The first dog in space. The first man and woman. Now Russia has clinched another spaceflight first before the United States: Beating Hollywood to orbit.

A Russian actress, Yulia Peresild, a director, Klim Shipenko, and their veteran Russian astronaut guide, Anton Shkaplerov, launched on a Russian rocket toward the International Space Station on Tuesday. Their mission is to shoot scenes for the first feature-length film in space. While cinematic sequences in space have long been portrayed on big screens using sound stages and advanced computer graphics, never before has a full-length movie been shot and directed in space.

Whether the film they shoot in orbit is remembered as a cinematic triumph, the mission highlights the busy efforts of governments as well as private entrepreneurs to expand access to space. Earth’s orbit and beyond were once visited only by astronauts handpicked by government space agencies. But a growing number of visitors in the near future will be more like Ms. Sherepild and Mr. Shipenko, and less like the highly trained Mr. Shkaplerov and his fellow space explorers.

A Soyuz rocket, the workhorse of Russia’s space program, lifted off on time at 4:55 a.m. Eastern time from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Before the launch on Tuesday, the MS-19 crew posed for photos and waved to family and fans in Baikonur. Mr. Shipenko, the director of the film which is named “The Challenge,” held up a script as he waved to cameras.

“We didn’t forget to take it with us,” he said, according to a translator, before he boarded a bus with the other crew members to get dressed in their flight suits.

The crew then raced to catch up with the space station in a trip that took only three hours. Known as a “two-orbit scheme,” it was unusually fast, as journeys to the lab in space typically last between eight and 22 hours over multiple orbits around Earth. (The first three-hour trip was performed by a Soyuz spacecraft in 2020 for Russia’s MS-17 mission, carrying two Russian astronauts and a U.S. astronaut.)

The MS-19 spacecraft carrying its three-person crew was expected to dock with the space station at 8:12 a.m. But because of what a mission control official in Moscow described as “ratty comms” between the capsule and mission control in Moscow, possibly the result of weather conditions on Earth, Mr. Shkaplerov, the mission’s commander, was forced to abort an initial automated docking attempt. Mr. Shkaplerov instead manually steered the spacecraft to a port on the station’s Russian segment.

“Up, down, left, right,” the mission control official in Moscow instructed Mr. Shkaplerov, as he steered the spacecraft closer to the station’s Russian segment. “Do what you’ve trained for. You’ll be fine.”

The capsule latched onto the space station around 8:22 a.m. slightly behind schedule. Opening the hatch door was also delayed as the crew checked for air leaks, and as the Russian astronauts already on the station lined up their first shot: Ms. Peresild’s arrival.

“They’re going to open the hatch from their side, and then they’re going to float towards the camera, correct? So we need to stay out of the picture,” Oleg Novitsky, one of two Russian astronauts who’ve been on the station since April, asked mission control in Moscow.

Pyotr Dubrov, the other resident of the Russian segment, was behind a large digital cinema camera, recording and waiting for the MS-19 crew to open the hatch door and board the station. When it finally opened more than two hours after docking, at 11 a.m., out floated Mr. Shkaplerov and a smiling Ms. Peresild, followed by Mr. Shipenko, her director. The three then participated in a welcoming ceremony with the space station’s current crew of seven astronauts from NASA, Russia, Europe and Japan, with Ms. Sherepild in a red jumpsuit while her fellow new arrivals wore blue.

“I still feel that it’s all just a dream and I am asleep,” she said. “It is almost impossible to believe that this all came to reality.”

The two film crew members will spend nearly two weeks moviemaking on the space station before returning on Oct. 17 aboard the MS-18 Soyuz spacecraft. Mr. Novitsky will leave with the film crew, and Mr. Shkaplerov will remain on the station.

“Undoubtedly, this mission is special, we have people going to space who are neither tourists nor professional cosmonauts,” said Dmitri Rogozin, director general of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. He said he hoped the flight would help the agency attract a new generation of talent.

As an actress, Ms. Peresild has performed in some 70 roles onscreen, and Russian movie publications have named her among the top 10 actresses under 35 years old. She may be best known among Russian moviegoers for “Battle for Sevastopol” (2015), in which she played the role of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, the deadliest Red Army female sniper during World War II.

But her prominence alone wouldn’t have been enough to secure her a seat to orbit: She was picked for the flight from some 3,000 contestants in a two-stage selection procedure that involved both tests of creativity and a stringent medical and physical fitness screening.

Ms. Peresild will also become the fifth Russian woman to travel to space, and the first aboard the space station since 2015, when Elena Serova returned to Earth.

Aboard the space station, Ms. Peresild will star in “The Challenge.” It’s about a surgeon, played by Ms. Peresild, who embarks on an emergency mission to the orbiting lab to save the life of an ailing cosmonaut (to be performed by Mr. Novitsky). Few other details about the plot or the filming aboard the station have been announced.

The crew, using hand-held cameras both on board the capsule and in the space station, started filming scenes for the movie as the spacecraft approached the outpost, Rob Navias, a NASA spokesman, said on Tuesday.

For “The Challenge,” cinematic storytelling may take a back seat to the symbolism of shooting a movie in space. The production is a joint project involving Russia’s space agency Roscosmos; Channel One; and Yellow, Black and White, a Russian film studio.

Like a lot of private missions to space these days, Channel One and Roscosmos hope the film can prove to the public that space isn’t reserved for only government astronauts. One of the production’s core objectives is to show that “spaceflights are gradually becoming available not only for professionals, but also for an ever wider range of interested persons,” Channel One said on its website.

Mr. Rogozin, the Russian space agency leader, said he hopes the mission will make “a truly serious work of art and a whole new development of the promotion of space technologies,” in order to attract young talent to Russia’s space program.

Funding for Russia’s space program is beginning to wane. Starting in 2011, when the U.S. space shuttle program ended, NASA could only send astronauts to the International Space Station by paying for expensive rides on one of Russia’s Soyuz rockets. But that ended in 2020 when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon proved itself capable of sending astronauts from American soil. And recently, the United States ended purchases of a Russian rocket engine long used for NASA and Pentagon launches to space, which generated billions in revenue for Moscow.

“The Challenge” is the first full-length movie that will use scenes filmed in orbit. The movie will include about 35 to 40 minutes of scenes made on the station, Channel One says.

Other kinds of productions have been made in space in the past, like “Apogee of Fear,” an eight-minute science fiction film shot by Richard Garriott, a private astronaut, in 2008. Mr. Garriott, a video game entrepreneur, paid $30 million for his seat on a Soyuz spacecraft, which he booked through Space Adventures, a space tourism broker. The company is booking future missions to the space station aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.

Several feature-length documentaries have relied heavily on video shot aboard the station. “Space Station 3D,” a short 2002 documentary about the space station’s construction, was one of the earliest IMAX productions filmed in space.

Tom Cruise may have plans to film something on the space station, but it’s unclear exactly when. Deadline, a Hollywood news publication, reported in 2020 that Mr. Cruise would fly to space aboard one of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsules for an action-adventure film directed by Doug Liman. Jim Bridenstine, who served as NASA’s administrator under President Donald Trump, confirmed the plans on Twitter at the time and lauded them as a chance to galvanize the public around space exploration.

Russia’s space agency announced its intention to send an actress to the space station shortly after Mr. Cruise’s plans emerged.

Astronauts have been living aboard the space station, a science lab the size of a football field, for more than 20 years, and it’s starting to show signs of decay, particularly on the Russian side.

Several air leaks on the Russian segment of the outpost have been detected in recent years, although none have posed immediate danger to the station’s crew. Astronauts found a leak in Russia’s Zvezda service module last year by using tea leaves, and patched the leak with space-grade glue and tape. Another gradual air leak is ongoing, and its source has eluded Russian space officials.

And in July, Russia’s new science module, Nauka, carried out a chaotic docking procedure: Shortly after locking onto the station, the module’s thrusters began to fire erroneously, spinning the entire space station by one-and-a-half revolutions. None of the seven astronauts on board were harmed, but it was a rare “spacecraft emergency” that sent NASA and Russian officials scrambling to return the station to its normal orientation.

Traffic at the space station will be busy for the next few months.

On Oct. 30, NASA is scheduled to send a crew of three U.S. astronauts and one European Space Agency astronaut to the space station for a roughly six-month stay. The mission, named Crew-3, will be NASA’s fourth trek to the station using SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, a spacecraft developed with a mix of NASA and private funds.

Then, more private missions. Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire, will launch to the orbital laboratory aboard a Soyuz rocket on Dec. 8 for a 12-day stay. Mr. Maezawa, an art collector and the tycoon behind the Japanese fashion retail site Zozotown, booked his first mission to space with SpaceX in 2018, aiming to one day ride the company’s Starship rocket around the moon. That won’t come until 2023, and for Mr. Maezawa’s sooner Soyuz flight, he’ll bring a producer and a camera along to document his trip.

Then on Feb. 21, three private astronauts, paying $55 million each, will fly to the space station in a Crew Dragon capsule booked by the company Axiom Space. They will be joined by a fourth crew member, a retired NASA astronaut who will essentially serve as their guide.

Valerie Hopkins and Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting from Moscow.



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