Streaming space tourism is the new reality TV

Civilian astronauts practice floating in microgravity.
John Kraus/Courtesy of Netflix
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When SpaceX launches its first all-civilian crew into space later this fall and takes a multi-day trip circling the Earth, humanity can follow along online thanks to an exclusive documentary deal Netflix sealed with Elon Musk’s private space company.

The first two installments of the five-episode miniseries, Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space, will debut on the streaming platform September 6 and will be the closest Netflix has come yet to covering an event in “near-real time,” the company said on Tuesday. Over the course of September, a team of videographers will follow the civilian astronauts, including billionaire Jared Isaacman, who will be piloting the spacecraft, as they prepare for the journey and eventually launch into space. If all goes as planned, Netflix will release two more episodes September 13; it will film the actual launch on September 15 and then stream it as a “feature-length finale” at the end of the month.

Netflix is making it clear that it wants us to think the mission, which will also raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, is really for everyone. One promotional poster for the show declares, “This September, we’re all going to space.” The streaming platform is even releasing a live-action/animated show to explain the mission to kids and their families.

But SpaceX and Netflix are hardly the only companies hoping to capitalize on the historic shift to commercial space travel. The Inspiration4 mission and its streaming special mark a new era of live broadcasting from space. The rise of space tourism also seems ripe for the streaming age, a time when people can watch these events almost anywhere, and the entertainment industry has already started turning billionaires’ joyrides in zero gravity into massive media events.

“Shooting something into space, that’s something that’s going to bring in subscribers globally,” Julia Alexander, a senior strategy analyst at Parrot Analytics, told Recode. Alexander added that growing demand and “the fact that they’re relatively cheap to produce compared to the high-profile prestigious dramas with the big Hollywood talent” means we’ll see many more space-bound reality shows in the future.

The space-focused science series Nova was the eighth-most popular documentary series in the United States between June 2020 and July 2021; last year, the Cosmos: Possible Worlds featuring Neil deGrasse-Tyson saw 18 times the average demand for science and nature documentary content, according to Alexander. And let’s not forget that the data-driven nature of platforms can steer viewers to specific types of shows.

“Netflix and other streaming platforms are able to create niche content like this because they are able to use their customer data to match the content to the interests of their consumers,” Michael Smith, an information technology and marketing professor at Carnegie Mellon University, told Recode in an email.

Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are also acutely aware that their launches can act as advertising for their brands, affiliated companies, and commercial space tourism in general. Accordingly, they’ve invested heavily into incorporating expert commentators, live updates, and streaming coverage of launches. Virgin Galactic has even recruited a TikTok influencer for an upcoming flight.

Millions tuned into Blue Origin’s YouTube channel for the July 20 launch that carried Jeff Bezos on a suborbital flight along with the oldest and youngest person to ever visit space, pilot Wally Funk and Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen.

“We also wanted to show this is a true rocket ride experience. There are fewer than 600 people who have ever been to space,” Linda Mills, Blue Origin’s vice president of communications, told PR Week of the event. “To demonstrate that specialness and uniqueness of the flight was something we were trying to get across to future customers.”

Bezos’s flight was also the first — and for now, the only — rocket launch that Amazon customers could watch live on Prime Video.

More reality shows filmed from space are planned for the near future. An American production company called Space Hero is working on a contest-based show that will have average people train and compete for the chance to win a very expensive trip to the International Space Station. Like Netflix, the company says it’s focusing on “opening space up to everyone” while offering the first-ever truly off-planet experience.” Space Hero even signed a contractor agreement with NASA in April.

Of course, rocket launches as blockbuster media events predate the streaming era. From the early days of the space program, NASA missions were live demonstrations of national achievement, and humanity’s journey to the final frontier was the stuff of national news broadcasts. An estimated 600 million people watched Neil Armstrong land on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. While enthusiasm for broadcasting space events in real time dwindled after the Challenger explosion in 1986, private space companies are once again trying to market launches as something everyone on Earth can watch live.

That messaging has the convenient effect of distracting viewers from the fact that commercial space tourism, at least for now, is an environmentally questionable hobby for the ultrarich that won’t immediately accomplish much in terms of advancing our scientific understanding of space. But while criticism of billionaires’ space dreams surged following Bezos’s launch, that same narrative may not pop up with Netflix’s latest SpaceX show, says Alexander from Parrot Analytics.

“I imagine SpaceX has some form of say in what is going on,” she told Recode. “Netflix just wants to carry it and make the best docu-series possible.”

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