Say what you will about Elon Musk (and Twitter on any given day has a lot), but NASA loves the mega-billionaire and founder of SpaceX—and the documentary Return to Space makes it easy to understand why.
Streaming on Netflix, Return to Space isn’t just a bunch of accolades for Musk, though. Rather, it captures the suspense and wonder of sending humans into space, giving much of the focus to the astronauts whom SpaceX helped launch again in 2020 after nearly a decade on the ground.
Starting with the demo rocket launch that solidified the partnership between the U.S. government and this private company, Return to Space takes viewers through a brief reverse chronology of the U.S. space program. That’s hardly as dry as it might sound, thanks to interviews with astronauts and NASA administrators. Blending archive clips with stunning footage aboard rockets and the International Space Station (ISS), Return to Space parallels that history with SpaceX’s efforts to create a reusable rocket, sending astronauts to the stars who never thought they’d fly again.
Part of what makes Return to Space so engrossing is the access that directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (Free Solo, The Rescue) had to SpaceX’s early flops, as well as its eventual triumphs. Yet the two also document the infectious camaraderie of people who sincerely love what they do. Everyone working on the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule wants this mission to succeed, investing viewers in its success, too.
As the film notes, exorbitant costs and safety concerns ended the space shuttle program in 2011. Afterward, the United States paid Russia $82 million for each American astronaut who rode to the ISS aboard a Russian spacecraft.
Enter Musk, who marvels about how NASA last went to the moon in 1972 and hasn’t been back since. Then-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine calls this a “failure of our nation.”
Earth is a “little candle of consciousness” that really hasn’t been around all that long, Musk says. He anchors his curiosity about space travel in the sobering notion that climate change, war, and other factors might force humans to live elsewhere.
The game-changer for partnering with NASA—and reigniting a viable space program—was developing a reusable orbital rocket, which NASA notes slashes these missions to about one-tenth of their original cost. It took seven years for this to work, but when it does, Return to Space conveys the team’s joy through a whimsical montage of the rocket’s pitch-perfect landings set to “The Blue Danube Waltz.”
Return to Space briefly mentions other space-minded ventures from billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, with voiceover from one newsmagazine wondering whether “space travel today is all about money and ego.” While that may be the case for some, Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin convey the fire of exploration through the NASA and SpaceX teams, to whom Musk takes a backseat. The film briefly touches on Musk’s eccentricities, but he comes across here as genuinely respectful of the astronauts and other scientists and becomes teary when insisting upon their safety.
The film hones in on astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, whom SpaceX and NASA sent to the ISS for a three-month mission in 2020. The two worked with SpaceX on an “abort system,” which automatically separates the capsule in case of a problem, parachuting it back to Earth. Both men had been on previous space missions (as had their wives, Megan McArthur and Karen Nyberg), and were on the runway in 2003 when the shuttle Columbia broke apart on its trip home. The risk is never far from their minds.
The gripping second half follows Behnken and Hurley’s mission in detail, from the launch to an intimate look at life aboard the space station (including a peek at the astronauts’ bathroom and sleeping quarters). Before their capsule returns in a triumphant splashdown, viewers see an awe-inspiring spacewalk that cycles through sunrise and sunset. If that doesn’t inspire goosebumps, the closeup shots of takeoffs, landings, and docking will.
Even knowing of their success, Return to Space proves suspenseful, showing tented fingers in the control room, mutterings of hope and encouragement, and delicate music. The film even runs through the teams’ launch day superstitions, from shaving (or not) to placing notes in their shoes. By taking viewers on this journey, Return to Space offers a deeply personal look at why some feel drawn to the stars, how protective they feel toward the Earth, and how, as one person says, people rallying around a project can make magic happen.