Foust Forward | Tom Cruise, the ISS, and the challenges of making movies in space
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has frequently discussed how the agency could be a beacon of hope during the coronavirus pandemic. He argued that missions like the upcoming SpaceX Demo-2 commercial crew test flight and launch of the Mars 2020 rover could uplift the public’s spirits and show what the nation was capable of doing during an otherwise dark chapter.
But those missions might get upstaged by Tom Cruise. The entertainment publication Deadline first reported May 4 that the superstar was in talks with both NASA and SpaceX to film an action adventure movie on the International Space Station. The article suggested that Cruise, known for doing many of his own stunts, would go to the station.
Bridenstine appeared to confirm that in a tweet the next day, writing that “NASA is excited to work with @TomCruise on a film aboard the @Space_Station!” The statement was a little ambiguous, though, leaving open the possibility that Cruise may stay on terra firma during the film’s production, just as he did when he narrated a 2002 IMAX documentary about the station.
The idea of producing a feature film or television show in space has been around for decades. The cash-strapped Russian space program of the post-Soviet era was interested in any project that could generate hard currency, which led to filming of commercials on Mir and the ISS for companies ranging from Radio Shack to an Israeli milk producer.
More ambitious projects, though, foundered. A Russian director, Yuri Kara, sought to fly two actors to Mir for what was described as a “sci-fi romance” film in the 1990s but failed to secure the funding. At the peak of his fame from the Survivor reality TV show, Mark Burnett proposed Destination: Mir, a reality show where the winner went to Mir, but the station crashed to Earth before the show could launch. And director James Cameron lobbied for years to fly to the ISS for a documentary but has remained grounded.
From a technical and legal standpoint, filming a movie on the ISS is now more feasible than ever. Commercial crew vehicles like Crew Dragon and Starliner offer improved access to the station, while Axiom Space is planning a commercial module for the ISS that could offer additional volume to accommodate filmmaking. NASA now has a commercial use policy for the ISS along with a price list for the use of space station resources.
The real challenge is, like so many other space-related ventures, closing the business case. A seat on a commercial crew vehicle is likely to cost at least $50 million, with a movie requiring at least two or three seats (say, two actors and a director/camera operator.) That’s as much as $150 million before accounting for the other costs of filming in space, as well as salaries, marketing and other expenses. By comparison, Cruise’s latest Mission: Impossible film, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, cost $178 million.
Moreover, you don’t need to go to space to make a convincing space film. While Gravity’s depiction of an orbital debris cascade wiping out everything in low Earth orbit was hyperbolic, much of the rest of the movie looked quite realistic. You didn’t need much suspension of disbelief to think that Sandra Bullock really was floating inside the space station, rather than a soundstage. And it cost just $100 million.
With the movie industry struggling right now — productions halted, new releases postponed and theaters closed — its appetite for an extremely expensive new project, even with a star like Cruise attached and the unique aspect of filming in space, might be limited. The Deadline article noted no studio had yet signed onto the project.
If anyone can make this work, it’s Cruise. In a 2018 interview with the magazine Empire, Cameron said he and Cruise discussed back in 2000 flying together on a Soyuz mission to the ISS for a film project, although the idea never got far. But in the end, it may be a mission even Ethan Hunt can’t accept
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews.
His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine. This column ran in the May 11, 2020 issue.