Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space review – does Elon Musk really need the free PR?

Netflix’s new documentary series sells the first all-civilian flight to space as an exercise in philanthropy, but it’s little more than a privilege-fuelled puff piece for the billionaire’s adventures

While I’m still able – “allowed” is possibly the verb I want – I would like to register my objection to adverts masquerading as legitimate streaming content on a subscription service for which I pay good money. This is not how that particular model is supposed to work. I realise, of course, that I am Cnut howling at the digital waves. But proving our powerlessness before them is about the only thing left to us.

Netflix’s new documentary series, or “documentary series”, Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space, is the offender in this case. It is designed to track the recruitment process, preparation for and then – in as close to real time as possible – the launch of the first all-civilian flight into space, by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX.

The first two episodes introduce us to the crew in Musk’s Inspiration4 project, but only after we have been thoroughly informed of the greatness of what we are about to witness. Space is “humanity’s great taunting”, and non-astronauts circling the earth in the reusable Dragon rocket is “a hinge moment”. “It is a certainty that we will become a multi-planetary species”, you see, “and this the next significant step.” I hope you are feeling suitably awed and portended upon. If not, there’s plenty more where that came from.

We meet Jared Isaacman, a high school dropout who founded his first company, Shift4Payments – a PayPal type operation that now processes $200bn (£145bn) a year for US restaurants and hotels – from his parents’ basement when he was a teenager. Isaacman is that rarest of beasts – a genuinely personable billionaire – and, when he bought all four seats on the flight, one imagines Musk must have been elated with his charming frontman.

Not that the fact that Isaacman bought the seats is made explicit in the programme. Possibly this is because it is thought so self-evident that it does not need to be. Or possibly not. Much is made of the fundraising side of the endeavour (Inspiration4 aims to raise $200m for St Jude’s children’s hospital in Memphis and Isaacman has already donated half the sum) and the shift from the spirit of national, collective endeavour and investment in space exploration to private individual and commercial businesses is not touched on. The closest we come to any kind of ethical consideration or probing is a single question to Musk about whether we should be looking to solve some of the manifold problems on Earth before looking to the stars, which he is allowed to bat away. “We should spend 99.9% of our resources on solving [them],” he says, which is an intriguing use of “we” and “our”. “The rest can be spent on an exciting and inspiring future … If life is all about problems, what’s the point in living?” So – that’s all sorted, then.

Isaacson acknowledges his privilege more overtly, but the $200m for St Jude’s is clearly considered to cover a multitude of what some might categorise as moral sins.

Never mind. This is all “a profound breakthrough” and everything’s OK because the other seats are going to ordinary people, albeit ones who fit the “Mission Pillars” of Hope, Generosity, Prosperity and Leadership. The inclusion of this emetic element is not the programme’s fault, at least. It is America’s.

Isaacman, who offers the most nous, has masses of flight experience under his belt and serves as flight commander, representing Leadership. Doctor’s assistant and childhood cancer survivor Hayley Arceneaux, who was treated at and now works at St Jude’s, is in the Hope seat. Christopher Sembroski, who donated as part of the fundraising raffle, is Generosity (though perhaps this should also be in recognition of the friend who actually won and gave Sembroski his seat. This is not mentioned in the programme, which – as mentioned – is in search of a simple, streamlined narrative at all times. The seat transfer may be inconsequential but you wonder how many more awkward facts might have been left out). The final seat, Prosperity, went to Sian Proctor, geology professor and major in the Civil Air Patrol (another fact that’s glossed over, lest it seem, perhaps, that these ordinary Americans on the first civilian mission do not seem to the public quite as ordinary or civilian as they might).

I’m sure the puff nature of the piece will become less obvious as the launch approaches and genuine drama and tensions start to fill the hours. But that doesn’t alter what it is. Everyone’s time and money, all those billions of it, could be better spent.


Contributor

Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
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

Lucy Mangan

04, Nov, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Makeup: A Glamorous History review – syphilis, sin and sperm whales
The Lisa Eldridge-fronted series continues with an episode on the Victorian era, when makeup was often considered vulgar – and contained some very interesting ingredients

Rebecca Nicholson

27, Apr, 2021 @9:00 PM

Article image
The Last Mountain review – a haunting tribute to mother and son
24 years and 100 miles apart, Alison Hargreaves and Tom Ballard were killed while climbing. Chris Terrill’s documentary offers an intimate look at their lives and tragic deaths

Chitra Ramaswamy

26, Sep, 2021 @9:50 PM

Article image
Can’t Get You Out of My Head review – Adam Curtis's 'emotional history' is dazzling
Examining the power structures and political intrigue that have shaped our world, the filmmaker’s new BBC documentary series is a dense, ambitious triumph

Lucy Mangan

11, Feb, 2021 @1:00 PM

Article image
Kathy Burke: Money Talks review – TV filler that’s 10 a penny
With trademark directness and authenticity, the actor offers glimpses of insight in this two-parter exploring wealth in Britain. However, analysis is severely lacking

Lucy Mangan

05, Jul, 2021 @10:05 PM

Article image
Is Uni Racist? review – disturbing accounts of discrimination on campus
Linda Adey’s documentary considers the piecemeal response of higher education providers to race-related incidents, and explains why some students are afraid to speak up

Lucy Mangan

28, Apr, 2021 @10:25 PM

Article image
Climate Change: Ade on the Frontline review – an intensifying crisis
Ade Adepitan travels to the Pacific to see how the climate emergency is shrinking the land and killing the future – and to ask what, if anything, can be done to halt the destruction

Rebecca Nicholson

11, Apr, 2021 @8:00 PM

Article image
Darren McGarvey’s Class Wars review – the truth about social mobility
McGarvey – AKA Scottish rapper Loki – offers an intelligent look at the British class system, from Greggs to Lauriston Castle, and asks whether it’s ever possible to move within it

Lucy Mangan

10, Feb, 2021 @11:00 PM

Article image
The Money Maker review – Obama guru leads a one-man Dragons’ Den
This new series sees CEO and ex-presidential adviser Eric Collins help flailing British businesses. Will his calm authority – and southern charm – stop them from going bust?

Lucy Mangan

04, May, 2021 @9:00 PM

Article image
Saved by a Stranger review – moving stories of reunion and healing
Two people – one a victim of terror, the other a survivor of war – search for the individuals who changed their lives in BBC Two’s profoundly affecting new series

Rebecca Nicholson

29, Apr, 2021 @9:00 PM