Russian actress, director set for Tuesday launch to space station


Actress Yulia Peresild, cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, and film director Klim Shipenko participate in final training activities before launch on the Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft. Credit: Roscosmos

America won the race to the moon, but Russia still proudly claims the most space “firsts,” including the first satellite, the first man in space, the first woman, the first spacewalk, the first multi-member crew and the first space station.

Now, with commercial spaceflight blasting off in the United States, Russia aims to chalk up another first Tuesday, launching a Russian actress and director to the International Space Station to film scenes for a feature-length movie — “The Challenge” — about a medical emergency in orbit.

In so doing, the Russian space agency Roscosmos will upstage any western actors who might be considering a shoot in space. NASA and its partners are not currently planning any such mission, officials say, despite unsubstantiated media reports claiming Tom Cruise is considering such a project.

But non-government space missions are now a reality thanks to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and available-for-hire Crew Dragon capsules, along with commercially developed sub-orbital spacecraft owned by Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos.

Both billionaires flew to space this summer and both are on the verge of full-scale commercial operations. William Shatner, who became a cultural icon playing Star Trek’s intrepid Capt. Kirk, plans to blast off aboard a Bezos-owned New Shepard rocket Oct. 12 for a sub-orbital up-and-down trip to the edge of space.

A SpaceX Crew Dragon carried four private citizens on a more ambitious flight to orbit last month and a second commercial flight, this one sponsored by Houston-based Axiom Space, will carry four private citizens to the space station early next year.

But Russia aims to claim the next space first, launching 37-year-old actress Julia Peresild and director Klim Shipenko aboard a Soyuz spacecraft early Tuesday, along with veteran cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov.

With Shkaplerov at the controls, flanked on the left by Shipenko and on the right by Peresild, the Soyuz MS-19/65S spacecraft atop a Soyuz 2.1a rocket is scheduled for liftoff from Site 31 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:55:02 a.m. EDT (1:55 p.m. local time).

“We are ready,” Peresild said in a translated Instagram post. “Even though we are, of course, nervous. And that’s why we support each other all the time. No one had this experience yet. It’s always difficult and scary to be pioneers, but it’s very interesting!”

A Soyuz-2.1a rocket stands on the Site 31 launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: Roscosmos

If all goes well, Shkaplerov will monitor an automated two-orbit rendezvous with the International Space Station, docking at the Russian Rassvet module at 8:12 a.m., about three hours after launch.

Standing by to welcome them aboard will be French station commander Thomas Pesquet and his three SpaceX Crew Dragon crewmates — Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide — along with Oleg Novitskiy, Pyotr Dubrov and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who rode to orbit last April aboard the Soyuz MS-18/64S spacecraft.

Peresild and Shipenko plan to spend 12 days aboard the space station, filming in the Russian segment of the lab before returning to Earth in the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft with Novitskiy, who will be wrapping up a 190-day mission.

Shkaplerov will remain aboard the station and return to Earth next March or April aboard the MS-29 spacecraft with Dubrov and Vande Hei, who will have logged around 330 days — almost a full year  in orbit — since launch last April 9.

In “The Challenge,” Peresild will play a Russian doctor sent to the station to treat a critically ill cosmonaut. Shkaplerov, Novitskiy and Dubrov will assist and presumably play small roles in the drama. Shipenko will be responsible for lighting, makeup and camera operation.

The movie is a joint project between Roscosmos, the state-owned Channel One Russia and the Yellow, Black and White film studio.

In remarks provided by Channel One, Shipenko was asked about Tom Cruise. The director said talk of a flight by the American actor prompted the Russian team to “speed up the production, the preparation process.”

Shipenko said Cruise would have made a great addition to “The Challenge” cast.

“He would’ve made a great American astronaut helping our heroine meet the challenge,” Shipenko said. “It would’ve been great. This type of creative collaboration would’ve been akin to the Apollo-Soyuz docking. Too bad that Tom Cruise isn’t going to space right now, that we won’t meet him there.”

Russian actress Yulia Peresild prepares to climb inside the Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft during a fit check at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Credit: Roscosmos

While Shipenko and Peresild presumably will be welcome to visit the American segment of the station in their spare time, filming will take place mostly in the Russian segment, made up of the Poisk and Rassvet docking modules, the Zarya and aft Zvezda modules and the newly arrived Nauka multi-purpose laboratory module.

“This job would’ve been enormous even on Earth,” Peresild said. “We’ll have ten days. But it won’t be like ten regular 12-hour shooting days, rather like two to three hours a day, when the cosmonauts will be able to work with us. The rest of time Klim and I will be shooting with only me in the frame.

“Our only task out there is shooting the film without interfering with the crew.”

Peresild and Shipenko were assigned to the Soyuz MS-19/65S crew in May, selected from a list of candidates after an “open competition” at the end of 2020, Roscosmos said. The two were selected “based on the results of medical and creative selection.”

Training for the Soyuz flight began in June.

“We have received safety training,” Peresild said. “We have also received emergency training. Our duties will be simple: we mustn’t break anything. We mustn’t prevent the crew from following the schedule or distract the ISS crew members’ attention, either.”

Shipenko was assigned the left seat in the Soyuz capsule, a position normally held by a professional cosmonaut or astronaut extensively trained to assist the commander and able to take over in an emergency. Peresild was assigned the right seat, which requires less hands-on training in critical systems.

Neither Peresild nor Shipenko had any aerospace experience prior to their selection, and not everyone in the Russian space establishment was on board with the assignments.

Sergei Krikalev, one of Russia’s most respected cosmonauts, a Hero of the Russian Federation, a six-flight veteran and then director of the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, reportedly protested the mission, apparently because civilian passengers force highly trained professional cosmonauts to wait longer for a flight.

He was not alone in his concern.

“A cosmonaut prepares for flight for many years and when the left or right seat of a Soyuz is given to a passenger, this pushes back the timing of an expedition into orbit for someone,” retired cosmonaut Sergei Zhukov was quoted by The Times of London.

A Soyuz rocket stands on its launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Oct. 1, following rollout from a nearby integration building. Credit: Roscosmos

The Russians plan another commercial flight before the end of the year, launching Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, his assistant Yozo Hirano and cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin for another 12-day visit brokered by the company Space Adventures.

All three plan to return to Earth aboard their Soyuz MS-20/66S spacecraft on Dec. 20.

That flight will be followed by yet another commercial SpaceX Crew Dragon flight in February, a mission mounted by Axiom that will carry retired astronaut Mike Lopez-Alegria and three wealthy crewmates to the outpost for a 10-day stay.

NASA is making room in the space station schedule for up to two commercial flights per year by SpaceX Crew Dragons and Boeing’s not-yet-operational Starliner capsule.

Russia pioneered commercial spaceflight, but U.S. companies are catching up

Russia’s long-term plans are not known in any detail, but Roscosmos has a long history of selling Soyuz seats to bring in hard currency, starting in the wake of the former Soviet Union’s collapse.

Toyohiro Akiyama, a journalist with the TBS network in Japan, made the first such flight, blasting off to the Mir space station on Dec. 2, 1990. TBS reportedly paid $28 million for Akiyama’s seat.

The first such flight to the International Space Station came in April 2001 when American businessman Dennis Tito blasted off aboard a Soyuz over NASA’s objections. Tito, through Space Adventures, reportedly paid $20 million for the trip.

Space Adventures brokered a second commercial flight to the ISS for South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth in April 2002 and would go on to arrange flights for six more “spaceflight participants,” including two by former Microsoft executive Charles Simonyi, between 2005 and 2009. They each reportedly paid up to $50 million for week-long stays aboard the space station.

The space shuttle was NASA’s last owned-and-operated orbital spacecraft, but the iconic orbiters were retired in 2011, forcing NASA to buy Soyuz seats for station-bound U.S. astronauts while new spacecraft were developed.

Since 2006, NASA has purchased 71 Soyuz seats for about $4 billion, including five seats purchased through Boeing for $373.5 million.

Dennis Tito, left, was the first spaceflight participant to fly to the International Space Station. In this 2001 photo, he is joined on the space station by Talgat Musabayev and Yury Baturin, both professional cosmonauts. Credit: NASA

Overall, NASA paid an average cost per seat of $56.3 million for the 71 completed and planned missions through Kate Rubins’ Soyuz MS-17 flight in 2020, NASA’s most recent direct purchase, with prices ranging from approximately $21.3 million to $90.3 million for each round trip.

But the NASA seats were bought and paid for in government-to-government transactions and as such, most at NASA don’t consider those flights “commercial” in any traditional sense. But commercial flights to low-Earth orbit are definitely part of NASA’s post-shuttle roadmap.

In 2014, NASA awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to build crew ships to carry astronauts to the space station, ending the agency’s sole reliance on Russia’s Soyuz.

From NASA’s perspective, these are commercial spacecraft the agency will hire, like rental cars, to carry its astronauts from point A to point B. But the analogy only holds up if one adds that NASA financed most of the rental car’s development, making the “commercial” description a debatable point.

In any case, under a $2.6 billion NASA contract, SpaceX designed its Crew Dragon spacecraft while Boeing, under a separate $4.2 billion contract, developed its CST-100 Starliner capsule.

SpaceX has launched one piloted test flight of its Crew Dragon, carrying two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station in 2020, and two operational flights that have so far carried eight astronauts to the outpost. A third flight is on tap at the end of October.

Boeing had hoped to launch its first station crew last year, but the company ran into problems with its Starliner after an initial unpiloted test flight in December 2019 and more trouble this past August that prevented a second test flight.

Assuming the test flight successfully gets off late this year or early next, Boeing’s first crewed flight presumably will come later in 2022.

Regardless, under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program contracts, SpaceX and Boeing are responsible for designing and building the spacecraft and integrating them with launch vehicles. The companies retain full ownership, making the case that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner are the first truly commercial orbital spacecraft.

NASA is the “anchor tenant” in the CCP program, helping pay for development and playing a major role in mission design requirements. But the contracts allow Boeing and SpaceX to launch their vehicles on purely commercial flights if the opportunities arise.

And now, they have.

Tech billionaire Jared Isaacman chartered the first SpaceX Crew Dragon flight, paying an undisclosed amount to launch him and three crewmates on a high-altitude flight into orbit last month.

The Inspiration4 crew did not visit the space station, but simply orbited the Earth for three days before returning to an ocean splashdown near Florida.

Given the astronomical cost of a flight to orbit, it’s difficult to consider orbital spaceflight as a “commercial” operation in any traditional sense. For that matter, sub-orbital spaceflight, with tickets costing a half-million dollars, is also out of reach for the vast majority.

But supporters say prices will eventually fall as such flights become more commonplace, opening a new era on the high frontier. It remains to be seen how long it might take for that new era to truly dawn.