If you believe what you read in the papers, the only people going to space are trained astronauts and billionaires. It’s true that the suborbital spaceflights of Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos signal a new era in commercial spaceflight, regardless of how one feels about the optics of wealthy men spending money on seemingly frivolous endeavors.
However, Branson and Bezos’ recent media stunts amount to little more than 50-mile elevator rides, at least compared to the potential for private space endeavors in the very near future, and that includes the entertainment industry. While Elon Musk sets his sights on colonizing Mars, the low-Earth orbit economy is ready to welcome storytellers to microgravity.
Last year, news broke that Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman were cooking up a $200 million project with Universal that would find them flying to the International Space Station with the help of Elon Musk’s SpaceX. That project is currently in early stages of pre-production, but Russia will get there first, with director Klim Shipenko and actress Yulia Pereslid heading to the ISS to shoot scenes for the feature-length “The Call” in October. There are also two reality series with their sights set on ISS, “Space Hero” and “Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?”, the latter of which aims to send the winner of an astronaut training competition to the station next year.
These undertakings represent far greater creative potential than the media hoopla around the Branson and Bezos endeavors last week. They’re also a reflection of the increasingly complex set of resources available to private citizens eager to travel beyond Earth’s atmosphere for more substantial reasons.
That’s thanks in large part to rising private space developers like the Houston-based Axiom Space, which recently entered into a partnership with NASA to develop three commercial modules for the ISS, with the first scheduled to go up in 2024. Before then, Axiom plans to launch the first private crew to the ISS in January 2022; the second one, tentatively set for the third or fourth quarter of the year, will include the finalist of “Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?”
By then, major media entities will be salivating about the prospects of generating must-watch content around microgravity endeavors, and multiple private entities will exist to support them. The desire to develop unscripted series in space is nothing new; “The Apprentice” creator Mark Burnett announced plans to develop one such program almost 20 years ago. But the infrastructure has finally arrived, and the backlash to Bezos and Branson will likely become just one piece of the larger picture as space-based programming for film and TV takes flight.
“We’ve been living in such science fiction worlds, but suddenly this is tangible and real,” said Scott Lewers, Discovery’s Executive Vice President of Multiplatform Programming, Factual & Head of Content, Science. That mouthful of a job title speaks to the prominence of science in general and space in particular in Discovery’s current program strategy. Last year, when SpaceX became the first private company to send astronauts to the ISS, Discovery and the Science Channel carried the live feed and reported a collective 7.21 million viewers during the two-hour launch period. It was the highest-rated non-primetime program in Discovery history.
Needless to say, those figures have Lewers expressing confidence that “Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?” will become a long-term investment. “Every year, Discovery is going to be sending an everyday person to space,” he said, “fulfilling a dream for any person, rather than just the richest ones on Earth.”
The show’s producers are keen on drawing a contrast between their endeavor and the Branson/Bezos paradigm. “Our show really is the antipode to old white men billionaires going to space,” said Jay Peterson, the president of Boat Rocker Studios’ unscripted division, which is developing the show alongside BoomTown Content. “We are really going to create an access point that matches the mission to democratize space. That’s why we’re excited about the show. It will be story that will drive this thing.”
Lewers was bullish on the potential to develop a whole lot more than one reality show once its first program comes together, especially as the company looks ahead to a future of media consolidation with Warner Bros. that will create an even greater pressure for must-see TV. “We’re always looking for the next storytelling device,” he said. “This is the big kahuna.”
Still, no studio — large or small — will be able to jump into the fray with numerous space-based projects all at once. Assuming Axiom’s commercial hubs are attached to the ISS in 2024 as scheduled, NASA only plans to open them up to two missions per year. Even then, it will remain a tremendously costly endeavor to secure a spot on a flight to the ISS — anywhere from $50 to $100 million, depending on the entity that takes you there and under what circumstances.
But that may change as more companies gamble on the opportunity, according to Axiom’s Simon Jenner, who oversees Human Spaceflight Business Development. “The people who fly, the more that will push the cost down,” he said, noting that once the first Axiom mission launches in January, the company plans to launch at least six paying customers per year. The biggest price tags, he said, stem from the cost of launch and the price tag attached to working with NASA. “Hopefully, the more missions we undertake, the less reliance there is on NASA,” he said. “As soon as Boeing and others enter the market, that level of competition will lead to cheaper options.”
Jenner, who started with the company last year, focuses on helping people to travel to space who don’t work in the aeronautics industry — like Tom Cruise, for example. “I’m in astronaut recruitment,” he said. “We’ve got any number of individuals around the world who don’t realize they can go to space. My job is to find them.” Jenner stressed that there could be more space-related efforts from storytellers and others if more people understood that the opportunity was quite accessible with proper financing in place. “Many people around the world don’t realize that if you have the means — your own funding or funding secured elsewhere — you really can go to the ISS,” he said.
P Photo/Andrew Medichini
He added that any trip to the station will add value to the ISS as a whole. As part of the arrangement with NASA, even private citizens aboard the ISS must agree to participate in some kind of research while aboard the craft. Cruise will be no exception. Private citizens in conversations about future Axiom missions have signed up for research on fields ranging from cancer to genomics. “The most precious resource in spaceflight today is human time,” Simon said. “By sending these private astronauts up there, we are increasing the time available. Every person who goes onboard has to have their own mission. We help astronauts design the right missions based on their passions and get them access to the equipment they need.”
That substantial blend of science and other endeavors hasn’t received much attention from the public yet, but shows like “Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?” could change that. “If space is going to be a thing that will further the human race, it has to be accessible,” Peterson said. “Our show will demonstrate that it is. We could have a food show up there eventually. We want our show to be a pioneer of that reality.” The producers have currently planned an eight-episode Season 1 that will culminate next fall with real-time coverage of the launch, followed by the eight-plus days that the finalist spends on the ISS.
But as with the Cruise and Russia missions, there won’t be an extensive crew to capture that part of the journey. For the moment, space-based storytelling will have to rely on existing technology onboard the ISS, rather than adding cinematographers or gaffers to the mix. “There are conversations going on around getting increased access to footage on board, including the current cameras onboard and installing newer and higher quality cameras on the station,” Simon said. “It is a complicated process. People are up there doing their day jobs. They’re used to having a camera focused on them but not for entertainment purposes. So we’re early in the process of understanding this, but there is a pathway forward.”
If anything, this nimble approach to the production process could work well for smaller-scale productions, if they’re lucky enough to secure a financier. Simon isn’t holding his breath. “For people, unless you’re Tom Cruise, I don’t think a movie is enough to fund a full space flight,” he said. But that could change once a few projects come out. “A lot of entertainers want to do their own stunts and have it look as realistic as possible,” Simon said. “If you don’t have to do special effects, it becomes a lot more lifelike on screen.”
There are major caveats to accepting this enthusiasm for space travel unquestioned. None of these conversations capture the sheer danger of strapping human beings to rocket ships and trapping them in small capsules hurtling around Earth. Even popularizers of science, like Bill Nye, worry that large-scale media endeavors around space could end up mitigating the risk involved. “If you screw up on the space station, everybody dies,” said Nye, the longtime TV host who also serves as the CEO of The Planetary Society. “That’s the difference with ‘Big Brother.’ When we watch people do spacewalks and fly through the space station, racing to see who can make all the turns in microgravity, that’s cool — but most of the time, these people are concentrating on staying safe. Hopefully, a reality show will remind everybody about how difficult and dangerous it is.”
However, many people invested in the space tourism industry are inclined to downplay risk over opportunity. John Spencer, the founder and president of the Space Tourism Society, has spent four decades advocating for more people to invest in private space ventures. He has spent years developing the real estate venture “Mars World” to generate hype around a future Mars colony, and in conversation, unleashes speculation about the future prospects of everything from space yachting to lunar sports. As for the immediate impact of private space ventures, he agreed that film and TV projects would help cement public enthusiasm for more space-based undertakings. “Media productions and action films shot in space are going to be one of the next big things,” he said. “When mega stars fly to space, and there’s a wedding and honeymoon in orbit, it will be big.”
He also noted that not all private space ventures were compelled by self-interest. The Inspiration4 launch set to take place later this year will find four private citizens orbiting the Earth in a SpaceX capsule to raise awareness and funds for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. (Among those onboard will be another billionaire, Jason Isaacman, who’s funding the mission.) “That will be a real transition for space industry,” Spencer said.
All of which means that future private space ventures will tell a more complex story about the potential of low-Earth orbital activity and beyond. “There has been all this talk of billionaire joyrides, but I haven’t spoken to a single person who wants to go up there to just float around and look out the window for a week,” Simon said. “Unfortunately, philanthropy isn’t as sexy of a news story.”