Netflix documentary on SpaceX doesn’t tell the whole story

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1st of February, 2003, space shuttle Colombia went on his 28th flight. He never returned. During launch, a large piece of foam insulation fell out of the shuttle’s outer tank and hit its left wing, and when the crew returned to the Earth’s atmosphere after their mission, this led to the destruction of the entire spacecraft. All seven NASA astronauts on board died.

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In the wake of the disaster, NASA and the US government made the painful decision to end the space shuttle program. Around the same time, the little-known billionaire and founder of Paypal Elon Musk launched a space exploration startup. In an industry dominated by heavyweights like Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the company struggled for years, especially after all of its first three missiles failed.


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But despite the odds, Musk and SpaceX succeeded in developing low-cost, reusable rockets that could be safely brought back to earth and sent back into space. In 2020, SpaceX launched the Dragon capsule that carried NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station, marking the first time a commercial spacecraft has completed a mission to the ISS.

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Or at least that’s the story told in the new Netflix documentary. Return to space. In a document released today, directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarheli and Jimmy Chin (free solo) are doing their best to show how SpaceX brought manned launches back to the US almost ten years after the last shuttle flight in 2011. As SpaceX celebrates its 20th anniversary, the film paints a picture of the company as a must for the future as Russia cuts off much of the world from Soyuz spacecraft and more customers demand cheaper space services like Uber or FedEx. Good movie, but that’s not the whole story.

From Musk’s rhetoric, it might seem that SpaceX will usher in a new era of space travel and save humanity by building colonies on Mars and other inhospitable worlds, but his company and others like it would not exist without NASA and NASA contracts. When it became clear that the space agency could not realize its huge ambitions without delegating some tasks to others, NASA played a fundamental role in supporting the fledgling industry that it still plays today.

Regardless of who drives the space taxi, the real action takes place in orbit and beyond. Right now, SpaceX is providing key services, sending astronauts into orbit and completing deliveries, but NASA and other space agencies are supporting the ISS, developing critical research on the effects of space radiation on health and life in microgravity, and maintaining critical infrastructure on Earth. . In the years after the shuttle and before the Dragon, NASA developed a new crew capsule and dozens of ground-breaking unmanned spacecraft, including those that made deep space missions to the Sun, Mars, asteroids, Jupiter and Pluto, to name but a few. Despite Musk’s claims, NASA is still leading the way in space exploration.

It’s true that SpaceX’s efforts to lower the cost of getting equipment and crew into space have been a game changer. In an interview with WIRED, Chin went so far as to say that the company is “just in a different stratosphere.” However, while praising the company, Return to space largely ignores many shortcomings, such as environmental concerns regarding SpaceX launch pads and Starlink satellites. While the two-hour film devotes a lot of time to the charismatic astronauts, it makes little mention of Musk’s erratic and erratic behavior. He mentions his flamethrower tweets and features him on Joe Rogan’s podcast, but doesn’t mention his Twitter. attacks on journalistshis cavalier dismissal problems of Covid-19, and short-lived relationship with former President Donald Trump. Vasarkheli says she and her co-director wanted to show Musk “in all his complexity” but that “the story is not about Elon.” Perhaps, but when the two are so inextricably linked in the public mind, it seems remiss to delve so deeply into one but not the other.

Return to space only casually mentions other space companies, but that choice makes more sense given that currently only SpaceX can get astronauts into orbit. (The spaceflights of Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic were suborbital.) But SpaceX rivals Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance are developing their own heavy-lift launch vehicles, and Northrop Grumman and Sierra Nevada Corp. and SpaceX have NASA. contracts for the supply of cargo to the ISS.

The film would also benefit from discussing the nationalism associated with praising the return of launches to “US soil”. In space exploration there will always be an element of rivalry and struggle for leadership. But ultimately it must be a joint venture with humanity at its center. After all, Canadian, European and Japanese astronauts have no problem launching from the US. There is nothing wrong with one country helping another get to and from orbit. (This seems to have changed in Russia’s conflict in Ukrainebut that spirit may return.)

On the halfway Return to spacethe music of Johann Strauss swells, calling 2001: Space Odyssey, during SpaceX’s first successful landing of a Falcon 9 rocket. “When this thing finally landed and landed perfectly on target, it’s just one of those moments you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life,” says Lars Blackmore, Senior Engineer SpaceX, on camera. The film then cuts to former NASA Associate Administrator Lori Garver, who makes it clear, “Elon and SpaceX have completely changed our industry because everything is reusable. Now they can launch for a tenth of what we had.” It may be true, but NASA still pays the bills.

Updated 04/08/2022 1:50 PM ET: This story has been updated to clarify the sequence of events of the Shuttle Columbia disaster.

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