The job is to go boldly, and it’s the nerds who do it
Back in space ★★★★
128 minutes, rated MA 15+, Netflix Exclusive
For my generation, the moon landing in 1969 was a huge boost of optimism. There was hope for humanity, despite what was happening in Vietnam. For a later generation, the explosion of the Challenger in 1986 was a galvanizing shock: we must do better.
Watching Elon Musk nervously stand in the control room of his company SpaceX as two American astronauts dock at the International Space Station, only to be hugged by two Russians and an American, is perhaps the definition of cognitive dissonance. We can do that but not stop a war in Ukraine?
back in space speaks of the triumph of trade, as well as rockets. It’s about corporate America’s return to the big quest, after Challenger undermined the US government’s willingness to pay. Musk wants to commercialize interplanetary travel — putting a human on the moon and then on Mars with reusable rockets, rather than NASA throwaways. The film shows how much cheaper it is, if not how much money Musk is now making by becoming NASA’s favorite launcher. He may now be the richest man in the world, but to be fair, he bet the farm on this project.
We learn a lot about his manic energy and creativity. It’s like being in the room with Howard Hughes – except Musk is a product of South Africa and Canada, as well as America. Its capitalism is driven by corny boyish dreams of becoming a multi-planet civilization. He doesn’t say how we’re going to avoid destroying other planets, but he wants us to talk about it.
The film is another puzzle creation from Jimmy Chin and his partner (and wife) Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. Chin made a name for himself hanging from mountain ropes with a camera, filming climbers. These two brought us two excellent adventures in Free Solo and The rescue, about Thai children in the cave. They are very adept at putting together a film, rather than just shooting it. They couldn’t go into space, but the cameras were already there. They can and do follow the two Americans who will return to the ISS on the first commercial American spacecraft in a generation; they can and do get close enough to feel Elon Musk’s fear as they launch. Don’t ask if it’s worth it: the job is to go for it boldly, and the nerds do it. Nobody in Houston ever said “oh f—” in the control room, but it’s “Space, Generation X”, man.
It’s fabulously watchable, even at 128 minutes, because you learn more about these humans than their machines. Returning to space is the dream of a better humanity, not just money. At this level, it is good to invest a little hope.