Review: Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space

Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space (2021)

Given that it sounds like the name of a second-rate space-themed Hip Hop album from the mid ‘90s, it may be worthwhile to parse the title of Netflix’ new limited series, Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space. Inspiration4, if you’ve managed to miss the relentless marketing campaign (including a Super Bowl trailer), is SpaceX’s highly publicized all-civilian orbital mission, scheduled for launch on September 15. And that knowledge gives you everything you need to know to understand

the last 40 to 60% of this inscrutable title (depending on whether you’re going by word count or character count).

 

The “Countdown” bit refers to the fact that this series will have aired 4 of its 5 episodes by the time Inspiration4 launches. And that’s somewhat surprising, given the nature of the show. This isn’t, after all, a legitimate documentary. It’s part marketing effort, part propaganda, and the cynic in me can’t help but wonder what SpaceX is going to do with the remaining episode of the series if the mission isn’t a stunning success. 

 

If it sounds like I’m being a bit too skeptical here—well, perhaps I am. But it’s hard to walk away from the series with any other impression. In the opening moments of the first of two episodes available today, Jeffrey Kluger—Senior Science Correspondent for Time—ends his introductory ode to the privatization of spaceflight by saying, “This is a hinge

COUNTDOWN AT A GLANCE

Disguised as a Netflix documentary, this marketing promotion piece for Elon Musk’s supposedly democratic “citizens in space” program shows how all involved are actually reduced to being billionaires’ playthings. 

 

PICTURE

Most of the footage looks great, with no signs of compression and no real need for HDR.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack is largely perfunctory, but dialogue clarity is fantastic.

point in history, and will kick the doors open to space for the rest of us.” He then ends the first episode by deriding the elitism of the NASA spaceflight program, insinuating that missions like Inspiration4 are more democratic.

 

What he leaves unsaid, but what the remainder of the two episodes makes abundantly clear, is that yes, any normal shlub can go to space now, but only if you’re marketable enough or have enough social-media presence to serve some billionaire’s marketing ends and PR requirements. Or, if you play along with their for-profit fundraising as a replacement for a proper social safety net.

 

The series’ creators  seem to have seen this criticism coming, and even throw a softball question at Elon Musk about the perception that space is now a billionaires’ playground. I honestly can’t remember the exact verbiage of his answer, but it 

kinda feels like Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space is a longer answer in and of itself. This is apologetics. It’s an insidious indictment of collective accomplishments of the past.

 

And yet, despite all that, I enjoyed nearly every second of it. There’s a moment in the second episode in which we meet Dr. Sian Proctor, one of the three civilians hand-selected to join billionaire Jared Isaacman—Commander & Benefactor of Inspiration4—on this mission/publicity campaign. As she was telling her story, I was acutely aware that I was being 

manipulated, that her real role in this endeavor was to make the vanity project more palatable to the masses. And yet, knowing all that, her story still moved me to actual tears. I cheered with her when she announced her acceptance into the crew. That’s the power of psyops—being fully aware of it and recognizing it is no inoculation against its effectiveness.

 

If you think this is all conspiratorial ranting, consider the closing of Episode 2. After we’ve met the second two of our lucky civilian astronauts, we’re led through a discussion of the dangers of spaceflight and the realities of how hard this all can be on the families of those rocketing into orbit. We’re taken to Cape Canaveral, where the crew is allowed to reflect on the enormity of this historical moment in front of them. And we, as an audience, are subjected to the millionth emotionally manipulative needle-drop on the series thus far. 

 

The song choice here is telling—Alanis Morrisette’s “Uninvited.” While the narration is all about how if these people can go to space, anyone can go to space, the lyrics of the song tell a different story:

 

Must be somewhat heartening
To watch shepherd need shepherd
But you, you’re not allowed
You’re uninvited

 

That sort of says the quiet part out loud, doesn’t it? You and I aren’t likely to make it to space anytime within my natural lifespan, despite what this series so desperately wants you to buy into. The only thing that has really changed is that instead of needing to be a highly trained scientist or pilot, you now have to be insanely rich or, conversely, somehow useful to an insanely rich person. 

 

Given all that, it’s sort of odd that Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space (and I’m going to keep typing that ridiculously clunky title until it makes a lick of sense to me) isn’t a little more polished. Mind you, for the most part, it’s a completely serviceable-looking reality-TV program. All of the interview sequences are well-lit and well-shot. Oddly, though, at least one of the cameras used in capturing the staged slice-of-life sequences throughout has a couple of dead pixels. It would have been easy enough to use a healing brush to remove those distracting speckles of white, but maybe they were left in to lend the series some veneer of authenticity. 

 

Otherwise, most of the new footage looks great, and Netflix’ Ultra HD stream is far from the weakest link in the production chain. I didn’t see any signs of compression, and I didn’t really see a need for HDR, although perhaps that could change in the final episode, which will likely focus on the launch. 

 

The Dolby Digital+ 5.1 soundtrack is also largely perfunctory, aside from the aforementioned needle-drops, all of which make extensive use of the surround channels and subs. Dialogue clarity is fantastic, which is the most important thing. 

 

If it sounds like I’m telling you not to watch Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space, I assure you, that isn’t the case. I’ll be watching the next three episodes as soon as they’re available to stream. How could I not, as an unabashed space junky? The next episode, debuting on September 13, will focus on the training these civilians went through to get them space-ready, and I’m totally here for it.

 

All I’m saying is, when you do check the series out, realize that you’re being manipulated. Understand that this isn’t a documentary but a commercial. And, you know, maybe you should just go ahead and get used to that, because just as the future of spaceflight is all about vanity and profit, the future of space-related programming is almost certainly going to be about making sure we, the uninvited, shut up and accept it.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

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