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Elon Musk, Movie Star: How Netflix’s ‘Return to Space’ Captures a New Era of Cameras in Low-Earth Orbit

The directors of "Free Solo" tell IndieWire how they captured a new angle to the billionaire space race that goes beyond the obvious.

“Return to Space”

Netflix

For decades, the public has been fascinated by humans traveling into space. However, with the privatization of space travel that has taken off over the past few years, veteran astronauts have been forced to adapt to the presence of cameras more than ever before. 

“It’s not easy to open up your life like that when you’re concentrating on the job at hand,” said Doug Hurley, the NASA astronaut who was one of two co-pilots on the first SpaceX-designed Dragon spacecraft to fly humans into orbit. “The private space industry has really just gone crazy.” 

The entertainment industry has entered low-Earth orbit, and it’s poised to stick around, whether astronauts want it there or not. Hurley is among the main subjects of “Return to Space,” the latest space-related Netflix project that reflects the streamer’s ongoing investment in the new space era, and its second produced in partnership with Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Last fall, the company’s miniseries “Countdown: Inspiration 4 Mission to Space” adopted a reality show format to follow the first non-professional astronaut team to orbit the Earth, also on a Dragon crew capsule. 

“Return to Space” backs up the timeline with a more substantial cinematic pedigree: Directed by “Free Solo” Oscar winners Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the movie tracks the buildup to the first crewed mission, flown by Hurley and Bob Behnken, through the lens of Musk’s entrepreneurial drive to dominate the field. It follows the toll on Hurley’s family life and also features his wife, astronaut Karen Nyberg, who flew up to the International Space Station on the next mission and stayed there for six months. These events unfold against a stunning array of NASA-approved footage from the flights, including spacewalks on the ISS loaded with astonishing first-person views of the planet against the dark backdrop of the cosmos. 

Musk is the movie star at the center of it all, but the filmmakers don’t treat him as a god so much as an enabler, as they assemble gripping tension around the flights themselves. These scenes are the latest in a continuum of recent efforts to bring space travel into popular culture. The project arrives in the aftermath of Amazon Prime live-streaming Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin launches, one of which included William Shatner, and a Russian film production that took place at the International Space Station last year. Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman still hope to follow that path with a Universal project that remains on the backburner. 

For now, Netflix continues to deliver the most robust window into the modern-day space age. While fictional projects such as “Space Force” and Richard Linklater’s recent “Apollo 10 1/2” capture the impact of space travel on the general public, “Return to Space” puts SpaceX’s recent strides in historical context, from the collapse of the shuttle program over a decade ago to Musk’s unexpected ability to win a contract with NASA despite his controversial reputation. The movie addresses Musk’s eccentric public antics, from smoking pot with Joe Rogan to tweeting about taking Tesla public out of nowhere, but it also captures his serious commitment to the challenges at hand. 

Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, SpaceX’s first astronauts

“Elon’s the real deal, but he’s also a loose cannon,” Vasarhelyi said. “You just never know what he’s going to do, but the point is, he’s incredibly authentic when he’s talking about his aspirations in space.”

By getting past the burden of Musk’s complicated reputation, “Return to Space” offers a welcome contrast to perceptions of the “billionaire space race” that has cohered around Musk, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and Bezos’ Blue Origin by looking at the bigger picture: the technological and budgetary hurdles, risk factors, and a whole lot of awe. “The general public doesn’t really understand it,” Vasarhelyi said. “The billionaires in space is an old narrative.”

Unlike Bezos and Branson, Musk has yet to travel to space himself. “Return to Space” doesn’t address that outlier, and Vasarhelyi said they never asked him about it. As with the daredevil exploits of rock climber Alex Honnold in “Free Solo” and the cave divers at the center of last year’s “The Rescue,” the directors put their greatest emphasis on the people willing to put their lives at risk — that is, the astronauts themselves.

The movie recaps the two catastrophic shuttle explosions, Challenger (which erupted during the ascent) and Columbia (which exploded during reentry) to make it clear that even as the Dragon capsule is far safer than its predecessors, a single misstep could result in instant death. “A lot of people take for granted how dangerous space travel is,” said Chin. “I mean, strapping two rockets with thousands of tons of rocket propellant to yourself — these astronauts’ lives are literally in the hands of scientists.” 

Even Musk can’t force their hands. In one unsettling moment, NASA calls off a launch due to bad weather, while a despondent Musk makes an unsuccessful attempt to talk mission control out of the decision. That failsafe may be the best advertisement that SpaceX could ask for: Even the reckless guy in charge can’t screw things up. “I would trust SpaceX to go to space,” Vasarhelyi said, “but it’s the only company I would.”

The directing duo met with Netflix about several potential projects to showcase SpaceX’s impact on space travel, including the ISS mission by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who at one point wanted to host a contest akin to “The Bachelor” to find a girlfriend to go up with him. They ultimately settled on an approach that didn’t focus on the wealth required for non-professionals to leave the planet. “Everyone wants to go, and it is prohibitively expensive,” Vasarhelyi said. “If Tom Cruise wants to go to space to make a movie, it’ll eventually get done. It’s just a matter of time.” 

So what about everyone else? Pete Davidson recently signed up to take a Blue Origin flight to the upper atmosphere (and then pulled out). Leonardo DiCaprio has expressed interest in going to Mars. And that Cruise project continues to gestate.

Nyberg, Hurley’s wife and fellow space traveler, cautioned that the influx of non-professional astronauts could come at the expense of the preparation necessary for experiencing life in zero gravity. “You have frustrating days and good ones up there,” she said. “We really have learned expeditionary behavior to control our own emotions and helping our crewmates when they’re having a rough time. It could turn into a challenge when you have more people in space who don’t think in that way.”

For now, access to low-Earth orbit requires deep pockets, but that could change. “It’s simple economics,” said Hurley, who retired from spaceflight after his Dragon mission. “It’s just got to get less expensive to build these vehicles and facilities to get people into space. I think it’s going to happen sooner than you think.”

“Return to Space” is now streaming on Netflix.

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