“Challenge”: forging new ground, or the twilight of cosmic Russia?7 min read
On 5 October, 2021, Russia sent first-time extraplanetary voyagers Yulia Peresild and Klim Shipenko to the International Space Station (ISS). But instead of conducting experiments on cellular growth in zero-gravity or testing prototypes of new space technologies, the pair are on a new kind of mission–shooting the world’s first feature film in outer space. The plot of Challenge involves the Russian government sending a surgeon on an urgent mission to the ISS to save a cosmonaut with a heart issue. As in the days of Cold War space-racing, the expedition appears to have been timed to beat a similar US film involving NASA, Elon Musk, and Tom Cruise. The US project’s filmed-in-space component now only looks to be carried out sometime in early 2022.
The Russian film crew safely returned to Earth on 16 October, unambiguously securing the country’s claim to another “first” in space. Production apparently went smoothly, with real-life, currently-deployed cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, who will also feature in the film alongside Peresild, joking that the Russian section of the ISS was in need of cleaning up after the film crew departed. Though its release is not anticipated until sometime next year, Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, and other government outlets have already taken to promoting the film heavily. First Channel, Russia’s most popular domestic state media outlet, has even released a reality show about the process of choosing the actress to be sent into space, which began airing in September.
The film looks set to be highly popular with a wide audience. Shipenko’s last film, Serf (2019), became the highest-grossing Russian film of all time, and the director is confident that Challenge will also play well at the box office. In a contemporary culture that older Russians often find alienating, a film about outer space, a backbone of popular science in Russia since the 1950s, looks to have unique cross-generational appeal.
For all the enthusiasm and interest among the Russian public, the project has also garnered broad criticism even before the film’s release. Doubts have been raised about using the ISS as a film set getting in the way of its official purpose as a scientific research station. Roscosmos dismissed the last former cosmonaut still sitting on its board, Sergei Krikalev, allegedly over his criticism of the Challenge project (Krikalev, well known for having been stuck in space during the collapse of the USSR, was later restored to his position after a public outcry).
The film’s shooting has also coincided with renewed scrutiny around Roscosmos and its director, Dmitry Rogozin, and the corruption and stagnation that has characterized his leadership of the Russian space industry. An article by Meduza derides the brief, superficial training of the film crew for their time in space, highlighting tensions between a rushed film production schedule and the complexities of preparing to spend an extended time in space. Meduza also notes the Russian space program’s current lack of real-life female cosmonauts, despite the production team’s sensationalization of their casting of a female lead for the film.
These points of criticism share a certain perspective–an attitude that the film company and its government backers are interfering in a sacred realm where they don’t belong, sullying the awe-inspiring cosmos with a narrow, grubby, financially and politically motivated agenda of little real value, be it scientific, historical, or simply in terms of bragging rights.
In the transcendental atheism of Soviet thought, there was no distinction between the astronomical and the theological “heavens”. Outer space was the ultimate theater of human destiny and ideological triumph. Today, though its role in state policy and mass culture is diminished, the national space program still strikes a complex emotional chord with the Russian public. The Soviet space legacy is a special object of nostalgia, not just for an era of greater national power and technological leadership, but also a more subtle spirit of imaginativity, optimism and wonder, now only dimly echoing in a competitive, unforgiving society. Sentimental images of space-themed Soviet playgrounds now rusting away, and bitter memes about Soviet murals of cosmonauts being “traces left behind by a more developed civilization” speak to shared poignant feelings about faded visions of a cosmic future. This feeling is perhaps best captured in a saying now popular among Russian youth: “Forgive us, Yura [Gagarin], we have screwed everything up” (also used as the title for a popular song), a remark on how far short Russia has fallen of the hopes and ideals prevailing at the time it sent the first man into space 60 years ago.
Ambivalence about Challenge is not the product of a lack of support for Russia’s presence in space itself: according to a 2021 state survey, 91% of Russian citizens believe that Russia should engage in space exploration, and 75% felt that the space program’s budget should not be cut even given current economic difficulties. A 2018 survey by Levada found that a clear majority of Russians considered Russia to be the current leader in space exploration. Yet just weeks ago, the federal government announced cutting of Roscosmos’ budget by nearly 20%, with President Vladimir Putin reportedly expressing disappointment in the agency’s fulfillment of “long-term goals”.
Already struggling to compete with the US (and increasingly, China) in terms of space spending, the cuts set Russia even further behind its main rivals. Russia’s budget setbacks also speak to a deeper problem–a general waning in government interest in space exploration for its own sake. Arguably, none of the major powers are currently prioritizing outer space, and to the extent that they are, their attention has largely shifted to military applications of space technologies rather than space exploration as an end in itself. Space discourse is increasingly concerned with identification of new threats and securitization of the domain. As high as the stakes may have seemed at the time, the civilian-led Soviet-US space race now feels like an innocent pastime from a bygone era.
With government priorities shifting to security issues, they’ve appeared increasingly willing to hand over the more popular and entertaining dimensions of space travel to the private sector. Recent space flights by Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson drew public attention skyward without costing the US government anything, and Russia appears enthusiastic about the future of paid space tourism as well, though it has sparked a debate of its own. Detractors note that it simply allows billionaires to repeat 20th-century achievements for their own personal gratification while doing nothing to advance scientific progress, while proponents suggest that marketization of space travel is the first step to increased interest, investment, and evolution of the domain.
With the Russian economy roughly 10% of the size of those of the US and China by GDP, and strained by sanctions, stagnation, and corruption, the country will inevitably struggle to devote the state resources necessary to remain a leader in space. On the other hand, it’s clear that the Russian public has a special relationship with the cosmos, and that space may be one of the few policy areas in which people still have strong faith in their government. At the very least, Russia deserves an earnest public discussion about what’s possible and what’s not for the Russian space program, and what it would actually cost to keep making real progress instead of just finding new ways to market old accomplishments. It’s clear that for the time being, the state still holds the keys to the future of research and technological progress in space, while private actors will focus on doing what they were set up to do: making money. Whether it’s filming “Challenge” on the ISS or sending wealthy people to experience a few moments in zero-gravity, private space activity will continue to prioritize the interests of the individuals involved over inspiring humanity.
Yuri Gagarin probably would have been thrilled at the idea that in the 21st century, Russia was shooting movies on an international space station. If Russia has anything to apologize to Gagarin for, it’s perhaps rather that, for the time being, this is the only major new space project they’re undertaking. “Challenge” is a real accomplishment for Russia in space, but the context around it arguably also reflects the Russian space program’s shrinking ambitions. The Russian people, for their part, appear to want more out of their space program, and at least in theory, are willing to pay for it.