3, 2, 1 ... action! Russia launches film crew to shoot movie on space station

A Russian cosmonaut who suffered a cardiac arrest during a spacewalk at the International Space Station will receive the emergency surgery he needs to survive the trip back to Earth now that a surgeon has been launched to the orbiting outpost.

Or rather that is the fictional plot line behind the real-life liftoff of Russian actress Yulia Peresild, producer Klim Shipenko and veteran cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov on a mission to film the first feature-length movie in space.

The three crewmates launched Tuesday (Oct. 5) on board Russia's Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Riding atop a Soyuz 2.1a rocket that was specially decorated for the movie, Shkaplerov, Shipenko and Peresild took flight at 4:55 a.m. EDT (0855 GMT or 1:55 p.m. local time) on a fast-track, two-orbit rendezvous to the space station. 

The Soyuz is scheduled to dock with Russia's Rassvet mini-research module at about 8:12 a.m. EDT (1212 GMT). Update: Docking occurred at 8:22 a.m. EDT (1222 GMT) under manual control by Shkaplerov due to communication issues.

In photos: Russian film crew launching to the International Space Station

About two hours later, after pressure leaks are complete, the hatches between the spacecraft will be opened and Peresild, Shipenko and Shkaplerov will join the seven members of the Expedition 65 crew, including commander Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency (ESA); NASA astronauts Mark Vande Hei, Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur; Aki Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov of the Russian federal space corporation Roscosmos.

Peresild and Shipenko will spend 12 days on the space station filming segments for "Вызов" ("Challenge" in English), a joint production between Roscosmos, the Russian television station Channel One and the studio Yellow, Black and White. Peresild will play the surgeon, Zhenya, with Novitskiy, Dubrov and Shkaplerov taking a break from their real-life role as cosmonauts to play bit parts as the space station's crew in the film.

Shipenko will fill several of the behind-the-scene roles, including director, make-up artist, sound editor and cinematographer.

Most of the 35 to 40 minutes of filming will take place in Russia's Nauka multi-purpose laboratory module, but other areas of the complex may be shown as well. It is not clear if any of the other Expedition 65 crew members will appear in the movie.

Peresild and Shipenko will return to Earth with Novitskiy aboard Soyuz MS-18 on Oct. 17 (Oct. 16 local time in Kazakhstan). To accommodate the film, Dubrov's and Vande Hei's stays were extended for another six months. They will land with Shkaplerov in March, after 365 days in space. Vande Hei will have completed the single longest spaceflight by an astronaut in U.S. history.

Soyuz MS-19 crew, from the left: actress Yulia Peresild, cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov and producer Klim Shipenko. (Image credit: Roscosmos)

Roscosmos first announced the film project in November 2020, after the news broke that actor Tom Cruise was in the early stages of working with director Doug Liman, SpaceX, Axiom Space and NASA to film a movie aboard the space station. Jumping at a chance to claim another first in space, Roscosmos quickly set about to cast the actress who would be the film's lead.

Peresild, 37, was chosen from a pool of 3,000 applicants and 20 finalists in May. Together with her back-up, Alena Mordovina, Roscosmos said that the casting also tested a new model for selecting and training individuals for spaceflight under an abbreviated schedule.

"It didn't come easy for me," said Peresild, referring to her training at a press briefing on Monday. "There are so many acronyms, and if you don't learn them all you won't understand anything else further on."

An accomplished actress who has already achieved fame in Russia, Peresild has appeared in award-winning Russian movies and television series, as well as acted on stage at the Malaya Bronnaya theater in Moscow. Her launch coincides with World Space Week, which this year is themed around "Women in Space." Peresild is only the fifth Russian woman to fly into space out of the 67 total female astronauts worldwide. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first in 1963.

The Soyuz MS-19 crew patch includes a film reel and EKG pattern as nods to the movie that will be shot in space. (Image credit: Roscosmos)

Shipenko, 38, is a film director, screenwriter, actor and producer. His earlier credits include the 2017 feature film "Salyut 7," which was loosely based on the real 1985 mission to the last of the Soviet Union's Salyut-class space stations.

Shkaplerov, 49, has already logged more than 533 days in space having previously served on three International Space Station expedition crews in 2012, 2015 and 2018. When he returns to Earth in March, Shkaplerov will rank seventh in the world for the most time in space.

Before "Challenge," Soviet-era cosmonauts filmed aboard Soyuz T-9 and inside the Salyut 7 space station for the Russian 1984 narrative film "Return from Orbit." Twenty-four years later, privately-funded astronaut Richard Garriott shot "Apogee of Fear," a short science fiction film set aboard the International Space Station.

Soyuz MS-19 is Russia's 65th Soyuz spacecraft to be bound for the International Space Station since 2000 and 148th to fly since 1967.

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Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.