In 1958, the members of Team Daedalus, a group of top Air Force test pilots, were ready to serve their country as the first Americans in space. When NASA replaced the Air Force for outer atmospheric testing, Team Daedalus was pushed aside and a chimpanzee got the honor. The team retired, but the dream of going into space never died.
Now, over four decades later, the Russian satellite Ikon has suffered a systems failure that Russian officials insist will cause a total communications blackout in their country. NASA official Bob Gerson stumbles toward a solution - and finds it in a very unexpected place. Since Ikon has the same guidance system as early American satellite Skylab, Skylab's designer should know how to fix Ikon. But Gerson already knows the designer.
Now retired, Frank Corvin is the one man alive who can do the job. This is the chance of a lifetime but Frank wont take it unless he can bring the only crew he trusts to do the job with him.
Team Daedalus is back in action.
Frank, Hawk Hawkins, Jerry O'Neil and Tank Sullivan stretch the rules and strain the patience of Eugene Davis, their Flight Director, as well as their much younger counterparts, Ethan Glance and Roger Hines. Seasoned veterans with an attitude, they relish the opportunity to show their stuff. They will be tested and they will need every ounce of strength and resourcefulness to make it through their abbreviated training, complete their mission and rescue Ikon. The heroic challenge has arrived.
Let the countdown begin.
Principal photography on Space Cowboys began in mid July, l999, and continued through mid October, with locations in the general Los Angeles area (Saugus, Agua Dulce, Canyon Country, March Air Force Base and Victorville) providing the background for most of the early years of the story, followed by sequences filmed at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The remainder of the film was shot on soundstages at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California, which were used to house sets constructed to replicate the space shuttle interior, the Russian Ikon satellite, and a variety of aircraft (from a B-l Bomber to an early experimental jet) and in-flight simulators.
Coordinated by Academy-Award winning production designer Henry Bumstead ("The Sting," "To Kill A Mockingbird"), these sets also included the first accurate representation of Houston's new Mission Control Center, complete with large-screen high-definition communications imaging, exactly as used during actual flights.
The scenes filmed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, included training sequences in which the entire team Daedalus was put through virtually the same training phases used to prepare actual astronauts for space travel -- the shuttle simulator, the shuttle simulator control booth, the virtual reality room, and the neutral buoyancy lab.
To further enhance the credibility of the film, the Space Cowboys crew traveled to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, in order to shoot the Vehicle Assembly Building, launch pad and landing facility for all NASA flights. Likewise, actors Eastwood, Jones, Sutherland and Garner said goodbye to friends and family in the real astronaut blockhouse, were dressed for flight in the suit-up room used by NASA astronauts and waited for their transfer to the shuttle launch in the actual astronaut ready room.
"I wanted to make the film as believable as possible," Eastwood explains. "In order to do that we needed NASA's help to get as close as we could to the circumstances surrounding a launch. It's a complicated process and it requires careful planning and teamwork on all levels. Bringing a film crew in to simulate the whole thing was probably an even bigger headache for NASA, but the agency really came through for us. I couldn't be more pleased with the results."
Since the film required scenes of weightlessness, the cast was put through a battery of simulation rigs. "We've done it, I suppose, in every way that it can be done," Tommy Lee Jones muses. "We've hung people from ceilings; we've had people stand around holding on to walls as if that were necessary to keep yourself from floating off; and then we have ballpoint pens and clipboards floating by suspended on filament lines; we've been on little stools that have caster wheels on them that move around. It really presents no challenge to an actor; all you have to do is stand there and take these various rides, but it's a group effort for the whole company. The other thing we've done is simply move the camera around a great deal. And sometimes using all those things in combination, one with the other, creates the illusion of weightlessness successfully maybe seventy percent of the time."
Eastwood adds: "I think we've been pretty good with it. We've used every trick possible, from where the actors are floating themselves and looking loose, or sitting on a special kind of bench that moves this way or a table gliding, or gliding across the floor."
Eastwood points out that in previous space-set films, the cast and production crew would all fly up in a giant cargo plane to achieve weightlessness for a few seconds at a stretch. "They used to call it the 'Vomit Comet,' which is an old G-3 that they would take up and get into a weightless situation and then you would try to play a scene," he notes. "If you were in a small container, you could do that and build the set on the plane. But it got that nickname for a reason. It's a little harder this way, but it beats the alternative."
The visual effects in Space Cowboys, created by Industrial Light & Magic, required techniques ranging from the most traditional to the most cutting edge. Many of the sequences in space incorporated miniature spaceships photographed using motion control cameras, digitally painted backgrounds, computer graphics "astronauts" and live action actors. The integration of this variety of old and new techniques mirrors the story of the movie. As ILM's visual effects supervisor Michael Owens explains, "We're doing the exterior space shots and the X2 flight sequence. The effects shots combine the actors with models and miniatures, stage sets, and digital stunt doubles, all seamlessly incorporated to look real."
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