Cinema, tourism and extraterrestrial life–Competition is hotting up in Space

M Somasekhar

A film shooting in Outer Space? Yes, it’s no longer a dream or imagination, but real.

The Russians have successfully accomplished the first shoot of a film in Orbit in the International Space Station (ISS), up in the sky at an altitude of just above 400km.

Days after the Star Trek star, William Shatner (90) became the oldest space tourist flying to the edge of the Earth and into outer space in Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin company’s spaceship, New Shepard, the Russian actress Yulia Peresild (37) and Director, Klim  Shipenko (38), returned to land after a 12-day shoot at the ISS on October 17.

MS Education Academy

The film titled Challenge is set to beat the ambitious Hollywood project announced in May 2020. It is to star with Tom Cruise, the Mission Impossible star and the world’s richest paid actor and made in collaboration with Elon Musk of Space X and the NASA.

Russian Film Crew Return After Shooting ‘The Challenge’ Movie In Space
The 10 people living and working on the International Space Station share dinner in a photograph shared by cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky on Oct. 14, 2021. (Image credit: Roscosmos/NASA)

The developments look akin to the early days of Space exploration of the 1950s & 60s. The erstwhile Soviet Union and the US set off a race to be the first mover into Space.  So, when Tom Cruise announced his plans in 2020 to do the first film in space, the Russians were quick to respond.

In September 2020, it came to light that Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman had booked a flight on a SpaceX rocket headed for the ISS in October, 2021. Not to be outdone, Russia soon revealed that they had designs of beating the US again in yet another Space odyssey.

Hollywood superstar Tom Cruise is well-known for performing some of the toughest stunts in his movies, especially in The Mission Impossible series. In the 2015 film, Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation he performed the suspenseful feat of clutching the side of an Airbus A400 as it takes off. In   Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol he scaled the Burj Khalifa, the Dubai skyscraper, and executed stunts 123 floors up the spectacular structure

Even as the Hollywood movie makers were firming up plans for their multi-billion dollar venture, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, announced in March 2021 that it had selected its crew also to help in the shoot of the film titled, Challenge.

The cinema plot

According to the Director, the plot of the Russian movie centres around a surgeon who is dispatched to the ISS to save a Cosmonaut. The film crew took off from the Baikanour cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with the veteran cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov in early October.

In September 2020, the Producers announced for selection of the initial star cast. They selected Yulia and Klim from hundreds of applicants around mid 2021. Thereafter, the stars were put through a rigorous training at the Cosmonaut Training Centre in Baikanour.

The training is intense with the men/women put through centrifuge tests, vibration stand tests, made to perform introductory and training flights on a zero-gravity plane, undergo parachute training etc., says Roscosmos.

Space tourism to get a boost

Meanwhile, civilian space travel is gathering momentum with the dramatic flights and claims and questions raised about the highly-publicized flights by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. Elon Musk’s, Space X too achieved the first first-ever launch of 4 Astronauts of NASA to the ISS.

The December 2021 Soyuz flight with the two Japanese tourists will in a way revive the Russian Space Agency’s efforts to tap into the potential of space tourism. According to reports one of them is Yusaku Maezawa, who hit headlines in 2018 when he announced that he paid for a flight around the moon on Space X’s reusable Starship spacecraft.

The Russian Agency is after all the pioneer, having successfully launched the US millionaire, Dennis Tito into outer space. In April 2001, Tito became the world’s first tourist as he was flown in a Soyuz rocket to the ISS. It was 8-day trip for Tito, who was then 60. The cost was a whopping $20 million, but a great dream come true for him and a big step for space travel. The last time Soyuz carried a tourist was way back in 2009.

Exactly two decades after, the CEO of the Virgin Group, Richard Branson and CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos have given the big thrust to space tourism that took wings in 2001. On July 11, 2021 Branson and four others, including India born Ms Sirisha Bandla blasted off into suborbital space in his Virgin Galactic. Within 10 days, Jeff Bezos and team including the 82 year old Ms Wally Funk, a NASA trained astronaut of the 1960s took off in New Shepard launch vehicle and spent 11 minutes in suborbital space.

SpaceX is also readying it’s preparations to take 4 tourists in flight orbit around the Earth by end of 2021 or early 2022 in its Crew Dragon spacecraft.

India, China too planning big

Overall Space is getting hot with lot of activity and big plans from new entrants too. While the traditional rivals-US & Russia are in a revival mode, India, China, UAE, Japan, France, Sweden, Italy are forging ahead too. The big differentiator now that’s adding all the more excitement is the entry of private sector and billionaires into the arena.

Incidentally, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), got its first set of six cosmonauts trained at the same Baikanour Centre for the upcoming Gaganyaan project. It’s aim is to send a manned mission to space in 2022-23 to coincide with the country’s 75th year of Independence.

The ISRO Chief, K Sivan also revealed in 2019 itself that India will be building its own version of the International Space Station. More recently, the Modi government has liberalised the Space sector allowing a big role for private sector. Within no time big corporates to start ups have lined up with ambitious plans.

ISRO Chief, K Sivan

China on the other hand has been the star performer in the last five years. It has landed a spacecraft on the Moon and brought back lunar rocks to Earth. It also landed its Tianwen-1 probe on Mars along with the Zhurong rover which is exploring for evidence of life on the Red Planet. Incidentally, the NASA did the historic landing of the Perseverance Rover on Mars. India has the satisfaction of seeing its low cost mission Mangalyaan–Mars Orbiter Mission, launched in 2014 continue to be live, even after seven years and orbiting the planet. All these efforts are to find signs of extraterrestrial life too.

China has also started setting up its own Space Station named Tiangong from April and sent astronauts to outer space and brought them back. On October 16, Chinese Astronauts (two men and a woman) began a 6-month mission to establish the permanent station, after docking their spacecraft ‘Shenzhou-13’ launched by a Long March 2F rocket.

The Chinese were not permitted by the US to be part of the ISS on grounds of their programme’s nature of ‘ Secrecy’ and military intentions. This prompted China to go its own way. In recent years, the Russians too are slowly weaning away from the ISS and veering towards China.

Somasekhar Mulugu, former Associate Editor & Chief of Bureau of The Hindu BusinessLine, is a well-known political, business and science writer and analyst based in Hyderabad

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