Return to Space an indulgent Elon Musk vehicle

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By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Arts & Culture Reporter

How much you enjoy Netflix’s Return to Space may depend upon how much you enjoy watching Elon Musk. It’s hard not to think about his disastrous attempts to help in the rescue of the 12 soccer-playing boys and their coach who were trapped in the Tham Luang cave. This is especially true because The Rescue was the topic of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s last film which came out just last year. Return to Space is about Elon Musk and SpaceX and the mission to change space travel.

Musk intones: “Earth is the cradle of humanity; you cannot stay in the cradle forever. It is time to go forth, be out there amongst the stars, expand the scope and scale of human consciousness.” If the plan is to go to the moon and then Mars, you might see a technical error in that statement. If the script had used planets instead of stars, it would have more sense.

If you aren’t familiar with the nastiness Musk brought to the rescue efforts, here’s a quick review. Musk referred to one of the rescuers, Vernon Unsworth, as “pedo guy” in a 15 July 2018 tweet. Musk would, a year later, testify in a Los Angeles courtroom that he didn’t mean the phrase to be a factual statement, but only an insult. Musk was being sued for defamation.  

Musk had his feelings hurt when a CNN video interview showed Unsworth saying that Musk could “stick his submarine where it hurts.” Musk’s idea was to save the boys using a mini-submarine that he had created. This was ultimately shown to be impractical. Musk deleted the tweet. Musk’s attorney used the defense that the tweet was a “JDart” or “a Joke that was badly received, therefore Deleted, with an Apology and then Responsive Tweets to move on from the matter.

Musk prevailed, but for a rich guy with lots of followers name-calling isn’t really a good look, is it? Unsworth is in the documentary, The Rescue, but Musk is not. One can’t help but wonder what led the directors to Musk. 

Unlike Meru (the 2015 documentary about the first ascent of the “Shark Fin” peak in the Indian Himalayas) or Free Solo (the Oscar-winning documentary about Alex Honnold’s free solo climb up Yosemite’s El Capitan),  in Return to Space, you won’t see some of the challenging, breathtaking characteristic cinematography. The Academy Award-winning documentary husband and wife team were somewhat limited by the COVID-19 circumstances. In a virtual press panel, they noted that they had to allow the astronauts to do some of their own cinematography, but, they felt, that allowed them to capture some intimate details of their home life. This is true, but this isn’t just a portrait of the astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. It is also about NASA and SpaceX. 

Musk’s SpaceX had some problems with timing. Dragon 2 launched on 30 May 2020. That’s two months before the Mars Rover 2020 launch (30 July 2020). But it was also five days after George Floyd Jr. died in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Protests and riots broke out nationwide during the days that followed. The protests about police brutality and even the pandemic overshadowed Dragon 2. 

I’ve watched this documentary more than once and the first hour is excruciatingly boring. I’ve watched the 2019 Todd Douglas Miller Apollo 11 documentary a couple of times as well as the three-night six-hour PBS documentary Chasing the Moon. My husband and I used to attend the JPL-NASA open house at the end of spring and I followed the development of the 2020 Mars Rover.

The documentary starts in the middle of the story and there’s just too much Elon Musk. The film falls barely short of gushing. There are things I don’t need to know or see such as the fan moments for “Space Balls” and the flame thrower. There’s a critical eye missing and I don’t mean we should get someone as salty as Unsworth in here, but there’s a need to discuss the downside of making exploration a commercial venture. If there was just a wee bit less adulations for Musk and more critical thinking here, that would help. At two hours and eight minutes, the film is too long. 

Return to Space isn’t persuasive enough to explain why now and why so much money. Sure, I think NASA has improved at showing the world what we’ve gained from space exploration, and it was cool that William Shatner made it into space at 90 (on Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin), but we’ve got more problems than just the inequity of our social systems that troubled activists during the original Apollo program era and in contemporary times, caused a flood of activists to take to the streets in May of 2020. We have global warming and time is running out. Mars is an incredible and worthy goal, but it won’t sustain all life from here. If we don’t save our planet Earth first, what good will going to Mars do? 

This is a topic Musk and the documentary bring up at the beginning.

Musk says: “There’s a little candle of consciousness on Earth that hasn’t been around very long and it could easily go out. It could be a meteor, extreme climate change. Who knows? A Third World War. Clearly, we need to preserve the light of consciousness in the future by becoming a multi-planet species, extending life beyond Earth.” 

American science communicator Tim Dodd, the YouTube creator known as Everyday Astronaut, tells us that “Thirty-five percent of my audience is in the United States. Sixty-five percent is an international audience so space flight is literally uniting people around this common goal of space exploration.” But really it seems to be uniting viewers. 

The documentary does mention Musk’s competition. Besides SpaceX, there’s Blue Origin and  Virgin Galactic.  Richard Branson aims for commercial space travel. SpaceX won the NASA contract for the lunar lander, but Blue Origin excited the geek world when it took Captain Kirk to space.  Knowing about this competition makes Dodd’s quote, which comes in the first 15 minutes of the documentary, seem disingenuous.

The question then becomes, is it a time to be competing against ourselves when the space shuttle seemed to usher in a time of international cooperation? The possibility of international cooperation has, of course, been quashed by a certain extent by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which makes Musk’s beginning statement about World War III seem more ominous. 

What also is missing from the film is diversity. The Mercury and Apollo programs brought opportunities to women as computers (or computresses)  and, as the 2016 film Hidden Figures, illustrated, that opportunity was open to Black women as well. The documentary Apollo 11 also featured Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, who also started her career as a NASA computer and became the first female engineer to work in NASA’s Mission Control. The talking heads for Return to Space seems to be all White (including German aerospace engineer Hans Koenigsmann who is now retired from the company) and although there are female talking heads, the presence of White women isn’t the novelty today that it once was. SpaceX is headquartered in Hawthorne. According to the 2020 US Census, Hawthorne is 34.5 percent White, 27 percent Black or African American, six percent Asian, and 54 percent Hispanic or Latino including 41% classified as White (Hispanic). 

There have been Hispanic astronauts, including one who was born in Inglewood (Joseph M. Acaba). Inglewood is north of Hawthorne and is currently 40.8 percent Black or African American and .49 percent Hispanic or Latino.  Is SpaceX bringing STEM opportunities to these communities?

Return to Space is currently streaming on Netflix as of 7 April 2022. For my full review, visit my blog, AgeOfTheGeek.org.

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