Long before Russia’s Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft got set to launch from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome on Oct. 5, the country’s latest mission was a broadcast spectacle.

That’s because this mission combines the allure of space with the drama of reality television, set against the backdrop of one of history’s greatest rivalries. 

The three-person crew destined for the International Space Station (ISS) Tuesday includes an actor and director who will be shooting the first feature film in space — beating a NASA-led project that aims to do the same thing with Tom Cruise. 

The launch is set for 4:55 a.m. ET. NASA TV will be streaming it live. 

Besides trying to achieve another space first, officials in Russia say the movie is a bid to sell movie audiences on the new possibilities of space travel. But the project has also faced criticism, including from within Roscosmos, the country’s space agency. 

The movie, whose working title is The Challenge, is about a surgeon who has to perform a life-saving operation on a cosmonaut.

Yulia Peresild, 37, a well-known Russian actor, was chosen for the role after successfully navigating a televised tryout entitled Call: The First in Space. The audition and accompanying reality series included rounds of medical tests and scenarios designed to mimic the force of takeoff and the weightlessness of zero gravity.

Casting call

Russia’s Channel One broadcast the reality show, in which 20 actors vied for the film’s leading role, and included footage of them spinning in chairs and pods while hooked up to monitors measuring their breathing and heart rate. 

Peresild said the months of space training were physically and psychologically exhausting. (Sasha Gusov)

After Peresild was selected for the film, the show shifted focus to the training she and 38-year-old Klim Shipenko, the director and camera person for the project, went through with Roscosmos. 

Over four months, Peresild and Shipenko received a crash course in being a cosmonaut and were required to learn the technical parts of the Soyuz rocket and emergency protocols. 

“We are prepared as well as it was possible to get prepared,” Peresild said during an interview with Channel One on Sept. 29. “This is an experiment.”

A backup crew, including an additional director and actor, were trained in case Persild and Shipenko were unable to launch.

Fear is ‘unhelpful,’ Peresild said

At a news conference, Peresild said that during their training, she and Shipenko were given advice on how to wash their hair, drink fluids and use the bathroom. 

She said they were given bags in case they needed to vomit, but they went unused. She said she hopes that space and weightlessness will be kind to them. 

Peresild acknowledged one of the most difficult parts of her training thus far has been reconciling her two roles. As an actor, she needs to be emotional. But a cosmonaut has to be focused. 

The mother of two was asked if she is afraid to go into space, but said at this point, fear is “unhelpful,” and that she chooses not to think about it. 

As part of the training session, the actor, director and their understudies tried moving and drinking in a zero gravity environment. (GCTC)

Their plan is to shoot for 10 out of the 12 days they are in space. They will be filming with the Russian cosmonauts for two to three hours a day, and then she and Shipenko will film other scenes on their own, while being mindful to stay out of the crew’s way.

They will be launched inside the Soyuz rocket with veteran cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, who will be in charge of commanding and controlling all the technical parts of the mission. 

Only 1 cosmonaut onboard

Given the rest of the team’s lack of experience, Shkaplerov will face additional pressure, according to Andrei Borisenko, a recently retired cosmonaut who spoke to CBC. 

Borisenko said that when it comes to a launch, duties are usually divided between two cosmonauts.

“This flight will be the first flight where there will be only one professional cosmonaut and two unprofessional,” said Borisenko, who spent nearly 340 days on the ISS during two separate rotations. 

He said it’s only natural that the entertainment industry wants to make movies in space, but admits he isn’t sure he will watch the Russian film, adding it largely depends on the plot. 

Borisenko wished the crew good luck, saying the first five to seven days on the International Space Station can require a pretty “drastic adaptation.”

Andrei Borisenko spent 337 days aboard the International Space Station, and says while it is too late to give the film crew advice, he does wish them luck. (Dmitry Koslov/CBC)

“I have observed many cosmonauts and astronauts on the space station, and I can say there can really be some problems,” he said. “Space does not make any exceptions for poor training and does not make exceptions for not being prepared for emergency situations.”

While Borisenko believes movies can and should be made in space, Sergei Krikalev, a former cosmonaut who spent more than 800 days in space, was critical of the plan.

Earlier this year, Russian media reported that Krikalev was fired from his role as executive director for Manned Space Programs at Roscosmos in June after he voiced his concerns about the project. He was reinstated days later. 

Questionable scientific value

Critics of the film concept charge that the entire mission is a vanity project that detracts from legitimate space exploration. 

“This is … as the Americans call it, low-hanging fruit,” said Anatoly Zak, a journalist and U.S.-based author who has been following Russia’s space industry for more than three decades and runs a website dedicated to it. 

He said in order for the film crew to go space, two other cosmonauts were deprived of a trip to the ISS. In his opinion, this cinematic mission has zero scientific value, and worse, it has pushed other engineering work back. 

While Zak compares the publicity and optics around the launch to a circus, others assert that it is important for Russia — which launched the first man into orbit in 1961 — to strive for another first in the ongoing space race. 

Dozens of cameras have been deployed by Channel One to cover the launch, and the station has been running a countdown to liftoff for several days.

“We want to repeat Russia’s primacy in space,” said Konstantin Ernst, the CEO of Channel One, during a news conference, referencing the private space ventures of Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, who made inaugural space flights in July with their respective companies, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin.

A race against Hollywood

However, it doesn’t appear that Russia sees itself competing against billionaire businessmen, but rather NASA and Hollywood. 

Russia announced its plans for the space movie in September 2020, four months after it was reported that NASA and SpaceX, which is run by Elon Musk, were partnering to make a movie aboard the ISS with Tom Cruise. The timing around that film, and whether that project is still proceeding, is unclear. 

NASA did not respond to a query from CBC, but it is going to be providing coverage of the Russian launch

It was previously reported that Tom Cruise, seen on the set of Mission: Impossible 7 in Rome, Italy, in 2020, would also be starring in a movie filmed in space. (Yara Nardi/REUTERS)

When asked about shooting in space ahead of Tom Cruise, director Klim Shipenko said it was too bad the American action star wouldn’t be there at the same time. 

“This type of creative collaboration would have been akin to the Apollo and Soyuz docking,” he said, adding that the potential Cruise film motivated the Russian team to accelerate their production schedule.

“The fact that Tom Cruise is keen on his space project made him a strong competitor.”

Shipenko said beyond the national rivalry, a major motivator for the film project was opening the idea of space travel up to a wider audience.

While he acknowledges that no one can become a cosmonaut in four months, it is possible to become a crew member on board a spacecraft. 

“Promoting this sector is very important,” Shipenko said. “Maybe we can encourage other people to go to space.”

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