Netflix’s ‘Return To Space’ Explores NASA-Space X Efforts To Send American Astronauts Into Space


Doug Hurley says it didn’t matter when he and fellow astronaut Bob Behnken learned that a documentary film crew would be tracking their 2020 flight to the International Space Station.

After all, Hurley piloted the final flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2011 with nonstop coverage of the end of the Space Shuttle program.

Now he and Behnken were to be the first American astronauts to return to space from American soil since then, so for Hurley it was all part of the job as NASA and Space X approached success in their public-private partnership. historical.

  • Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken before their historic flight on the Dragon 2 space capsule, a joint venture between NASA and Space X, as seen in the Netflix documentary ‘Return To Space’. (Photo courtesy of Netflix © 2022)

  • Space X founder Elon Musk as seen in the Netflix documentary ‘Return To Space’, the story of how NASA and Space X in 2020 launched the first manned spaceflight from the United States in almost a decade. (Photo courtesy of Netflix © 2022)

  • Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken before their historic flight on the Dragon 2 space capsule, a joint venture between NASA and Space X, as seen in the Netflix documentary ‘Return To Space’. (Photo courtesy of Netflix © 2022)

“Going through the process of building this human spacecraft with Space X, that was just part of it, frankly,” Hurley says. “And selfishly, it’s wonderful to have it documented because you forget too much.

“There is so much going on. Leading to mission. The mission itself is blurry in many ways. My three spaceflights went like this.

“So to have this ability now to go back and relive it and then maybe, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember it now, that’s wonderful,” Hurley says.

“Return To Space,” which hits Netflix on April 7, was directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, winners of the 2019 Best Documentary Feature Oscar for “Free Solo.”

The way they work, says Hurley, was another factor in how easy and fun the film experience was for him.

“Just the way they tell the story,” he says. “They have a gift, and you know, that really resonates because it’s not your typical ‘Hey, we’ve been to space’ movie.” It’s amazing, don’t get me wrong. But there is so much more from a human point of view that comes into play.”

“Return To Space” will, of course, appeal to space enthusiasts, Hurley says, but the way the story is told should appeal to more casual viewers as well.

“It’s a human story,” he says. “That’s how you get through adversity. This is how your families deal with stress and travel.

“And how the different people on our two teams (NASA and Space X) went through it and designed a vehicle that turned out to be a great capability for the United States, and that changes the world.”

“Extraordinary Dreams”

Vasarhelyi and Chin say they were drawn to this first-ever collaboration between NASA and a commercial spaceflight company in part to tell a story about the relationship between humans and space exploration, today and in the future. to come up.

“I hope it will raise some of the issues that we think are important to raise, our human issues,” says Vasarhelyi. “And that’s also really cool. It’s rockets and, I don’t know, stars and beautiful visuals. And people are floating. I mean it’s very cool.

And for all the engineering and technology of “Return To Space,” the film also connects to the stories the pair explored in films such as “Free Solo” and “Meru,” both of which involved mountaineering, or “The Rescue”. their 2021 film about rescuing a junior football team from a cave in Thailand.

“I think he shares a lot of themes,” Chin says. “Just the idea of ​​human exploration, and why we have the instinct and the urge to explore. How that has resulted in history, but even now and in the future.

“I think we’re also very interested in the human ability to dream these extraordinary dreams,” he says. “And we like to examine why people make the decisions they make about those dreams.”

“A common goal”

Space X, of course, is the brainchild of billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, who features in the Falcon rocket launch and Dragon 2 capsule scenes in the film. But the film expands its view to include the engineers and scientists working at Space X, as well as the NASA personnel who oversaw the launch and the successful completion of the mission.

It’s a collaboration that Hurley, who has since retired from NASA, says will be crucial for future space exploration.

When Hurley landed on Earth at the end of the last Atlantis mission, he wasn’t sure he would have another chance to travel beyond the planet. When the Space X-NASA contract was signed and astronauts had to join the team for years before launch, he didn’t hesitate and signed on to the project in 2015.

“It was almost a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” he says. “Management had faith in Bob and me. And it was definitely something I felt maybe I wasn’t meant to do, but definitely something I knew I could do.”

Hurley, 55, only knows about NASA in the 1960s from what others have said. But he suspects the Space X team is more like those who worked in the early years of the space race than many realize.

“Maybe the dress codes are different and the hairstyles are different, but it’s very similar to ’60s NASA,” he says. “You had a group of incredibly smart young people working for a common goal, which was to send humans into space.

“And now you have a company that was doing the same thing.”

‘Open doors’

Vasarhelyi and Chin say their documentary also benefited from modern NASA’s willingness to open the doors to a team of filmmakers.

“Everyone really cooperated,” says Vasarhelyi. “Getting access was a process, but they always took it seriously, I think probably because they knew about our previous work.”

One of the biggest challenges comes with the COVID-19 pandemic at the start of 2020, just months before the planned May 2020 launch. But it has also opened production up to new opportunities.

“COVID hit in the middle of filming, and space is the only thing that doesn’t stop,” says Vasarhelyi. “It was very difficult, but with every constraint comes an opportunity, especially in non-fiction.

“Suddenly the astronauts were ready to film themselves, so we have these very intimate images of their families,” she says. “Similarly, NASA gave us access to things they never show, like phone calls from astronauts to their children as they depart.

“It’s really delicate and intimate stuff.”

“Exciting and inspiring”

For Hurley, “Return To Space” also represents a chance to excite a new generation with the dream of space, even if neither he nor his now-retired astronaut wife Karen Nyberg will be part of future missions.

“It would definitely be something you would like to do,” he said when asked if he regretted leaving before he might have had a chance to orbit or land on the Moon. “But we are in 2022. I am 55 years old. And we have 40 incredibly talented people sitting at the Johnson Space Center who could definitely accomplish the mission.

All three – Hurley, Vasarhelyi and Chin – say they expect the United States, possibly in conjunction with another country, to attempt a trip to Mars one day.

“During my career, I often thought things would be impossible,” Chin says. “And then a generation later, it’s possible. I think it’s absolutely possible, and probably inevitable, that we’ll end up on Mars at some point.

“But I also think the important thing to think about is that often it’s these kinds of extraordinary goals that lead us to other results, which we might not have anticipated, which are really important for science, for our understanding of the world and our humanity.”

So maybe, says Hurley, a child who watches a flight to the moon in a few years will end up becoming the next Hurley or Nyberg, or Behnken or astronaut Megan McArthur, who is married to Behnken.

“It will be exciting and inspiring for the next generation,” he says of the future of space exploration that “Return To Space” celebrates.

“That’s a lot of what it’s about, and what Karen and I feel strongly about,” Hurley says. “Part of our job as astronauts is to inspire this next generation, just as we were.”


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