Did you know that Google sponsored a competition for private sector engineers to see if any of them could create a cheap, efficient way to get man back to the moon? As in, the moon you see in the sky? Neil Armstrong’s moon. The Moon, with a capital letter and everything. Don’t worry, I didn’t know either. That’s just one of the fascinating things I picked up with a screening of Christian Frei’s documentary Space Tourists, a film that not only exposes the realities of an ever-growing industry that caters to mega-rich adrenaline junkies and mega-rich idealists who believe that we’re all going to be living out an episode of The Jetsons (probably the one where Astro is replaced by an evil robot dog, if we’re talking about my life) real soon.
But this movie isn’t just about space tourism. In fact, it serves to teach us a bit about the Russian space program — you know, those red guys on the other side of the space race. Apparently, our Communist foes had a very intricate and incredibly fascinating program, one that looks nothing like my last tour of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Unlike the American program, this department of space comrades isn’t what it used to be. Following magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen, Frei shows us the (for lack of a better word) wreckage of a once-great scientific outfit. In a series of short, vivid sequences we feel an intimate connection with the glory of mother Russia’s proudest scientific era. We also feel intimately aligned with the crumbling walls of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Like the rest of this now poor country, this facility has seen better days. All that is left is a bunch of junk — a space shuttle that never took flight, empty buildings that used to house some of the world’s greatest minds. It is a harrowing sight, and this film’s greatest achievement.
Sadly, this is only a small slice of the pie for Frei, who is also following the story of an American businesswoman named Anousheh Ansari. For the cool price of $20 million dollars, she’s purchased a round-trip ticket to the International Space Station, where she will spend several days “hanging out” with cosmonaut and astronaut alike. We are made to watch as she trains, prepares and speaks of a world where my friend Joe might be able to drive down to the Metro station and buy a ticket for the stratosphere. She seems to think that it will be possible, and even more so, she believes that her $20 million dollar investment in space tourism is helping it along. In truth, her twenty extra-large merely paid half the cost of launching a rocket into space. Not exactly funding the war against gravity, but at least she feels good about herself.
Ansari’s story is an interesting one, and a noble one. As I mentioned, her flight won’t exactly make it easy for you or I to see the campfires of the Congo from above. But her contribution to the Ansari X-Prize Foundation might. Perhaps the most interesting (and criminally overlooked) story captured in this movie is her involvement in the X-Prize program, which funds research for more affordable, efficient space travel. In a world where our economy is taking an atmospheric number two and CNN is telling us weekly that the United States government may never send another man, woman or hybrid to the Moon, there are people funding the work behind such a journey. This is perhaps the second most interesting achievement of Frei’s film.
But for all of its wins, Space Tourists is an unfocused affair. Never creating a fluid narrative, Frei’s film tells a scatter-shot series of stories, all fascinating in their own right, but ill-connected at the film moves from beginning to end. There are stories of a photo journalist exploring Russia’s former facilities, which becomes a tangent about families in rural Kazakhstan who use fallen rocket boosters to patch their roofs to the training of a second tourist (beyond Ansari) whose journey starts as the movie should be winding down. It’s all a very plodding experience, which results in a rather disaffected audience. Thankfully the vignettes of story within the overall doc were interesting, otherwise I may have slipped into a coma.
Space Tourists also remains tragically objective. It does not advocate space travel on the commercial level, nor does it condone it. Some may argue that this is the place of documentary filmmaking — remain objective. And they would be right, for the most part. But without some sort of escalating circumstances or perspective, the film feels like a flat vision of a bunch of things that happened. Only once does it get poignant, when Bendiksen speaks about space tourism. “Curiosity,” he explains. “[Is] being replaced by the cheap smell of money.” Perhaps he’s right. But what comes of curiosity if everyone is caught up with other problems? When do we make time to do what humanity yearns to do, and explore that which we do not understand? It’s a valid question. One that this film almost answers, without even asking in the first place.