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Space Cowboys is a movie directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, and James Garner, released in 2000. It tells the story of a four-man team who, while test pilots for the USAF in the 1950s, missed out on their chance to join the American space program, but who get another chance 40 years later.

It turns out that one of them had devised a satellite system that was stolen by Soviet spies. They ended up using it for their own satellite, which they say is a large communication satellite, too large to be carried back to Earth in a shuttle. Seventeen years after its launch, its orbit is decaying, and the Russians are being surprisingly insistent on having the satellite fixed, saying that its loss could cause a catastrophic breakdown in Russian communications, and at worse, touch off a civil war. The only person who can do the job is the original designer - who agrees, but only if his three old buddies come along as well. Hilarity Ensues as NASA must prepare the oldsters for the trip.


Not to be confused with Space Truckers, or stories that contain cowboy-style people in space - see Space Western.

Contains examples of:

  • Actor Allusion:
    • The scene in which Maryann the chimp tries to shake Frank's hand could be a reference to Every Which Way but Loose, in which Clint Eastwood starred alongside an orangutan.
  • Artistic License – Physics:
    • The satellite's orbit is decaying because it's heavy. In real life, a satellite's orbit decays due to drag from the outer atmosphere; a heavy satellite's orbit would decay more slowly than a light satellite's orbit. The "Too Heavy" part may have been a cover, given the satellite's real purpose.
    • A tour guide states that in order to reach the Moon, you only have to get something (in this case, a hypothetical baseball) halfway there, since the Moon's gravity would take it the rest of the way. This comes up again at the end, when there is not enough fuel available to get the satellite all the way to the Moon, but it's supposedly okay because there's enough, given a Heroic Sacrifice, to make it halfway. While it is true that you only need to get something partway to the Moon before the Moon's gravity will carry it the rest of the way in, the distance required is closer to 95%, not halfway, due to the moon's much lower gravity.
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    • In the training simulation, Hawk lands the over-speeding shuttle in manual control by purposefully stalling it out at a high angle-of-attack, a maneuver which Frank later repeats to land the actual shuttle. Not only is this ridiculous, but it's also downright impossible. It's a variation of Pugachev's cobra, which, while possible to execute, has only been performed successfully in certain fighter jets and experimental testbed aircraft that are equipped with thrust vectoringnote , such as NASA's F-18 HARV; the Space Shuttle, on the other hand, is repeatedly (and rightfully) stated to be a "flying brick."
  • Author Appeal: Clint Eastwood is actually a huge space nerd and loves talking about science and science fiction.
  • Badass Preacher: "Tank" Sullivan (James Garner), Air Force test pilot turned Baptist minister.
  • Black Box: The only reason NASA even deigns to contact Corvin is because he is the only man still alive familiar with Skylab's and thereby the satellite's revolutionary yet antiquated guidance system. It does invert the usual reasons for this trope. The system isn't a black box because it's revolutionary and advanced, it's a black box because it's so obsolete no-one can figure it out.
  • Blind Without 'Em: Jerry (Sutherland). He nonetheless passes the NASA eyesight test by memorizing the letters while his glasses are on. Later on, he gets custom-made Cool Shades.
  • Brick Joke: Literally, about the Shuttle.
    Roger Hines: It's not an airplane, Colonel, it's a flying brick on approach.
    Eugene 'Gene' Davis: Easy, Frank, she's not a fighter jet.
    Frank Corvin: "Flying brick".
    Eugene 'Gene' Davis: I hope not.
  • The Call Knows Where You Live: Frank and his wife were surprised, to say the least, when the NASA agents showed up.
  • The Casanova: Jerry is an unrepentant—and for his age, pretty successful—womanizer.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Double the pleasure, double the fun.
    • First, the whole point of the story. See Black Box. Frank apparently got involved in the Apollo Applications Program, and designed the guidance system for Skylab. That's what was used on the satellite that they need to repair so urgently. And he's the only one left alive that knows anything about it.
    • Second, their own skill as pilots, which proves early on to have not decayed much over time. It ultimately helps them through the Reentry Scare.
      • Hawk's landing technique of "tapping on the brakes a little bit." Hawk himself pulls this first in the flight training simulator, and Frank later copies it to land for real.
  • Christianity Is Catholic: One character is ostensibly a Baptist minister, yet he ends up saying "Hail Mary, full of grace" once the mission in space is underway.
  • Cool Old Guy: A band of them. Our heroes, ladies and gentlemen!
  • Companion Cube: The hula-dancing Hawaiian girl dashboard ornament.
  • Contemplative Boss: When Gerson summons Corvin (Eastwood) and Hawkins (Jones) to his office after they have crashed yet another prototype, he stands with his back to them, looking out the window, and pointedly asks why he's seeing smoke in the distance.
  • Conveniently Close Planet: The satellite's boosters fire on a trajectory that conveniently gets to the moon - and quickly enough that Hawk's air doesn't run out.
  • Convenient Terminal Illness: Hawkins has pancreatic cancer, so he doesn't mind saving the world by taking a one-way trip to the moon.
  • Death from Above: IKON - which is actually an orbiting nuclear missile silo.
  • Dirty Old Man: Jerry, again.
    • Frank actually gets this from his wife in their last moment of normal life before the NASA officials showed up. They briefly thought he was assaulting her before realizing they were a married couple playing around.
  • Evil Is Petty: Bob Gerson is just plain mean to everyone, especially Frank, for no apparent reason other than his own bitterness. All of the action at the climax happens because he and Glance keep the fact that the IKON satellite is a Kill Sat (a fact that means that if the team can't pull off the mission because of this lack of information a huge chunk of Earth will suffer a nuclear apocalypse) just because they... don't like anybody else and/or they want the glory.
  • Fan Disservice: Had this been the same actors 30 years ago, the nude scene in the doctor's office would have had women whistling. Now it's just a bunch of naked old guys.
  • Genre Shift: From a light-hearted comedy to a compelling drama, just over half way through. Handled quite well.
  • Get Out!: Frank throws out Sara and Ethan when he finds out they work for Bob Gerson.
    • More specifically, he throws them out when he learns who they work for AND Ethan gets it in his head to insult Frank in his own home. Sara is obviously embarrassed by Ethan actions and Frank has no issue working with her a couple scenes later.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The Bittersweet Ending: after Hawk manually ignites the rockets on the Russian satellite and "pilots" it to the moon, finally getting to make the journey. The closing moments show him lying in the wreckage gazing down on the Earth as Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon" plays.
  • Husky Russkie: Genral Vostov fits this trope pretty damn well.
  • Idiot Ball: Ethan Glance grabs it, tucks it under his arm, and runs all the way to the end zone with assistance of Gerson.
  • In Space, Everyone Can See Your Face: Averted, most impressively in the final scene mentioned above, where all we see is Hawk's reflective faceplate - arguably making it more poignant.
  • Ironic Echo: At the start of the film, Bob Gerson agrees to rescue the Russian satellite, and Sara insists it's a waste of time and money. Bob tells her, "Sara, you're one hell of an engineer, but you dont know jack-shit about politics. Helping the Russians save face is an act of good faith. How can you put a price on that?" A couple minutes later, when Sara and Bob are examining the specs of the Russian satellite in question, Sara tells Bob, "Bob, you're a damn fine politician, but you don't know jack-shit about engineering."
  • Jerkass: Bob Gerson, played magnificently by James Cromwell.
  • Kill Sat: Played both ways — the IKON satellite is a massive piece of equipment which will not completely burn out if it enters the atmosphere, meaning that unless the team goes to keep it in orbit it will fall and wreck something on impact... and then it turns out that Gerson "conveniently" decided to keep secret the truth told to him by the Russians, which is that IKON is a nuclear missile silo that they placed in space during the Cold War; to make matters worse, it operates on a Dead Man Switch that would interpret it falling out of orbit as evidence that it was attacked and launch its entire payload at once.
  • Leno Device: Team Daedalus take a break from their training at NASA to make an appearance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. The actors appeared in character on the show and it doubled as promotion for the film.
  • Missed the Call: Team Daedalus never got to go into space back in the day because NASA decided to use monkeys instead.
  • Mother Russia Makes You Strong: a non-human example (so it may be another trope), but IKON, for a communications satellite, is a gigantic and intimidating thing. Granted, it's not really a communications satellite…
  • Naked People Are Funny: All four must strip naked for their physical examination. When the (female) doctor enters the room, they cover their private parts in embarrassment, except Jerry who allows her to get an eyeful. And she obviously likes what she sees.
  • Older and Wiser: Averted. Older the protagonists may be, but they still behave, by their own admission, like "kids who never grew up".
    • Frank is bitter over having been screwed over by Gerson and has a Hair-Trigger Temper.
    • Hawk is an adrenaline junkie who treats everything like a (friendly) competition.
    • Jerry is a confirmed bachelor who is still scoring with women young enough to be his granddaughters.
    • Tank is probably the most mature of the team, but even he has the occasional Manchild moment.
  • Overturned Outhouse: In his backstory, Hawk did this to an outhouse he thinks has his romantic rival. Instead, the occupant was the girl he was smitten with. He caps the story off with "I married her".
  • Pet the Dog: Bob Gerson seems genuinely sad and sorry when he tells Corvin about Hawkins' pancreatic cancer.
  • Putting the Band Back Together: Corvin insists on reuniting Team Daedalus and going into space as the price for his co-operation, so NASA sends out two people to round them up.
  • Reentry Scare: Comes together with a Chekhov's Skill during the earlier flight simulator scene: in a some variety of Technician vs. Performer, or Good Old Ways, or any of the related tropes, the Team Daedalus manage to "land" the "Space Shuttle", but only after the computer is disabled and they have to do it manually. The younger generation astronauts find this nigh-unbelievable.
  • Retired Badass: The whole of Team Daedalus.
  • Running Gag: Whenever the four men catch wind of an old peer from someone, they ask how that person is doing. The response is usually that they're dead. Lampshaded by Hawk at one point (paraphrased):
    "Have you noticed that everyone's dead lately?"
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: First Bob, then Hawk, with the latter only possible because of the former.
  • Space Is Noisy
  • Truth in Television: The story was inspired by John Glenn's 1998 space flight, when he was 77. Frank namechecks Glenn when he's trying to convince Bob to let Daedalus take the job.
  • invoked Technology Marches On: Ethan Glance can't understand the guidance system on Ikon. Jerry points out why Frank and his team need to fix it, they were trained on the technology and Ethan wasn't.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Hawk and Frank. They're always fighting.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: A young man wants a ride on Hawk's bi-plane for his birthday. Everyone, from Hawk to the audience (but not his girlfriend, thanks to Hawk), learns that the kid does not have a strong stomach.
  • Younger Than They Look: Tommy Lee Jones is 11 years younger than Donald Sutherland, 17 than Clint Eastwood, and 19 than James Garner, yet is portrayed as being around the same age bracket as them (though he is the youngest member of Team Daedalus). Jones was 54 when starring in a film where there was a Running Gag of all the leads' old friends having passed away from age and the like.
    • The film opens with the test pilots in 1958; Tommy Lee Jones was 12 at the time in real life.


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