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Netflix’s SpaceX docuseries misses the mark on Inspiration4

The new Netflix docuseries about SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission can’t help but feel unfinished, precisely because the mission will not even launch until September 15 (from Kennedy Space Center in Florida). Inspiration4 is set to be the first all-civilian mission into orbit—meaning there won’t be trained astronauts who hail from a national astronaut corps. We’re talking private citizens, taking a private vehicle up into space for a few days before coming back down to Earth. The first two episodes are streaming right now, but the next two won’t premiere until September 13, and the last segment won’t be released until later this month, after the mission has already wrapped up. 

That’s important to remember, because the first two episodes of Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space spend a lot of time trying to convince you that what’s about to happen is a big deal. As a result, it comes off more like an advertisement for SpaceX than something that really asks any hard questions or tries to win any skeptics over. Countdown, produced by Time Studios, more or less assumes—rightly or wrongly—that if you’re watching this, you love space and you love space travel and you’re here to cheer SpaceX on. If you want to recount all the many ways SpaceX is amazing, you’ll find more than your fill over these initial two episodes. 

I won’t bore you with too much background information on Inspiration4 (you can read our past coverage on the mission here). But the mission and the new docuseries arrive on the heels of the billionaire space summer, when both Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos blasted off into space (or nearly space). Inspiration4 features its own billionaire, Jared Isaacman, whose nerdiness makes him a less charismatic person to see on screen, but whose more restrained ego and lower profile mean he’s a much easier person to watch than either Branson or Bezos. 

In 90 minutes, Isaacman and SpaceX founder Elon Musk are asked only once to respond to the backlash that Branson and Bezos faced this summer, and the questions raised for why the public should care about space when the world seems to be falling apart. Musk tells us thinking about a future for humanity beyond Earth is exciting; and Isaacman says one of the reasons he partnered with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and created a fundraising arm of the mission was to offset this privilege and do something good. These aren’t bad answers, but there is no follow-up that gets us closer into the mind of these two very wealthy and influential figures. Their motivations are kept simple, and for the first two episodes, we hardly get a sense of who they are and why space is where their money is going.

Where the docuseries gets compelling is our introduction to the crew: Hayley Arceneaux, Sian Proctor, and Christopher Sembroski. Arceneaux’s story especially is tense and moving as she recounts her battle with osteosarcoma as a child, but it’s also a really wonderful story of resilience and, of course, hope. Her youth and energy (she’s 29) are a bit infectious. Arceneaux is an absolute novice when it comes to knowing anything about space—one of her first questions upon accepting her ticket on Inspiration4 is whether she’ll get to go to the moon. “Apparently we haven’t been there in decades,” she says, laughing off the embarrassment.

This is where it becomes easier to root for Inspiration4. Arceneaux and Sembroski are like the rest of us who never, ever had any plans to go to space, and never thought we’d have the chance. Proctor’s history and her twin passions for aviation and space meant she was always waiting for a moment like this. These are people who in past eras never would have had much of a chance to go to space—and who now find themselves on the precipice of something literally out of this world.

It does not mean that Countdown is correct in telling us the mission will change the future of space as we know it—for at least a generation or two, space travel will continue to be under the control of larger and wealthier powers, and ordinary people won’t be granted opportunities like this except in extraordinary circumstances. But the mission does give us a glimpse at what we can strive for.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Hayley’s age. She is 29, not 19.

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