Celebrating the momentous occasion of America's return to crewed spaceflight two years ago, a new documentary feature from Emmy and Academy Award winning filmmakers Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin ("Meru," "Free Solo") is about to launch onto Netflix (opens in new tab) starting April 7.
"Return To Space" chronicles the accomplishments of Elon Musk and his entire SpaceX team as they embarked on a historic NASA mission on May 30, 2020, to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station from the U.S. for the first time since the space shuttle Atlantis took its final flight in July 2011. The mission, called Demo-2, carried veteran astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to orbit for about two months.
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With moving insights into the hopes and concerns of all participant involved, Vasarhelyi and Chin have crafted a remarkable film that welcomes viewers into the unforgiving business of space travel and its myriad dangers and triumphs.
From images of early SpaceX rockets exploding in roiling fireballs, to tearful anticipation and tense preparation, an intimate tour of the SpaceX Dragon 2 spacecraft, and an amusing rundown of pre-launch superstitious rituals, "Return To Space" showcases a vital step in the evolution of commercial spaceflight.
Space.com spoke with Vasarhelyi and Chin on how they became involved with this project, the challenges of filming during the outbreak of the pandemic, spending time with a visionary like [SpaceX founder] Elon Musk, and whether or not they'd hop aboard a rocket for a tourist trip into space.
Space.com: How did you become attached to this project and what were your goals?
Chai Vasarhelyi: We'd been interested in the story for a long time and were also space enthusiasts. It seemed like an important event that marked, in a very real way, this new era in our relationship as humans to space. We were interested in calling attention to that and also to examine and document the humans who were behind that. It's Bob [Behnken] and Doug [Hurley]. It's Hans [Koenigsmann, who was a vice president at SpaceX until 2021] and Elon [Musk]. It's engineers. And hopefully to raise some questions about this and the ethics involved. So we wanted to create a human connection between the story that seems so big and the people at home.
Space.com: What were the challenges and rewards of filming "Return To Space?"
CV: Covid was a huge challenge because space doesn't stop with Covid and we were already making this film and we had a deadline. That was hard because our films are made on intimacy. We enjoy spending time with the people in our films. The silver lining of that was that the astronauts began filming themselves, and so that provided some very intimate glimpses into their personal lives that normally would have been hard to access.
Jimmy Chin: The rewards were that we were so invested in the missions and the success of these missions that when they pulled off the impossible it was so rewarding. To see them dock at the space station and be a part of that mission and then make it back home safely, we were holding our breath like everybody else. But we did have a bit more insight on the risk than the general public.
Space.com: What was it like being around Elon Musk and did you learn anything you didn’t know about him before?
CV: He's the real deal. Elon thinks about consciousness and thinks about these big questions. He's incredibly passionate about it and the people that work with him very much respect him and the risks he took. He's one of these people you listen to and then you think about what he says. He's also quite goofy and really loves sci-fi. He's very authentic.
Space.com: Were you able to include all the footage you hoped to include in your final cut?
CV: For the most part, yes. But all of the scientists are pretty eccentric. There's a lot of superstition and things like lucky "Star Wars" socks that we touch on but we could have definitely gone further. It just speaks to what they love about what they do, which is kind of fun.
Space.com: If the opportunity arose, would you take a trip up into space?
JC: If it arose? Yes. I have faith in the work that SpaceX has done and the safety measures they've considered. Sure, I'd love to. I'd love to see Earth from space.
CV: It's an interesting question. I think my consciousness would be blown if I saw the Earth from space. It would change my work. It would change what I do. It would change how I parent. But I also like our six and eight-year-olds very much and I'm not willing to take certain risks.
Space.com: How did working around Elon Musk and these ultra smart astronauts and talented engineers change you as people and artists?
CV: My dad is a professor of artificial intelligence so it was like coming home. I grew up with a bunch of scientists and Thanksgiving always had a bunch of professors instead of family. It was a very comfortable place to be. It's always inspiring to see people who love what they do. And people who work in space love what they do and they think about big questions, but they're also just like normal people.
JC: I relate it to the idea that they have these amazing extraordinary dreams, and the sacrifices they make to achieve those dreams. The risks that they take and the decisions they have to make. In a lot of ways that's very familiar to me as well and I related deeply to all the characters. This is their career but it's what they love and the stakes are extraordinarily high. They have to be the best at what they do to pull it off. And that's always inspiring to me.
"Return to Space" arrives on Netflix starting on Thursday, April 7.