After climbing El Capitan for their Oscar-winning documentary, “Free Solo,” and going into caves to “dive out” the Thai soccer team in “The Rescue,” filmmakers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin go to the final frontier with “Return to Space,” their informative chronicle of SpaceX and the new era of human space flight.
The filmmakers track SpaceX and Elon Musk’s failure to launch a rocket (Falcon 1) three times before they reached liftoff. But as the film shows, their trial-and-error period resulted in SpaceX developing the science to perfect booster landings and create a “reusable rocket,” and man a successful commercial mission, Dragon Demo 2, to the International Space Station. Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are interviewed in the film about their experiences.
In addition to showcasing the Dragon Demo 2 — the best sequences in “Return to Space” are the ones where there is zero gravity — Vasarhelyi and Chin consider how NASA has changed, ending their space shuttle program, relying on corporate partnerships, as well as ideas about life beyond earth. The filmmakers chatted with Salon about their thoughts about space travel and their new documentary.
Most kids at some point in their lives want to be an astronaut. Did you ever have such aspirations?
Jimmy Chin: Yes. I still want to be an astronaut.
E. Chai Vasarhelyi: My dad is a professor of Artificial Intelligence, and he was at Bell Labs in the ’80s and ’90s, and I grew up around nerds and professors. It was always part of our lives. I remember the first time one of his colleagues gave me a picture of an eclipse. It just evolves from there. I have always been interested in space, but I didn’t want to be an astronaut because you had to be a fighter pilot first, or a double Ph.D. physicist. But it is fascinating that this is an area that leads to reflection on humanity itself. I love “Spaceballs” and grew up with sci-fi and Philip K. Dick.
What can you say about the access you had with SpaceX to tell this story? You provide a real insider, behind-the-scenes view of the company.
Vasarhelyi: We were making this during a pandemic. At one point, there was a rule that no two people can be in the same room on federal property. Imagine making a film in that context! We had great access. This is a very special space where people love what they do. For Hans [Koenigsmann, President of Mission Assurance] and Bala [aka Balachandar Ramamurthy, Director of Flight Safety] to share their world was incredibly important to them.
With SpaceX, there is always so much attention to Elon, but he has an important engineering team behind him that have been with him since the beginning, and you get to know those individuals in the film. There was this internal SpaceX thing that they were happy that Hans was getting that attention and proud to share that story. The same thing with Doug [Hurley] and Bob [Behnken]. NASA just worked with us in a special way to get access and footage that is normally never seen, such as their last phone call to their kids before they board the Dragon.
Chin: It’s a classic documentary example of doing anything and everything you could to get as much access as possible. It’s a similar challenge in documentary work because you want to provide an entire picture.
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Can you talk about assembling your film and the points you wanted to make and the footage you gathered? This isn’t a “suspense” film in the way “Free Solo” and “The Rescue” were, even though the outcomes of those films (and this one) are known. The strange weather that “scrubs” the launch was arguably the tensest sequence.
“Our relationship to space has changed.”
Vasarhelyi: In terms of footage, we are at mercy of others. We weren’t in space to film material, but we did do two interviews with people in space, which was wild. The narrative was about understanding a moment. It sounds Pollyanna, but if you were able to document and be a fly on the wall for the writing of the Declaration of Independence, our relationship to race and equality would be really different. We would have gotten to a progressive place faster because we would understand the nuances and the grays, and the ethical struggles our founding fathers were negotiating, and business interests. It was kind of that idea — this is the beginning of a return to space which is a reality for my kids. We live on space technology with GPS, and defense, etc. So how would you tell a story that our kids can understand that there were humans involved with human considerations and raising questions that are inevitable now? That was the intention. The narrative is about documenting this Dragon Demo 2, and the people involved in it. Because it is extraordinary — it is the first private flight to space of Americans. That marks how fundamentally our relationship to space has changed.
Chin: We love these stories about humans achieving the impossible and human ingenuity and potential. This story was very emblematic of that — the risks involved and when the stakes are that high, people have to ask themselves the hard questions of why they do what they do. We are interested in characters who make those decisions — who are they, and what are they like? There are a lot of layers to this film. There are the astronauts, and the engineers, who are really responsible for the safety and success of these missions. There is Elon. Having a human face to what’s happening currently in space travel is important in hearing what the intentions are and why these people do what they do.
Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken in “Return to Space” (Netflix)
I appreciate how you gave voice to Doug and Bob, the astronauts, as well as many of the SpaceX team as well as Elon Musk. What observations do you have about the personalities featured in the film?
Vasarhelyi: There was a joke around our office that we could call this film, “Dads in Space.” It’s such a different portrait than Neil Armstrong. Both Doug and Bob are married to fierce female astronauts. Both have kids. It’s a totally different face of an astronaut’s life. Yet, at the same time, Doug is Top Gun, and one of the best test pilots on earth, and that’s how he ended up as an astronaut, and Bob is a double Ph.D. in mechanical engineering and physics. He’s a genius.
The character is not dissimilar in terms of precision and drive, what’s different is this idea of duty, part of an institution they feel great duty towards. SpaceX and NASA intentionally picked them to be the test pilots for Dragon Demo 2 because they had the institutional knowledge. Doug flew the last Shuttle, and they remember the loss of Challenger. They experienced it firsthand. Those are the minds that contributed actively to design of the space capsule. That is what I found very interesting.
I am always impressed with how your films show management and organizational details of a single or massive operation. Can you talk about that theme in your films?
“As controversial as Elon might be, he has a very clear vision.”
Chin: The risks are calculated. In my mind, amidst all the management and logistics, which need to be managed very carefully for a mission to succeed, there still needs to be a buy-in to the mission and that buy-in needs to be with the leadership and someone who has a vision of what they want. And all that trickles down; it’s the same in business, space travel, filmmaking, and certainly, expeditions. I think there is that element. They all bought into this idea of space travel and this mission and why it’s important. Some of those things are personal, but as controversial as Elon might be, he has a very clear vision, and that allows people to bring their best.
Vasarhelyi: That’s Elon’s genius, his lateral thinking. He has brought disruption to all these industries — PayPal, and Tesla, and the energy industry. When people talked about him as a boss, they said he always sees the problem — that’s a very interesting type of leadership.
Chin: It keeps you thinking, because you are always trying to anticipate the problem that he sees, which is usually probably fundamental, and they are often hidden in the obvious. That’s what great leaders do and see. That’s why we trust them to lead or captain the ship.
Vasarhelyi: Management was the problem with the U.S. space program for many, many years. That was the issue.
Chin: That disruption that Elon has brought with him comes from that ethos which is so much around the mentality of a startup which is: Fail early and fast. That’s an accelerated development process that traditional institutions have not implemented.
Your film shows how the space race has changed over recent years, with NASA collaborating with Russia and private developers are looking for a foothold in developing launches. What are your thoughts about this trend? Is space travel coming down to, as the film suggests, money and ego with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX?
Vasarhelyi: Dragon Demo 2 and SpaceX is a win for NASA. NASA and SpaceX worked incredibly closely together. They were true collaborators. They each talk about how they couldn’t have done it without the other. The narrative around billionaire space travel is Paul Allen, Richard Branson, Bezos and Elon. Blue Origin and the rest of the companies are quite far away from what SpaceX has achieved. Not that they won’t get there, but it’s a totally different deal. SpaceX has hundreds of flights under their belt. This is just the first time they put two humans on it.
Space is so intertwined with our current lives – being on Zoom, using GPS – it’s here. The privatization has allowed for more efficiencies and a reduction in costs. And in terms of safety — the Shuttle was stopped because it was just too unsafe and too expensive. It is inevitable that the government will catch up. But NASA’s budget is controlled by Congress so it’s a totally political situation. But a lot of it has changed now with the disruption of SpaceX, and the private sector will be investing in this technology. But how are we going to legislate it? And what are the values that will go into this new dimension of humanity? I hope the film raises some of these questions.
“Return to Space” premieres April 7 on Netflix. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.
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