Any current review of Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space is inherently incomplete, since the five-part Netflix docuseries is aiming to debut in real time alongside the event it’s depicting: the Sept. 15 launch of SpaceX’s Inspiration4, which will be the first all-civilian flight to orbit the Earth—a feat it’ll accomplish multiple times during its three-day journey, at speeds of 17,500 mph and at a height greater than that of the International Space Station. Consequently, the only episodes available to press at the moment are its first two prologue installments (premiering Sept. 6); chapters three and four will hit the streaming service on Sept. 13, and a feature-length finale—detailing the actual mission—is set to land in late September, shortly after the Inspiration4 touches back down on Earth.
Those concluding segments will no doubt deliver up-close-and-personal footage from inside the Inspiration4 Crew Dragon capsule that will house its four amateur astronauts, who will be launched into space via a previously used Falcon 9 rocket. In its maiden passages, however, Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space is basically a long-winded promotional video crafted to stoke excitement—and offer justifications—for the endeavor, which just about everyone here touts as a history-making project that will help us get closer to answering the most profound questions about existence and serve as the first step in mankind’s quest to become a multi-planetary species. It’s an aggressive sales pitch masquerading as a typical Netflix non-fiction venture, helmed by The Last Dance’s Jason Hehir with all the dewy-eyed melodrama, swelling music, and rousing headshots that a 45-minute episode can contain.
Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space insistently pushes its message from the get-go. According to Time’s chief science editor Jeffrey Kluger, Inspiration4 is “a hinge point in history, and will kick the doors open to space for the rest of us.” That’s because, by sending non-professional astronauts into space, the undertaking will pave the way for more commercial flights, as well as further the goal of reaching deeper into the cosmos, where we might someday colonize distant worlds. This is a goal of dubious worth, but it’s one that Hehir’s docuseries champions with a chin-held-high sort of confidence. At the same time, it also has SpaceX founder Elon Musk address the main criticism of the Inspiration4 flight, and similar ones recently spearheaded by Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos—namely, that these are joy-ride stunts designed to feed the egos of billionaires.
“I think we should spend the vast majority of our resources solving problems on Earth. Like, 99 percent-plus of our economy should be dedicated to solving problems on Earth,” says Musk in one of his few obligatory on-screen appearances. “But I think maybe something like 1 percent, or less than 1 percent, could be applied to extending life beyond Earth.” His motivation is colonizing Mars, and the “exciting, inspiring future” of multi-planetary habitation. After all, he proclaims, “If life is just about problems, what’s the point of living?” In this context, Inspiration4 isn’t just an expensive lark; it’s the next big pioneering phase in mankind’s evolution, and thus deserving of the private investment required to make its Jetsons-style dreams a reality.
Musk’s brief comments aside, however, Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space does very little to take a critical look at this enterprise. At least in its initial pair of installments, the docuseries plays like a PR product, casting everything in glowing terms, including its portraits of the mission’s four astronauts. That group is led by Jared Isaacman, a billionaire whose history of entrepreneurship, risk-taking and fighter jet-piloting made him the ideal driving force behind Inspiration4. Isaacman is an amiable and eloquent guy whose every comment is tailor-made to hit on a particular talking point and, as he explains, a guiding motivation behind his SpaceX relationship was an initiative he developed with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to raise $200 million for cancer research. Putting his money where his mouth is, he’s already given his own, separate $100 million donation to the organization.
St. Jude also provided Inspiration4 with two of its passengers: Hayley Arceneaux, a pediatric cancer survivor and current St. Jude physician’s assistant, and Christopher Sembroski, who won his ride by entering into a raffle promoted by SpaceX’s Super Bowl commercial. The fourth crew member is Sian Proctor, a 51-year-old entrepreneur (who’d previously trained for space flight) who earned her spot through a viral-video competition. Together, as Isaacman explains, they represent the “four pillars” of the Inspiration4 mission: Leadership (Isaacman), Hope (Arceneaux), Generosity (Sembroski), and Prosperity (Proctor). This is as cheesy as it sounds, like something produced for a marketing brochure and a press release. And though all four of these individuals seem genuinely thrilled about their opportunity, the docuseries’ vignettes on their backstories are as cornily handled as the scenes in which they announce to friends (in person, and via Zoom) that they’re going to space—moments that awkwardly strain for astonishment and euphoria.
One can imagine Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space’s more timely later episodes supplying greater suspense. Yet in its early going—which involves repeatedly underlining SpaceX’s connection to the history and ethos of the American space program—the entire affair mostly comes across as prepackaged corporate publicity. Some authentic emotion does occasionally sneak in, as with a brief snapshot of Sembroski’s wife breaking down in nervous tears while visiting SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral HQ to watch the Crew-2 flight take off in April 2021. Yet even the show’s discussion about the dangers of space travel—replete with recaps of the 1986 and 2003 space shuttle disasters—seem less interested in grappling with the cost/benefit of these missions than in raising the proceedings’ suspenseful dramatic stakes.
Those hazards are, of course, real, and they’ll certainly be front-and-center as Inspiration4 makes its way from the planning stages to the launchpad. The notion that Netflix viewers will get a front-row seat for this journey—be it a triumph or a failure—remains an intriguing prospect. Yet one hopes that, as its subjects enter orbit, Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space quiets down about its own importance, and lets its action speak for itself.