On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia left for its 28th flight. It never returned. After completing their mission in orbit, the crew returned to Earth’s atmosphere, where a large piece of foam insulation fell from the shuttle’s external tank and hit its left wing, causing the whole spacecraft to break up. All seven NASA astronauts aboard died.
In the aftermath of the disaster, NASA and the US government made the painful decision to wind down the space shuttle program. Around the same time, little-known billionaire and Paypal founder Elon Musk launched a space exploration startup. In an industry dominated by heavyweights like Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the company struggled for years, especially after its first three rockets all failed.
But, despite the long odds, Musk and SpaceX managed to succeed, developing lower-cost, reusable rockets that can be brought safely back to the ground and sent to space again. In 2020, SpaceX launched a Dragon capsule that delivered NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station, marking the first time a commercial spacecraft completed a mission to the ISS.
Or, at least, that’s the story told in Netflix’s new documentary, Return to Space. In the doc, out today, directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (Free Solo) go to great lengths to show how SpaceX brought crewed launches back to the US, nearly a decade after the last shuttle flight in 2011. As SpaceX marks its 20th anniversary, the film paints a picture of the company as a necessity for the future, as Russia cuts off most of the world from the use of Soyuz spacecraft, and more customers need cheaper Uber- or FedEx-like services to space. It’s a nice movie, but it’s not the whole story.
Musk’s rhetoric might make it seem like SpaceX will usher in a new era of spaceflight and save humanity by building colonies on Mars and other inhospitable worlds, but his company, and others like it, wouldn’t exist without NASA and NASA contracts. When it became evident the space agency couldn’t achieve its vast ambitions without delegating some tasks to others, NASA played a fundamental role in propping up the fledgling industry, one it still plays today.
Regardless of who drives the space taxi, the real action happens in orbit and beyond. SpaceX now provides key services, shuttling astronauts into orbit and completing supply runs, but NASA and other space agencies are the ones supporting the ISS, developing important research on the health impacts of space radiation and life in microgravity, and maintaining critical infrastructure on the ground. During the post-shuttle and pre-Dragon years, NASA developed a new crew capsule and dozens of groundbreaking uncrewed spacecraft, including ones sallying forth into deep space, toward the sun, Mars, asteroids, Jupiter, and Pluto, to name a few. Despite Musk’s claims, NASA still leads the way on space exploration.
It’s true that SpaceX’s efforts to lower the costs of getting equipment and crews into space have been game-changing. In an interview with WIRED, Chin went so far as to say the company is “just in a different stratosphere.” Yet in praising the company, Return to Space largely ignores a lot of shortcomings, like environmental concerns about SpaceX’s launch sites and Starlink satellites. While the two-hour movie spends plenty of time with charismatic astronauts, it gives scant mention of Musk’s erratic and mercurial behavior. It mentions his tweets about flamethrowers and shows him on Joe Rogan’s podcast, but it leaves out his Twitter attacks on journalists, his cavalier dismissal of Covid-19 concerns, and his short-lived relationship with former president Donald Trump. Vasarhelyi says she and her codirector wanted to show Musk “in his complexity” but that “the story is not about Elon.” Perhaps, but when the two are so inextricably linked in the public consciousness, it feels remiss to delve so deeply into one but not the other.