A Russian actor and a director have blasted off to the International Space Station (ISS) in an attempt to beat the United States to the filming of the first movie in orbit.
The crew are likely to beat a Hollywood project announced last year by Tom Cruise, NASA, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
The actor Yulia Peresild, 37, and film director Klim Shipenko, 38, took off from the Russia-leased Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with a veteran cosmonaut, Anton Shkaplerov, heading for a 12-day mission at the ISS to film scenes for The Challenge.
The movie’s plot, which has been mostly kept under wraps along with its budget, was revealed by Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, to centre on a surgeon who is dispatched to the ISS to save a cosmonaut. Shkaplerov and two other Russian cosmonauts onboard the ISS are said to have cameo roles in the film.
“For me, space is alluring, welcoming and has no boundaries,” Peresild – who was selected out of 3,000 candidates for the role – said in remarks broadcast by Roscosmos on Tuesday.
The Guardian UK reported that several hours before takeoff, the trio arrived at the launchpad wearing heavy spacesuits, and they waved to the crowds as they boarded their spacecraft.
True to a pre-flight tradition religiously observed by cosmonauts, the crew said that on Sunday they had watched the classic Soviet film The White Sun of the Desert.
Shipenko and Peresild are expected to return to Earth on 17 October in a capsule with the cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky, who has been on the ISS for the past six months. “Not only do we need to make a film, we need to come back to Earth alive,” Shkaplerov said.
If successful, the mission will add to a long list of firsts for Russia’s space industry. The Soviets launched the first satellite, Sputnik, and sent the first animal, a dog named Laika, the first man, Yuri Gagarin, and the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova, into orbit.
But compared with the Soviet era, modern Russia has struggled to innovate and its space industry is fighting to secure state funding, with the Kremlin prioritising military spending. The country’s space agency is still reliant on Soviet-designed technology and has faced a number of setbacks, including corruption scandals and botched launches.
Russia is falling behind in the global space race, facing tough competition from the US and China, with Beijing showing growing ambitions in the industry.
Roscosmos was dealt a blow after SpaceX last year successfully delivered astronauts to the ISS, costing Russia its monopoly for journeys to the orbital station.
For Konstantin Kalachev, a political analyst, the space film is a matter of PR and a way to distract Russians from the problems that Roscosmos is facing. “This is supposed to inspire Russians, show how cool we are, but I think Russians have completely lost interest in the space industry,” Kalachev said.
In an effort to spruce up its image and diversify its revenue, Russia revealed this year it would be reviving its space tourism programme to ferry fee-paying adventurers to the ISS. After a decade-long pause, Russia will send two Japanese tourists including the billionaire Yusaku Maezawa to the ISS in December, capping a year that has been a milestone for amateur space travel.
Last month SpaceX completed the first all-civilian mission to space, taking four untrained astronauts on a three-day loop of the Earth’s orbit. The trip followed the missions of Richard Branson, who spent several minutes in weightlessness in July, and the Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos, who completed a similar mission days later.
This month William Shatner, now 90 and known for his portrayal of Captain Kirk in the Star Trek series, will fly to space on a mission with Bezos’s Blue Origin.