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A movie star in space

A movie star in space

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A Russian actor and director are about to become the first to film a movie in space. Why are they doing it?


Transcript
Nimo OMer, Narrating:

Hi, I’m Nimo and this is the Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, why Russia is making a movie in space.

***

“Engine ignition, turbo pumps coming up to flight speed and lift off. Lift off Soyuz MS-19 with an actress and her producer beginning a journey to the International Space Station.”

Nasa commentary

On Wednesday a Russian rocket blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome, an enormous spaceport in the grasslands of Kazakhstan.

Just three hours later, quicker than it would take ordinary folk to fly from London to Moscow, the rocket docked with the International Space Station. 

That’s the research lab up in outer space that whizzes around the Earth at over 17,000 miles per hour.

The mission notes for the two stars on board – Yulia Peresild and Klim Shipenko – were simple: spend 12 days filming scenes for The Challenge, a movie about a doctor who has to rush to space to save a dying cosmonaut.

It lays claim to be the first feature film ever shot in space. It sounds like a madcap plan, and it’s hard to see it matching the visual wonder of Hollywood space movies like Interstellar, made entirely here on earth.

So what will Russia’s space agency get out of it?

“‘We are prepared as well as it’s possible to get prepared,’ she said. ‘This is an experiment.’”

News report quoting Yulia Peresild

The child of a painter and a kindergarten teacher, Yulia Peresild had an ordinary enough upbringing.

She is a 37-year-old actress from a small city in northwest Russia. 

And until last year she was probably best known for her role in a 2015 World War Two drama, where she played a famous Soviet sniper nicknamed Lady Death.

Then she became one of 3,000 candidates for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to be the leading lady in a movie shot in space. 

Her acting skills and her ability to deal with weightlessness got her the gig, and last June she began four months of preparation, including parachute training and practice flights on a zero-gravity plane. 

Earlier this week she shot into space alongside her director, a man called Klim Shipenko, who has already made Russia’s most successful film in history: a movie about a man who wakes up as a 19th century peasant.

The pair were accompanied by a Russian cosmonaut, who had to manually dock the space rocket to the ISS after the automatic system failed.

That hitch aside, everything went to plan – and they’re up there filming.

So where did the idea to do a movie in the first place come from?

It’s unlikely the film would have happened at all if it wasn’t for Tom Cruise.

In May of last year, Jim Bridenstine, who was in charge of Nasa at the time, made a pretty wild announcement: Nasa was working with the Hollywood star on an action-adventure movie filmed on the ISS.

It sounds familiar, because Russia heard the idea and ran with it. 

See, Russia really cares about the space race. 

It may not have been the first country to get a person on the Moon, but when it comes to putting the first man, woman and dog in space, it’s been a trailblazer. 

There are some pretty tricky technical challenges to this first, though.

Visitors to the ISS typically stay for six months and return home on a rocket that’s just dropped off other astronauts.

But because Yulia Peresild and Klim Shipenko are only on board for 12 days, they’ll be going back on the rocket that took them up to space. 

That means they’ll be taking the seats of a Russian and an American cosmonaut, who’ve extended their stay on the ISS until next March.

And an actress and director does not amount to a full movie crew. 

There’ll be no lighting or sound team, and Yulia Peresild will have to do her own makeup. The initial approach to the ISS was filmed on handheld cameras, presumably because regular cameras would float off. 

What’s more, the three Russian cosmonauts on board will have cameo roles in the film. And a previous attempt at a short movie on the ISS suggests you can’t rely on great performances from astronauts.

“Don’t panic. Let’s just think about what might be the obvious reason. Maybe it’s aliens, interstellar aliens trying to invade the space station as a preview to invading Earth.”

Clip from Apogee of Fear, low budget short shot in space

And then there’s space sickness, a common problem for astronauts where the body’s failure to adapt to zero gravity can cause anything from nausea and dizziness to vomiting and hallucinations. 

Given Yulia Peresild and Klim Shipenko are only on the ISS for 12 days, getting ill could be a real liability for the movie.

So why is Russia doing this in the first place?

The answer, if we take the head of Russia’s space agency at his word, is PR. “Movies have long become a powerful instrument of propaganda,” Dmitry Rogozin admitted in June.

But it’s also about money. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, is struggling. 

It used to have a monopoly on carrying astronauts to the ISS until SpaceX, Elon Musk’s aerospace company, started taking over those duties last year. 

And the US recently announced that it was going to stop buying Russian rocket engines for its launches. Those engines had made billions of dollars in revenue for Moscow.

Meanwhile Russia’s section of the ISS is in disrepair. In 2019 the cosmonaut’s living quarters started leaking air and last year a toilet broke.

A movie isn’t an obvious solution to all this, but Dmitry Rogozin seems to think it might bring in money from the Kremlin – and from rich oligarchs. 

He told Russian state TV he hoped the film would lead to “a whole new development of the promotion of state technologies”, which sounds a lot like a subtle plea for cash. 

And the film’s official website says the project will show that space flights are available “for an ever wider range of interested persons”. 

The fact Dmitry Rogozin has criticised Russia’s billionaires for spending money on yachts instead of developing spacecraft suggests he has a wealthy target audience in mind.

Of course, not everyone is convinced by the plan – if you can call it that.

A former astronaut called Sergei Krikalev was temporarily fired from Russia’s space agency after complaining about the cost of the project.

But the powers that be think the film is worth the money.

And for Yulia Peresild, it’s a chance to make some real history… just as long as the cameras don’t float away.

Today’s story was written and produced by Xavier Greenwood