If you were born post-1969, it’s hard to imagine what all the hubbub surrounding space travel was about. These days information from NASA is rarely seen in the newspapers, much less the front page. Apparently we’re going to Mars….or have we been to Mars? Were there Martians there? In Christian Frei’s newest documentary, “Space Tourists” we are reintroduced to the excitement of space travel. Only this time he’s exploring the industry from the other side of the world, the side whose achievements we like to limit to Sputnik: The Soviet Union.
Anousheh Ansari is a rich woman with a dream: to go into space. And by paying $20 million she’s going to be the first female space tourist. Russian has been allowing space tourists to tag along on flights to the international space station as a way to fund their continued research. Ansari’s $20 million will cover over half the cost of the mission. She gets to spend 8 days in space, Russia gets to send rockets to their station; everyone wins. Even the people left on the ground, who you would think have nothing to do with astronautics, are able to benefit from the industry, collecting the scrap metal that falls from the sky after each launch. From the extremely rich, to the extremely poor, these missions can be beneficial to many people.
Frei uses Jonas Bendiksen, a Magnum photographer, as the glue to hold each side of the story together. Bendiksen travels around Kazakhstan photographing decrepit space stations and the futuristic art in the towns surrounding them. These cities that once thrived, are now ghost towns full of bricked up housing complexes and empty gas stations. Bendiksen captures the hope that once existed there in eerie, barren still photographs while narrating the history of the USSR’s space program.
The film manages to feel both whimsical and realistic as it darts between the stories of Ansari and the men who harvest scrap metal. At times absurd and at times very beautiful, we root for everyone in the film as they attempt to achieve their dreams. While the narrative gets a little muddled at times when Frei tries to incorporate other aspects of space travel (for example, he follows the X-Prize hopefuls as they try to get to the moon), its tone remains consistent. “Space Tourists” is an informative and hopeful documentary that might make you revert back to your 7-year-old self that dreamed of being an astronaut.