The International Space Station will become a movie set for a week. But what about poo and garbage?
On October 5, an unusual crew will fly to the International Space Station. Director Klim Shipenko and actor Yulia Peresild will spend a week and a half at the station shooting scenes for the Russian film Challenge. Peresild plays a surgeon who must perform a heart operation on a sick cosmonaut.
This is an exciting – albeit controversial – development for the station, which orbits about 400 km above Earth. Commercial use of its facilities could be a funding path to keep it in orbit. A Japanese documentary and an American film, with Tom Cruise, are also in preparation.
The station consists of 16 modules locked together in a cross configuration. There are six Russian modules in the Russian orbital segment, while the US orbital segment consists of 11 modules managed by the United States, Japan and the European Space Agency. Spaceships like the Soyuz and Dragon regularly dock at the station to bring crew and supplies, and bring others back to Earth.
Usually there are between three and six crew members living on the station. The main work is science experiments, but since some parts of the station are over 20 years old, a lot of maintenance is also needed.
Space stations in movies are often very “space” with futuristic minimalist interiors. In contrast, the International Space Station is a mess, more Red Dwarf than 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are cables everywhere, walls cluttered with equipment, tools, food packages and notes, and over 6,000 items lost by the crew.
Challenge, being the first (professional) space film to be filmed in space, raises a number of questions. Here are five that I have in mind.
How will the cosmonaut’s crew react to a woman “space tourist”?
After Valentina tereshkova, the first woman in space in 1963, only four other Russian women have ever left Earth.
Svetlana Savitskaya was the second female cosmonaut in 1982. Her teammates on the Mir space station presented her with an apron when she arrived, joking that she would be working in the kitchen. I even heard a cosmonaut trainer say that “space is not a place for a woman”.
However, in Russia we see medicine as a female profession. Considering that veteran cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev was sacked for opposing the film’s plans (he was later reinstated), I wonder what the reception of Yulia Peresild will look like.
What about the use of the space toilets?
Personal hygiene is a challenge in the space station’s microgravity environment. The crew must learn to use the complicated space toilets, which use vacuum pumps to suck everything from the body and into tanks. Urine is recycled to increase the station’s water supply – as the joke says, yesterday’s coffee becomes tomorrow’s coffee.
Then there is the space poo policy. In 2009, the strained relationship between Moscow and Washington resulted in Russian and American crews be banned to use each other’s toilet. The crew complained that not being able to use the nearest toilet interrupted their work.
In the Russian segment where the filming will take place, there is an old toilet designed for male anatomy. In the female body, there is less separation between pee and poo, which is why NASA designed their new toilets to take this into account. Will Peresild preferably use the NASA toilet? She will be the first Russian woman to compare space toilet technology.
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How realistic will the surgery scenes be?
In space, unconfined liquids bubble and float. This presents some challenges for heart surgery, especially since blood tends to pool in the upper parts of the body. There have been limited surgical experiences already in microgravity, but they were carried out on artificial bodies, or on animals like rats.
Technology under development for future space missions, especially long duration flights like those to Mars, includes robotic surgery and capsules that enclose the patient, with the surgeon operating them through arm portholes. It will be interesting to see what choices are made to represent this key part of the film.
Will the film crew leave something in space?
As a space archaeologist, I want to know if this unusual activity will contribute to the archaeological record of the station. While the film crew will need to bring all of their gear with them, science experiments take priority due to limited cargo space when returning objects to Earth. Later, the crew can find items left behind by Peresild and Shipenko, taped to Velcro strips on walls or hidden in storage areas.
In the Russian Zvezda module, cosmonauts turned part of a wall into an informal gallery or sanctuary. Analyse of how the displayed images change over time shows that it almost always features images of Soviet space heroes Yuri Gagarin, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Sergei Korolev, as well as Russian Orthodox icons.
Peresild’s father is a well-known icon painter, so maybe she will bring one to contribute to this exhibition.
What happens next?
After this flight, Peresild and Shipenko will officially be space travelers, as well as the first professional filmmakers in space. They will join the ranks of an elite group that has traveled to orbit.
While the past year has seen plenty of people who have just jumped into space on suborbital flights, including Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and the “civilian” crew, it still means something to actually live in there. ‘space.
At least 45 films on space travel have received Oscar nominations for Best Visual Effects, but in the case of Challenge, the visual effects will be real.
Perhaps it will be a turning point in the way space habitats are portrayed in the movies. Will the public prefer the glamorous fantasy or replace their visions of future space travel with the cruel reality of a working space station?
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