Firing William Shatner into space was just the curtain raiser to a new era of shooting stars in orbit, as the race for extra-terrestrial entertainment takes off, reports Adrian Pennington.
Gravity-defying science-fiction movies need no longer be propelled by CGI as extraordinary space odysseys of filmed entertainment take-off. Enterprising projects already announced for galactic production range from a Tom Cruise blockbuster to a mixed martial arts reality TV show.
Some media projects have been actively backed by NASA while US tech entrepreneurs are eager to budget films that boost their egos further into orbit.
There’s a wider commercial imperative too. The race to land valuable contracts to build orbital space stations was kicked off when NASA and Roscosmos declared the International Space Station will be decommissioned in 2030 after three decades of service, leaving the path clear for private enterprise.
Blue Origin’s description of its planned station Orbital Reef as an “off-world mixed use business park” is a blueprint that most ventures seem to follow.
Alongside film and TV productions, tourism, sports and celebrity events in space are destined to drive revenue and publicity within the next few years. Yet the first crop of shot in space projects are not just designed as marketing vehicles, in spite of the significant challenges that content creation in space brings with it.
“Of course, filming in space comes with its challenges, from radiation exposure to microgravity, equipment malfunctions, and space debris,” said John Lewis, VP & Managing Partner of Space 11 Corp and the man behind Galactic Combat. “But with proper training and qualified experts, these risks can be mitigated. However, the biggest obstacle to filming in space is the cost. The transportation alone is more expensive than any Marvel movie budget, making it a tough sell for studios.”
As space travel increases the cost of each launch will diminish raising the prospect of shows shot in space becoming just as regular as any shot terra firma. Next stop, the lunar surface.
“From someone who has been in the space business for 30 years I’ve never seen this amount of activity and new blood,” said Robert Feierbach, former SpaceX executive and Exec Producer of planned space film Helios. “There are hundreds of companies growing the industry from U$400 billion to north of a trillion dollars in the next ten years.”
Read more 5G: The space race
Specifically, he points to the burgeoning economy of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) systems “which have made it cheaper to access space.”
Casting ahead, he thinks shooting on the moon eminently possible. “With the amount of companies and investment going in it is absolutely feasible to think that in 20 years we’ll be on the moon. In fact, multiple companies and nations will be too.”
Race for Space: Cruise boldly goes
Tom Cruise’s latest daredevil stunt was to ride a motorbike off a mountain in Norway and parachute Bond-style for Mission Impossible 7. He plans to top this by not just filming in space but making a spacewalk too. Details on the production were tantalising but scant when news first broke in 2020 and remain so. Director Doug Liman is reportedly still attached to the project along with studio Universal and the actor would ride to space in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule.
It is being co-produced by UK-based Space Entertainment Enterprise (SEE) which has separately announced plans to build and launch a movie production studio which will connect with the ISS. It has tasked Houston-based Axiom Space to build it.
In a statement, SEE states that the SEE-1 module is “intended to host films, television, music and sports events as well as artists, producers and creatives who want to make content in the low orbit, microgravity environment. The facilities will enable development, production, recording, broadcasting and livestreaming of content.” The company says it will produce its own content and events in the module and also make it available for hire.
December 2024 is the planned completion date for SEE-1 which would later dock with Axiom Station, the commercial wing of the ISS.
SEE has heavyweight media credentials - SEE’s chief operating officer is ex-Endemol Shine UK CEO Richard Johnston, while Mark Taffet, former SVP of sports and pay per view at HBO, and ex-Viacom technology VP Remi Abayomi are also onboard.
“SEE-1 will provide a unique and accessible home for boundless entertainment possibilities in a venue packed with innovative infrastructure that will unleash a new world of creativity,” the statement continued.
SEE-1 will provide “a supreme-quality space structure enabling the expansion of the two trillion-dollar global entertainment industry into low-Earth orbit.”
Unsurprisingly, the cost of filming in space is astronomical. The Cruise movie was reportedly budgeted around $200m. Estimates from 2018 put the cost per kilogram using the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at $2,720. Then there’s the cost of staying up there, which can range anywhere from between $88,000 to $164,000 per person per day.
Put another way, just one seat on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is thought to run around $55 million, according to The Verge, plus NASA charges additional fees for private astronauts using the space station’s facilities while in orbit.
Race for Space: Helios
A rival feature underwritten by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin is being developed by US production company Centerboro Productions. Blue Origin and Sierra Space are building the LEO space station Orbital Reef which will be one of the stars of sci-fi thriller Helios, according to Centerboro President Patricia Beninati.
“This will be the first film to show what living in space will be like for real in 2030,” she told IBC365. “This is not CGI. This is the real deal.”
The story is about a rescue mission to save humanity when the world’s electricity is knocked out by solar flare – a scenario that is very much in the realm of fact. “Think Gerard Butler of Geostorm crossed with Jodie Foster of Contact – that’s the high-level pitch,” she said.
The film has the backing of Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance and will be directed by Michelle Danner (Miranda’s Victim). Astronauts including former ISS commander Garrett Riesman have advised on the script as has Feierbach.
“We’re not just bringing them in to bring the money,” she said. “The aim is total authenticity and to spread the word in the STEM community that we are supporting space for all. That is our mission.”
Yet there is some smoke and mirrors here. The film, which is in development, is destined for release long before 2030. Footage was planned to be shot aboard a suborbital aircraft but when that company went bust this idea also bit the dust. Consequently, Helios will be shot in some real interiors (or mock-ups) of some genuine space-bound craft but not in actual space. Ground based locations are planned in New Mexico.
“You will see some very heavy promotion of Helios around Blue Origin launches,” Beninati promised. She said that no distribution for the project has been signed. You can’t deny her enthusiasm though.
“The new gold rush is in space,” she declared. “There is so much opportunity in space right now for everyone.”
Exec Producer Feierbach said: “[Centerboro] wanted to get as many possible real space corporations into the film and have modified the script accordingly so that they can show the brands in a proper way.”
For example, he said Helios’ original script just featured the ISS but now includes Orbital Reef. “We have access to 2D and 3D renders of the proposed space-bound vehicles from Blue Origin,” he added.
Orbital Reef itself is described as a “unique destination” that will provide the essential infrastructure needed to scale economic activity and open new markets in space, including tourism, entertainment, research, and manufacturing.
Race for Space: MMA in Micro-G
Space 11 has perhaps the most outlandish plans. It has announced plans to build a space station operational by 2028 specifically to be used for film and TV. What’s more, it’s first project will be a reality TV MMA contest.
Galactic Combat, led by former Big Brother (US) and Hell’s Kitchen showrunner Thomas Loureiro, will see 40 MMA fighters compete for eight berths on board a rocket shuttle orbiting Earth and the chance to fight in zero gravity.
This was supposed to take off this year but there’s not been an update since early 2022 – until now.
“Galactic Combat is our first core business venture and is so exciting that I wish I could spill all the beans right now, but I can’t reveal too much information yet,” said John Lewis, VP & Managing Partner of Space 11 Corp | MMA-Zero G | Space 11 Studios and a former MMA champion. “You see, we have to protect our concept and abide by third-party NDAs. But trust me when I say that eventually, everyone will be talking about this around their kitchen table.”
Lewis is also a co-producer on Helios. He believes there’s nothing quite like the thrill of real, tangible risk in practical filmmaking.
“While it may be too early to say if there’s a demand for actual film and television shot in orbit, there’s certainly curiosity,” he said. “Imagine Tom Cruise tethered to a Starship doing a spacewalk where one misstep could send him hurtling into the abyss. That’s the kind of risk and excitement that can’t be replicated with a blue screen and CG effects.”
Space 11 founder Andrea Lervolino is an Italian producer with 75 credits to his name including Waiting for the Barbarians (2019) starring Johnny Depp and Mark Rylance.
His space station S11S is intended to host an array of entertainment content including music concerts, and includes a soundstage available to rent. Houston-based aerospace company Nanoracks is commissioned to build the station.
Lewis said: “Space 11 Corp has a unique business model that could be the answer to the entertainment industry’s space filming dreams. The S11S Spacestation/Soundstage would be a one-of-a-kind facility that can be monetized in various ways, providing a controlled environment for filming, hosting concerts, sporting events, and other entertainment-related products.”
The real game-changer could be the development of artificial gravity. “At the moment, the mystery of space is microgravity, which is wonderful to watch but can be challenging to film in,” he said. “But once we can create a more stable environment in space, it will become easier to film movies and television shows with dimension.”
“As for using the moon as a shooting location or studio, why not? Once a safe environment is created on the moon, it might be easier to film there than on a rocket ship in orbit.
“Elon Musk is the man to keep an eye on. He is at the forefront of all the exciting things happening in the space industry, including his goals of making us a multi-planetary species. Who knows what doors he will open in the years to come as he leads his company SpaceX into the future?”