- Movie Rating -

Return to Space (2022)

| April 8, 2022

Netflix’s SpaceX documentary Return to Space is a work of love and hope and wonder – at least when it’s not stroking the fevering dreams of Elon Musk.  Here is a documentary for and about one of the wealthiest men in the world, a man whose dreams of returning to space dance in his eyes as he talks about things that most of us deem impossible: returning to the moon, colonies on Mars, etc.  I admire it for that.  I admire directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar two years ago for Free Solo, for keeping things on a hopeful note.

That’s kind of the spirit that keeps the dream of space exploration alive; the future, after all, belongs to the dreamers and to the foolhardy.  It is also a little bit vain and silly to think of reigniting the space program at a moment of crisis on our planet: racial problems, a global pandemic, a brutal war in the Ukraine and, here at home, a childish nightmare circus of political in-fighting.  Can anyone really afford to do this?

The bigger question posed by Return to Space is, can we afford not to?  Earth may be the cradle of mankind but we haven’t moved very far outside the cradle and if it takes a starry-eye dreamer like Elon Musk to get things moving, then so be it.

The film chronicles the launch of Demo-2 in 2020 with the mission of transporting astronauts from American soil to the International Space Station for the first time in nearly a decade.  Leading up to it are the massive complications, failures and concerns that kept things from moving forward.  Always at the center is Musk’s dream and the mission’s primary number one concern: getting a crew into space and returning them safely to the Earth.  Those concerns come to us with heartbreaking reminders of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003, lessons learned the hard way from the people working for SpaceX.  Musk’s involvement comes to us through constant reminders of how America has pulled away from the space program due to budget concerns and also general public indifference.

One element that Musk is able to provide is money, something that is just no longer feasible for the government to handle (and to which this year’s documentary Summer of Soul pointed out, is crazy given the level of poverty still present in the American landscape).  Musk established SpaceX in 2002 in order to get a better handle by reducing the cost of space travel.  We learn, alarmingly, that America has spent $350 billion on space travel since 1969 and that there have been 350 people that we have sent into space, meaning that space travel has cost about a billion a person.  That’s part of reason that the space shuttle program was shut down in July 2011 and its part of the issue that Musk wants to correct, by making space travel and space exploration more affordable.  It sounds crazy, but then so does space exploration itself.

The team’s massive idea is to do away with the old method of having a disposable rocket that detaches and then burns up in the atmosphere.  The new design would be more like Star Wars, in which the rocket could be reused and return to Earth using grid fins.  As insane as that sounds, it makes sense when it you see it.  And it becomes all the more real when you see test after test fail as they struggle to get it right.  Yet, no matter how many times things fail, Musk always holds fast to the idea that it can work.  He is hopeful and that’s what keeps things going.  That’s what makes the joy of the success of Demo-2 all the sweeter.  


And of course, hovering over this whole enterprise is the question of the necessity of space exploration itself.  Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin want to keep things hopeful and forward-thinking, so the question of whether or not these resources aren’t better spent elsewhere are never addressed.  Here we are in the third decade of the twenty-first century and mankind is still killing one another, still maintaining wealth for some and poverty for others, still struggling to find ways for us to understand each other.  Where, you may ask, does space exploration fit into all of that?  Should our attention be focused elsewhere?  Is now the right time?  Ah!  Therein lies another question.  If not now, when?  Can we wait until the world’s problems have subsided before we look to the stars?  I don’t think so.  I think Musk is looking for mankind to discover that it can be better than it knows it can be.





About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2022) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary