‘Return to Space’ Is Netflix’s Shining Monument to Elon Musk

Netflix’s latest Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space—about SpaceX’s efforts to launch the first all-civilian flight to orbit the Earth—was corporate propaganda of the corniest sort, but the streaming platform redeems itself with Return to Spaceyet another venture about Elon Musk’s aerospace outfit.

Oscar-winning Free Solo directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s feature-length documentary (April 7) concerns 2020’s Demo-2, which sought to transport astronauts to the International Space Station from American soil for the first time in nine years. It was an endeavor of myriad complications, and courtesy of the filmmakers’ amazing access to Musk, his team of engineers, scientists and experts, and the two brave men charged with piloting this expedition, it proves to be an inspiring portrait of innovation and ingenuity .

The guiding force behind this project is, of course, Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002 with the goal of sharply reducing space travel costs in order to facilitate our eventual journey to—and colonization of—Mars. As in Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space, Return to Space finds Musk repeatedly discussing his dream of making humanity a multi-planetary species. Though that sounds like science fiction, he’s put his money where his mouth is with SpaceX, investing a fortune to figure out a way to make space exploration more affordable—a problem that contributed to the demise of NASA’s own shuttle program. NASA is now a partner with SpaceX, ushering in an age of space commercialization that’s also seen the likes of Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson enter the domain with their own grand tourist-destination designs on the cosmos.

SpaceX’s solution to its price-tag dilemma was to fashion a fully and rapidly reusable rocket that—rather than disengaging above Earth and then plummeting back to the ground, never to be used again—could be steered to a landing pad via the use of revolutionary grid ends. That turns out to be as difficult as it sounds, and Return to Space affords an up-close-and-personal view of the SpaceX team’s multiple stabs at concocting this novel system. As is the case throughout the film, Vasarhelyi and Chin have at their disposal a wide array of self-shot and pre-existing footage from the company’s flight cameras (located on the interior and exterior of their crafts), as well as from inside their control rooms and training centers, thereby providing a comprehensive view of SpaceX’s trial-and-error attempts to perfect this and other breakthrough elements of the project.

Musk is prone to delivering grand statements such as, “Earth is the cradle of humanity. But you cannot stay in the cradle forever. It is time to go forth, be out there among the stars, expand the scope and scale of human consciousness.” Yet in Return to Space, he comes across as a champion of human ambition and resourcefulness, and of the belief that pushing past boundaries—in search of attaining greater understanding of ourselves and the universe, and of creating a better life for future generations—is a noble undertaking. Vasarhelyi and Chin don’t ignore his occasionally wacko showmanship (like smoking weed on Joe Rogan’s podcast while extolling the wonders of flamethrowers), but the portrayal that emerges is of an idiosyncratic pioneer who is convinced that there are further worthy frontiers to conquer and is powerfully committed to achieving the heretofore unthinkable.

On more than one occasion, Musk tears up while talking about his burdens of responsibility regarding Demo-2, given that there’s more than simply money at stake. Manning the Dragon spacecraft are Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, NASA vets who relish the opportunity to re-enter the cockpit, and both men speak eloquently about their steadfast devotion to their (and Musk’s) chosen cause. That Hurley and Behnken are married to fellow astronauts, and leaving behind young kids, further underscores how much is riding on their success, and though their ultimate fate is now common knowledge, Return to Space nevertheless brings us so close to them that it generates considerable suspense as launch day draws near.

On more than one occasion, Musk tears up while talking about his burdens of responsibility regarding Demo-2, given that there’s more than simply money at stake.

Even better than its nerve-jangling sequences of Demo-2 lifting off, docking with the International Space Station, and making its perilous return voyage back to Earth is the film’s snapshot of SpaceX’s routine failures. Musk’s company believes that hands-on mistakes provide the insights necessary for progress, and consequently, Return to Space doesn’t shy away from clips of malfunctioning flameouts and exploding rockets. It’s a forthright admission that nothing great is accomplished on the first go, as well as a reminder about this work’s intense danger. SpaceX operates with virtually zero margin for error, and if that weren’t apparent from their own canvas trying to get Hurley and Behnken safely into space, it’s touchingly hammered home by recaps of the Challenger and Columbia tragedies, whose legacies hang over everyone in this field.

Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken in Return to Space


Return to Space can’t help but feel like SpaceX PR. Still, its depiction of the company’s objectives and methods doesn’t appear to be overly compromised, in large part because Musk and company’s declarations about their true-believer motivations are so obviously genuine, and their methods are so rigorous and trailblazing. When Musk says that technological improvements aren’t inevitable, he’s both correct and making a plea to the world to strive for something more, not only when it comes to space travel, but in every and all other arenas. Though the sincerity of Musk’s sentiments may not jibe with his general pop-culture persona, it’s ever-present in Vasarhelyi and Chin’s film. Furthermore, it’s matched by the earnestness of Hurley and Behnken’s comments about the profundity of being in space, where the Earth’s enormity casts our own individual insignificance, and our common unity as inhabitants of the same planet, into sharp and worldview-transforming relief.

In that regard, Return to Space is less about the particular value of setting up shop on Mars than it is about mankind’s need to keep moving forward. It’s a heartening and hopeful film about inventors and dreamers seeking to make the impossible possible and suggests that it’s only a matter of time before we’re watching future Netflix documentaries about SpaceX’s trips to the moon—and beyond.


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