‘Wild Wild Space’ doc captures the risks and rivalries of the new space race

Astra CEO Chris Kemp is already pulling out of a parking spot when he warns the person in the passenger seat that he doesn’t have a valid driver’s license. “And the car’s not registered, and they canceled my insurance,” he says. “This is a little risky.”

So opens "Wild Wild Space," a new HBO documentary directed by Ross Kauffman that premiers on July 17. Like its source material, journalist Ashlee Vance’s 2023 book, "When the Heavens Went on Sale," the film seeks to chronicle the early days of the new space race by focusing on three of its most colorful companies: rocket makers Rocket Lab and Astra and Earth observation company Planet Labs.

The trio may have less name recognition than Elon Musk’s SpaceX, but they’ve collectively raised over a billion dollars — and their founders are almost perfect archetypes for the different types of people attracted to the risks and thrills of NewSpace.

For Planet, that’s the NASA-to-startup founder story, which is now far more familiar in the space industry than it was back in 2010; for Rocket Lab, it’s the gall of a New Zealand nobody-cum-genius and his subsequent success; and for Astra, it’s the smooth-talking, slick confidence of Silicon Valley. There is some overlap between the narratives early on. Astra CEO Chris Kemp and Planet CEO Will Marshall met in college, and Kemp later helped secure a launch deal between Planet and Rocket Lab (before going on to found Astra). But they quickly diverge, with Rocket Lab and Planet ascending in achievement while Astra struggles with repeated setbacks.

However, in 2021 all three companies go public with fabulous, multi-billion-dollar valuations, and it isn’t entirely clear in the film how the three continue down the same path despite their varying success. The subtext is that what Astra lacks in technology it makes up for in charisma — chiefly Kemp’s. There are a few scenes in which Kemp massages bad news to investors and the public, like after the spectacular explosion of Rocket 2 in 2018. Shortly after, Kemp receives a call from an unnamed investor, and he describes the mission — which ended with the rocket falling back vertically to the pad, detonating on impact — as “a really beautiful flight.”

“We didn’t quite hit 60 seconds but it was a really beautiful flight,” he says. “We got about 30 seconds of flight. Night launches are always spectacular.”

Space fans will especially enjoy the antagonism between Beck and Kemp, who start out as ostensible rivals in the rocket race with very different ideas of how to build a successful company. Beck is especially contemptuous of Astra’s ambitions to build ultra-cheap rockets at scale, which he sums up as follows: “How cheap and crappy can we make a rocket?”

Beyond the three narratives, the film also raises larger questions about the implications of the new business model for space, where private companies, rather than governments, own and operate rockets and space assets. For example, despite Planet’s altruistic motives (they named their satellites "Doves," a bird that’s a symbol of peace), the film raises the question of privacy and whether widespread commercialized availability of EO data is a net good for national security.

These issues, and others, were crystallized during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Planet co-founder Robbie Schingler called “an all hands on deck” situation for the company. Even beyond satellite imagery, SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service came to be enormously consequential during the conflict, with Ukrainian troops coming to depend on the connectivity it provided after ground internet infrastructure was destroyed. The center of power is shifting, from space controlled by governments to space controlled by entrepreneurs — eccentric billionaires, even.

This is the film’s attempt at a "so what?" to drive home the consequences of these new personalities controlling access to space and space infrastructure. But these questions could be their own movie, and they feel a little out of left field after the more gripping scenes with the three companies. This is a minor criticism; overall, Planet, Rocket Lab and Astra are three excellent case studies in the modern-day space industry, their founders true cowboys of the Wild West of space: audacious, with a touch of swagger, and just enough insanity to have a chance of pulling it all off.