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Review: Countdown

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Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space
directed by Jason Hehir
Netflix, 2021
Five episodes, 244 minutes
Rated TV-14

A new era of commercial human spaceflight means a new era in media relations—and also, perhaps, a return to the earliest days of the Space Age. When Blue Origin conducted its first crewed New Shepard suborbital flight in July, Jeff Bezos and crewmates performed a handful of television interviews the day before the flight and immediately after landing. But, at a post-flight event billed to attending journalists as a press conference, he took questions from just three reporters before moving on. Virgin Galactic, at its flight earlier that month, did take more questions from reporters during a half-hour press conference after its SpaceShipTwo flight. However, it kept journalists at a distance from other attendees earlier in the morning at Spaceport America, even going as far as having a security guard shoo away any guests who had wandered over to the fence separating them from the media section to willingly chat with reporters.

There is dramatic aerial footage of the launch—shot, presumably, from a drone near the pad—looking down as the Falcon 9 lifts off, turning dusk briefly back to day, and following it until the rocket soars past towards space.

Inspiration4, the private orbital crewed spaceflight on a SpaceX Crew Dragon last month, had its own approach to media. There were a few media briefings between the time the mission was announced in February and the launch in September, although some reporters complained they couldn’t get access to the phone line for the final briefing the day before launch. However, the project invested more in special arrangements with specific outlets. Shortly after the announcement of Inspiration4, Time revealed it had secured the “competitive documentary rights” to the mission, giving it “exclusive access to the groundbreaking mission.”

While Time featured Inspiration4 in a cover story in August, the culmination of that effort was Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space, a documentary series available on Netflix. The five-part series follows the mission from Jared Isaacman’s announcement of the mission and select of the three people who fly with him through training. The final episode, released last week, covers the mission itself, from final preparations for launch through splashdown.

The first two episodes are really introductions to the mission and the crew. The first covers Isaacman, the billionaire backer and commander of the mission, as well as Hayley Arceneaux, the St. Jude physician assistant and pediatric cancer survivor picked to fly, not to mention background on the mission itself. The second covers the other two participants, Sian Proctor and Christopher Sembroski, selected through contests. The third and fourth episodes go through various training for the crew, from centrifuges and high-performance jets to a climb of Mt. Rainier.

The payoff comes in the final episode, released last week (the first four were released in early September.) This episode starts in the final days before launch, when the crew arrives at the Kennedy Space Center for their final preparations and launch rehearsals—and goodbyes to loved ones—and then launch itself. Then we get to see the four in orbit, with much more footage than was available in realtime during the three-day mission. It concludes with the splashdown and the crew reuniting with their families, wrapping up a successful mission that has changed their lives and took a step forward for commercial spaceflight.

While the footage, and the interviews, were fascinating, the documentary seems to lack something: drama.

The filmmakers took advantage of their exclusive access to take viewers behind the scenes of the mission. There are extensive interviews with the four crewmembers, their families, and others working on the mission, including SpaceX employees (Elon Musk makes brief appearances in the show, but isn’t a central figure.) There is dramatic aerial footage of the launch—shot, presumably, from a drone near the pad—looking down as the Falcon 9 lifts off, turning dusk briefly back to day, and following it until the rocket soars past towards space. There’s also video of the crew in space, having fun in weightlessness and enjoying the views of Earth from the spacecraft’s cupola, far more than the glimpses we got during the mission.

While the footage, and the interviews, were fascinating, the documentary seems to lack something: drama. Yes, there’s the thrill of the launch and landing, but by the time viewers saw the final episode the mission the crew had been safely back for a week and a half. Rarely over the course of training and the flight itself do you see the crew dealing with setbacks or problems, or even disagreements among themselves.

And we know that, while the mission was highly successful, it wasn’t perfect. During a post-splashdown call, SpaceX and Inspiration4 officials acknowledged a minor problem with the spacecraft’s toilet: not a mission-ending issue but something that the crew and ground controllers had to address. That doesn’t come up in the show, which instead shows the crew holding video conferences with their families and St. Jude patients, playing with their food in weightlessness, and looking out the window.

Similarly, in that media call, Inspiration4’s Todd Ericson suggested that at least some of the crew experienced spacesickness, saying that the crew was “tracking on target to NASA astronauts”; past studies have indicated half or more of NASA astronauts experience spacesickness to some degree in their first few days in space. But in none of the footage did anyone on Inspiration4 look sick, and the topic never came up.

The documentary also leaves unanswered other questions about the mission, like its origins. Isaacman said he was long interested in space and attended a 2008 Soyuz launch whose crew included private astronaut Richard Garriott. But in the documentary he’s vague about how the mission got started. He said he mentioned he was on a call last year with SpaceX “not related to me going to space or any human going to space” where he offhandedly mentions he would be interested in going to space. “Actually, we might be a lot more ready than you might think, and if you want you have the opportunity to be the first,” he said he recalls them saying. He never says what that unrelated discussion was about—he runs a payment processing company, so his professional overlap with SpaceX would be limited—or just how that comment turned into a contract. (A slide visible in a meeting shown later in the first episode shows that the contract was signed in November 2020, with a kickoff meeting in January, just before SpaceX and Inspiration4 publicly announced the mission.)

Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space is, in some respects, something of a throwback to the early days of spaceflight. The Mercury 7 astronauts had an exclusive contract with Life magazine, giving the magazine special access to the astronauts and their families in exchange for glowing, and sanitized, coverage of them. That was an approach later discontinued by NASA after criticism from other publications. The difference is that, in this new era of private human spaceflight, companies are well within their rights to set up exclusive media deals and decide with whom they want to work. But there is a value in openness that goes beyond the monetary value of any exclusive arrangement, one that spaceflight companies would do well to consider in the future.

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