When The Last Dance director Jason Hehir got a call from Netflix executive Gabe Spitzer pitching an upcoming project, he wasn’t expecting something as out of this world as Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space. The mind behind the critically-acclaimed piece on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls is a seasoned pro when it comes to sports coverage, but jumping into the space industry? That would be an entirely different ballgame.
“My exposure to the space industry was zero. I only knew space travel as a casual observer. When it was in the news, that's when I would read about it or watch footage about it, but it was never top of mind for me,” Hehir tells Supercluster. “I was a child of the eighties. So I came up, I vividly remember the Challenger explosion. So I knew that space travel is inherently dangerous. I think that was always a little bit daunting to me.”
What Hehir describes is a real-life example of how reporting and the recording of historic events shape the public’s view of space exploration. Multiple generations have seen our space programs go on a rollercoaster ride of priority, rising and falling with the Apollo, Gemini, and Space Shuttle programs. When the first space-related memory that comes to mind for many is a national tragedy, there’s bound to be some hesitancy to being enthusiastic about the future of exploration.
For much of the public, with potent memories of Challenger and Columbia, the perception is that spaceflight is dangerous and tragedies usually lead to stagnation, cut funding, delays, and ultimately that dreaded question from casual observers: "Does NASA still do stuff?"
Yes, they do. And part of that stuff was helping their commercial partner SpaceX become leaders in human spaceflight, carrying NASA astronauts to and from the space station and now, private citizens to and from orbit. Countdown marks a critical landmark in the space industry’s 21st-century renaissance.
Commercial space and its collaboration with NASA have brought public interest in human space exploration back to life. Capturing a critical part of that re-emergence represented by the Inspiration4 mission was a challenge that Hehir was more than willing to take on. “I was excited to do something outside of that sports realm. And then also the immediacy in the ambition, and the challenge of turning this thing around and having it be as high quality as it could have been — it took a year to do it.”
In preparation for Countdown, Hehir, like the athletes he’s interviewed, experienced something of a “training season.” Coming into the commercial space world entirely cold, the director had to jump into a research fast-track.
"When I started on this, I thought that the rocket itself went around the earth."
"I didn't realize that the rocket dropped off and just the capsule went around. I knew nothing.” Hehir says.
“I'm looking, as we speak right now, at a stack of space books and science books that are on my bookcase in my room because when you undertake something like this, you have to know as much as you can possibly know. It's your duty and your responsibility to educate yourself as much as possible to tell the right story.”
Ultimately, the right story for Countdown was one that celebrated “firsts” — the first all-civilian orbital spaceflight and the first limited series shot in space. On witnessing his first Falcon liftoff, Hehir says “Just the visceral wonder of watching that thing go up, it's awe inspiring. I had tears in my eyes watching it go up. It just makes you so proud to witness and to see what human beings can do… So it was one of the coolest moments of my life.”
Filling Countdown with life-changing moments was a lofty endeavor. What’s exceptionally challenging about filming a documentary like Countdown in near-real-time is that filmmakers are constantly capturing shots that might be considered sensitive material and end up on the cutting room floor.
“We were told early on that we probably weren't going to get a hold of any of the footage they shot because SpaceX had it in their contract that they had 10 days to review everything we did,” says Hehir, “Luckily, they were incredibly cooperative and collaborative on this project, and they were giving us feedback within minutes about it. By the time we were editing this stuff last week, they turned around their comments in an hour.”
“If there was anything proprietary — if there were serial numbers — we had to blur out things like that. That are, you know, trade secrets.”
Ultimately, Countdown did feature videos captured by Inspiration4 crew members. Their footage is the emotional climax of the five-part series, with a sweeping shot of the Earth from the ISS’s cupola making history. “We were the first human beings to ever see 4K footage of our planet from 585 kilometers,” Hehir says.
To secure the right shots, Hehir gave a mini-tutorial on filming for the extra-small screen. “We discussed very briefly just, you know, how to shoot things. Try to shoot it horizontally, landscape. Really basic things that you would tell your parents if you're showing them how to use a cell phone camera” Hehir says, “And that was it.”
In a documentary, good shots are dependent upon good timing. There is no take two when you’re capturing a rocket launch happening right in front of you. How might that pressure to capture the moment play out in a documentary about a space mission, where variables are constantly subject to change?
In short, it’s like the Olympics of filmmaking. “The timing of it is challenging inherently because of the amount of work you're undertaking. The last episode was particularly challenging because it was made entirely of footage that was shot the week before we finished it.”
The final episode of Countdown required a breakneck turnaround time. From splashdown to final cut, Hehir and his team have worked tirelessly to highlight the key parts of Inspiration4’s three-day mission in space. “Everything in episode five is immediate and was shot just days before we actually sat down with it. One of the most extraordinary moments in my life was the night they splashed down,” says Hehir, “They were brought in a convoy to a building at Kennedy Space Center to undergo medical testing. And we were in that convoy with our cameras. And when we got to the building, someone knocked on the window of our car and gave me a pouch with four cell phones in it.”
What might sound like a sketchy drug deal in any other context turned out to be a key part of the making of Countdown. “And those are the phones they had brought to space with them. They captured 82 hours of footage on those phones.”
Going over three days’ worth of footage to weave together the final, hour-long episode was no easy task, but it was one that Hehir took on with enthusiasm. “It was stunning. The challenges were vastly outweighed by the rewards."
Countdown was made with a three-pronged approach between independent creatives, Netflix, and SpaceX that could, if not drive, at least provide the blueprint for other space stories to come. “You know, I've seen all the typical space movies, but there was nothing really that informed how I was going to tell it. I am always interested in de-iconizing iconic figures, and astronauts are iconic figures,” Hehir says.
“I'm more interested in what their home life is like with their family, the conflicting emotions within their homes, within their families, and within their relationships that come with living a life where you're risking your life.”
What then does Hehir ultimately hope that viewers take away from this atypical space movie? “I hope they're as inspired by these people as I was. When I watched them safely recover — the relief and joy I felt when they splashed down. I hope that audiences feel that. And I hope it makes people realize that when we come together, we can do some pretty extraordinary things.”
All five episodes of Netflix's Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space are now streaming. Inspiration4 crew members Hayley Arceneaux, Chris Sembroski, Jared Isaacman and Dr. Sian Proctor are all listed in Supercluster's Astronaut Database. You can also revisit our launch tracker page for the mission and go behind the scenes of the launch from Kennedy Space Center with our world-class photographers.