Wednesday, 10 November 2021

TV review: Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space, Netflix (2021)

A really fascinating reality TV program showing parts of a SpaceX non-professional flight, which this year saw four people orbit the Earth for three days at an altitude just beyond the International Space Station. I’ve always been fascinated by space and recently watched a show on Amazon Prime about Elon Musk, so it was easy to decide to watch this Netflix show as well.

The pacing is good, as is the use of music. Compelling and topical, ‘Countdown’ inveigles the viewer’s sympathies by focusing selectively on the participation of conscripts and their families, ordinary people chosen to take part in extraordinary events. There’s something almost religious about the way the program inspires profound feelings of gratitude and awe, linked (and struggling sometimes not to be cheesy) to the United States’ legacy of NASA flights and landings. So, for example, in order to underscore how trepidatious family members get, the filmmakers show the viewer footage of space shuttle disasters. These are events within the lived memory of some and to include them has the effect of tempering feelings of happiness and giving an edge to those of excitement. You’re able to draw on the facial expressions of participants to get a sense of the thoughts and feelings they experience as time passes and launch day approaches. You go up Mt Rainier with the team on a team building exercise. You watch each of the potential crew go around in a centrifuge. Each step of the process is a test, as before launch a person can be removed from the program, so much is at stake for them individually. Because of the risks involved even simple tasks take on moment, so when Hayley – who represents the chair of “hope” in the team – has her eyes shut at the start of the centrifugal test the machine operator has to ask her to open them. 

This opening of the eyes becomes another small event leading to the conclusion at the end of five episodes. For the viewer at home the show opens your eyes because of the sense of beauty the sight of the Earth inspires in participants, especially when seen through a glass cupola installed under the nose cone of the Dragon (the manned capsule). It must be almost indescribable to see and process this type of sight, but viewers get some idea on the screen in ep 5. On the morning I watched this episode I’d gone down to the shops to buy groceries, including milk, and had been thinking to myself how lucky I was to be able to do this seemingly simple thing. But we know from a show like ‘Countdown’ that the freedoms that living on the Earth bestow are non-trivial. Just being able to go outside, breathe the air, and walk on a quiet street is something like a miracle. If only we were more often able to understand this. 

The show underscores such concerns. Naturally Amazon wouldn’t have been able to make it, but Blue Origin features at least temporarily as the participants tour the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where not only NASA but also defence contractors and commercial spaceflight companies like SpaceX have facilities. The hardware is less important for filmmakers than the people involved, however, and I had a sense of elation while watching as, vicariously and from the comfort and safety of my suburban living room, I engaged imaginatively with Elon Musk’s dream of making humanity a multi-planet species. If only we could fix other problems as determinedly, for example homelessness or suicide.

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