Space Titans review – Bezos, Musk and Branson battle to blast their loads

This wildly hagiographic documentary about the billionaires fiddling with their massive rockets will have you cringing all the way into suborbital space

For a documentary created with the Washington Post, a newspaper owned by a company controlled by Jeff Bezos, the new Discovery+ special Space Titans has an impressive amount of Elon Musk in it. Maybe the algorithm doesn’t dictate everything quite yet. Or maybe it’s an oversight that is even now causing heads to roll in the corridors of Nash Holdings LLC before they are boxed up and sent by Prime to the homes of their former loved ones. We will never know, I suppose, unless Bezos chooses to tell us.

Space Titans tells the story of the three billionaires – Bezos, Musk and, uh, Richard Branson – competing to see who has the biggest penis (I’m sorry: competing to see who can be the first to make space travel for ordinary citizens and colonisation of other planets a reality). We are told – repeatedly – that we are at an inflection point in space exploration. Billionaires are going to boldly go where no one has gone before. Because they have all the money now.

Not that you will hear the latter sentiment expressed in this wildly hagiographic 90 minutes. It dwells not for a moment on the implications of the next space age now being largely in the hands of a couple of individuals most often associated with egomania so powerful as to be indistinguishable from clinical narcissism. (There is more than a couple if you humour Branson – I don’t, and evidently neither do the programme-makers, who, after giving Virgin Galactic its due for beating Bezos and ejaculating into suborbital space first, gently drop our toothy lizardman out of the picture.) What was once collective national endeavour that evoked a sense of striving for something greater than ourselves is now the preserve of profit, rampant individualism and, for the foreseeable future, the rich.

Smile for the cameras … Branson after Unity lands safely.
Smile for the cameras … Branson after Unity lands safely. Photograph: Virgin Galactic/ZUMA Press Wire Service/REX/Shutterstock

But never mind all that! We have a mishmash of facts and stats to get through, assembled in as fragmentary, non-linear and repetitive a way as possible. Most of the running time is chaos, but it doesn’t disguise the fact that what we’re really doing here is measuring from base to tip and coming to conclusions.

Hardening Branson’s claim to greatness is the fact that Virgin Galactic, as previously noted, gets there first. His rocket plane, VSS Unity, makes a flight that lasts 59 minutes from start to finish and reaches 53 miles in altitude, just far enough to qualify as space, giving its crew, including Branson himself, five minutes of weightlessness before all are returned safely to Earth. But, of course, the key words here are “rocket plane”. With typical English no-can-do spirit, our lad didn’t develop a proper vertical-launching rocket. His was taken much of the way up by a bigger plane instead of doing a 3-2-1 blast off! We laugh at the eunuch and move on.

Bezos has done the thing almost too properly. His rocket looks so exactly like a penis that you wonder no one at the massage parlour – I mean manufacturing plant – took him aside before full tumescence was reached and quietly whispered: “Jeff, dude, you’re saying the quiet part out loud.” But Blue Origin launches successfully just nine days after Branson and goes, like, into real suborbital space above the Kármán Line, even if it’s not clear who kept it up longer.

What, then, of Musk’s attempt to thrust himself into the record books? Well, he turns out to be more of a foreplay guy. He may not have unveiled the Falcon 9 until two months later, but he has built the groundwork better than the other two, with more Nasa funding than they managed to secure, a track record in delivering the space agency’s astronauts safely to the International Space Station and contriving an air of cool the other nerds never managed, you know?

Playing it cool … Musk.
Playing it cool … Musk. Photograph: Steve Nesius/Reuters

And when the moment does arrive, on 15 September, Musk shoots an impressive load. The Inspiration4 expedition launches the first all-private-citizen crew on a rocket-rocket and into full orbit. They circle the Earth for three days and return triumphant. Many missions accomplished.

Space Titans lauds Musk and Bezos for their innovation and accepts with barely a flinch their claims of helping solve world problems by enabling a move to Mars and the moon. It wants us to thrill to the news that the space tourism market is expected to be worth $8bn by 2030 as previous generations thrilled to the news of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon, as if this were another giant leap for mankind instead of just for a handful of men and their shareholders.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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