Netflix’s ‘Return To Space’ explores NASA-Space X efforts to send American astronauts into space


Doug Hurley says it was no big deal when he and fellow astronaut Bob Behnken were told that a documentary film crew would be shadowing their 2020 flight to the International Space Station.

After all, Hurley had piloted the final flight of the 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 U.S. soil since then, so to Hurley, it was all part of the job as NASA and Space X neared success in their historic public-private partnership.

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

“There’s so much going on. Leading to the mission. The mission itself is a blur in so many ways. All three of my spaceflights have been that way.

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

“Return To Space,” which premieres on Netflix on April 7, was directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, winners of the Oscar for best feature documentary in 2019 for “Free Solo.”

Their way of working, Hurley says, was another factor in how easy and enjoyable the experience of the film was for him.

“Just the way they tell the story,” he says. “They have a gift, and you know, it really resonates because it’s not your typical, ‘Hey, we went to space’ movie.’ That’s amazing, don’t get me wrong. But there’s so much more from a human standpoint that goes into it.”

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

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

“And how the different people on both of our teams (NASA and Space X) got through it and designed a vehicle that ended up a great capability for the United States, and it’s changing the world.”

‘Extraordinary dreams’

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

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

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

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

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

‘A common goal’

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

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

When Hurley touched down on Earth at the end of the last Atlantis mission, he wasn’t sure he’d ever get another chance to travel beyond the planet. When the Space X-NASA contract was signed, and astronauts needed to join the team for years before the launch, he didn’t hesitate, signing onto the project in 2015.

“It was almost a once in a generation-type opportunity,” he says. “The leadership had confidence in Bob and I. And it was really something that I felt like was maybe not destined to do, but certainly something that I knew I could do.”

Hurley, 55, only knows about NASA in the ’60s from what others have said. But he suspects the Space X team might be more similar to those who worked in the early years of the space race than many might think.

“Maybe the dress codes are different and the hairstyles are different, but it’s very similar to NASA of the ’60s,” he says. “You had a bunch of young, incredibly intelligent folks working for a common goal, which was to get 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,” Vasarhelyi says. “Gaining access was a process, but they always took it seriously, I think probably because they were familiar with our previous work.”

One of the biggest challenges arrive with the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 just months before the launch scheduled for May 2020. But that also opened the production to new opportunities.

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

“Suddenly, the astronauts were willing to film themselves, so we’ve got this very intimate footage from their families,” she says. “Likewise, NASA gave us access to things they never show, like the phone calls from the astronauts to their kids as they’re leaving.

“This is stuff that’s really delicate and intimate.”

‘Exciting and inspiring’

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

“It would certainly be something that you’d love to do,” he says when asked if he regrets leaving before possibly having a chance at a moon orbit or landing. “But it’s 2022. I’m 55 years old. And we’ve got 40 incredibly talented people sitting there at the Johnson Space Center that certainly could do the mission.”

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

“I’ve often in my career thought things would be impossible,” Chin says. “And then one generation later, it’s possible. I think it’s absolutely possible, and probably inevitable, that we will end up at Mars at one point.

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

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

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

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


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