‘The point is ambition’: are we ready to follow Netflix into space? | Documentary

The rise of commercial space travel is here, and for the vast majority who cannot afford its millions-plus price tag, streaming platforms are here to capture it. Starting this week, Netflix will air the first two installments of Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space, its first docuseries to cover an event – SpaceX’s launch of its first all-civilian crew on a three-day trip circling Earth – in “near real time.” Subsequent episodes will document the four astronauts’ preparation for the 15 September launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Episodes three and four will air just two days prior; a feature-length finale film of the mission itself will air in late September.

The series, directed by veteran sports documentarian Jason Hehir, best known for The Last Dance, promises to take audiences behind the scenes of the Inspiration4 mission, from the astronaut selection to the training and eventual takeoff. Netflix, as well as the passengers and SpaceX figures introduced in the first two episodes, are billing the trip as a paradigm shift in space exploration: an aperture in commercial space travel, a small but significant advancement toward the proliferation of rocket transportation, and new frontier for reality television.

“Inspiration4 is just a really small step along that journey toward a Jetsons world where everyone’s going to jump in their spacecraft and journey in the worlds beyond ours,” Jared Isaacman, the 38-year-old billionaire chief executive of Shift4 Payments and long-time flight enthusiast who will be the mission’s commander, told the Guardian. “I don’t think it’s just going to be a few people for a long time,” he added, comparing space travel now, executed by private companies such as Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic with exorbitant price tags, to the early days of experimental aviation. “This is starting with a few, for sure, but this going to open up to the many.”

Until then, commercial space travel remains an ultra-expensive, ultra-exclusive club predominantly spurred by the mega-rich, with live-streams for everyone else. In July, Blue Origin live-streamed its launch of Jeff Bezos on a 11-minute suborbital space journey on its YouTube channel and on Amazon Prime; Virgin Galactic also streamed founder Richard Branson’s 59-minute space flight on YouTube, and recruited a popular science TikTok star for a future trip. It’s a given, as the environmentally questionable business of space tourism continues to expand, that reality TV will ride along – in April, Nasa signed a Space Act Agreement with the production company “Space Hero” to “[facilitate] initial cooperation and information sharing” for a competition show that would send the winner on an expensive trip to the International Space Station as early as 2023.

There’s a game show undercurrent to Countdown, the Netflix series, whose first two episodes predominantly serve to introduce viewers to the civilian astronauts, selected by a Willy Wonka-like arbitrary process tied to four core mission values.

Besides Isaacman (“Leadership”), who declined to specify the amount paid to participate in the mission (but did say proceeds raised for the pediatric cancer specialists at St Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee would exceed the cost of the mission), the group includes Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old pediatric cancer survivor and physician assistant at St Jude’s, which nominated her to symbolize the value of “Hope”; Sian Proctor, 51, of Phoenix, Arizona, a geology professor who won a spot on Inspiration4 through an competition assessing entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to go semi-viral (“Prosperity”); and Chris Sembrowski, 42, a data engineer and air force veteran from Everett, Washington, selected off a list of donors to St Jude’s as part of Inspiration4’s Superbowl campaign (“Generosity”).

All are new to astrodynamics, ordinary figures unused to cameras and spotlight. It’s a far cry from Hehir’s mission on The Last Dance, in which his team endeavored to “de-iconize” a celebrity as ubiquitous and iconic as Michael Jordan. Though Countdown will build, in real time, the iconography of Inspiration4, Hehir assures that the project is not acting as gauzy PR for the company – “I didn’t see it as our role to aggrandize SpaceX,” he told the Guardian. “I thought it was necessary to outline what their mission is, why are we doing this – because one of the first questions is always that it’s another billionaire going to space, what’s the point? The point is ambition, seeing what else is out there, and the point in a charitable sense is raising $200m for St Jude’s.”

This is the most common criticism levied at SpaceX, and private space travel in general, one Hehir floats midway through the first episode – why send, or care about, billionaires going to space when there’s an abundance of earthbound issues that need addressing, most pressingly the climate emergency. Asked his response to such backlash, Isaacman echoed his answer in the first episode of the series: “We absolutely believe in balance here,” he said. “It’s been right from the start, from the creation of Inspiration4, that we’ve said: ‘we have to address some of the problems of today to earn the right to make progress for tomorrow,’” pointing to the fundraising effort for St Jude’s.

Photograph: John Kraus/2021 Inspiration4 2021/Netflix/AFP/Getty Images

SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, appears in the first episode for brief overviews on the mission of Inspiration4 (civilian orbital space flight) and the company at large (colonization of Mars). It was “necessary to have [Musk] in it,” Hehir said, “because he is the face of that company and I felt that we owe it to our viewers for him to do two things. One, to articulate what the company’s mission is, and then two, to address the criticism that is so pervasive these days, of billionaires going into space and the privilege of wealth.” (Musk’s answer to the billionaire-critique is that “99%-plus of our economy should be dedicated to solving problems on Earth” but a multi-planet, space-bearing civilization is an “exciting, inspiring future.”)

“I had no interest in mythologizing that company or making it out that they’re saviors of the world,” Hehir said. “But I do think it’s important if you’re going to understand the ambition of the mission, to understand the ambition of the company itself.”

If all goes according to plan, the final episode, turned around on a snap days-long production timeline, will capture the Inspiration4’s crew successful return to Earth. The first two episodes find each weighing the inherent risk of space travel; Proctor, in particular, remembers watching the Challenger disaster exploded on live television in 1986, killing all seven crew on board (captured on camera: the shock and grief of Grace and Edward Corrigan, whose daughter Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher from New Hampshire, was to be the first American civilian in space).

“I understand what calculated risk is and what the reward is,” she told the Guardian, “and the reward of human space flight far exceeds the risk.”

Proctor, who was born in Guam, where her father worked for Nasa at an Apollo tracking station, will be only the fourth black American women ever to travel to space (to date, only about 600 people have made the journey). Bubbling with a Ms Frizzle-esque enthusiasm for space exploration, Proctor is using to her spot aboard Inspiration4 to highlight black women’s long-overlooked role in American space travel. “We’re opening up the door for people who normally would have thought of being an astronaut or going to space, giving them the insight into how we’re doing it, and how times are changing,” she said of participating in the first all-civilian space flight.

“Old space was exclusive and you had to be the best of the best, you had to fit certain criteria. This is new space that’s emerging, that enables us to open up who gets to go and participate and write the narrative of human space flight,” she added, mapping out what she called a “Jedi” space — Just, Equitable, Diverse, and Inclusive.

It remains to be seen if that narrative of a more democratic space will come to pass – and if Inspiration4 will push past skepticism of ultra-expensive, privately funded space flight. Regardless, the mission, and the messaging attached to it, will be televised, bringing the vast frontier to your personal screen.