If there is one thing I can accuse of acclaimed director Christian Frei (War Photographer), it is that he somehow made a boring documentary about space exploration. This is not an insult to him or his film, it is kind of the raison d'etre, because humanity has somehow taken the majesty and the glory of the Soviet and American Space Race, and turned it into a mundane commodity for the rich and surprisingly the poor as well. From Neil Armstrong's famous words from the moon, to a Pizza Hut logo on one of the space shuttle rocket boosters, we've come a long way from that starry eyed ideals of the final frontier. And the beleaguered Russian space program, gutted at the collapse of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago, relies on selling the 'third seat' on its Soyuz rockets to various rich software engineers or the founder of Cirque du Soleil for about $20 Million. It's just business.
Space Tourists is a collection of facets to the commoditization of space. The main thread follows Anousheh Ansari, a rich Iranian born American woman, and overall space idealist who was title sponsor of the Ansari X PRIZE (a $10 Million contest to the private sector to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks.) She went up to the international space station for a couple weeks in 2006 and there is footage of her training in the Russian facilities, the absolute fear of her families reaction on the launch-pad when she lifts off, and some zero-g space station footage involving eating and also Anousheh managing the washing of her full head of hair. Hardly enough for a feature length documentary, and Frei fills in a bit more context by following photographer Jonas Bendiksen as he documents the fall from majesty of the state-funded Soviet space program, and the mighty cities that catered to the program current state of decay and neglect. He also delves a bit deeper into the 'capitalism' aspects of modern space travel with a team of salvage experts who find the cast off booster rockets and sell the titanium, aluminum and high-grade wiring on the black market, mainly to the Chinese. There are some amusing asides on how rural Russians deal with falling space-junk, a problem not experience in North America, because the shuttles launch over water, in Russia, they launch thousands of miles inland. And finally there is Microsoft multi-millionaire Charles Simonyi who is next in line to go up to the space station after Anousheh Ansari comes down and claims her bouquet and apple upon pod-pick-up.
This is far from the artistic majesty of last years assemblage of footage from the Russian archives and set to music and cultural tidbits, Ascension. And I believe that is the point Christian Frei is making here.