From poo politics to rubbish disposal: 5 big questions about the International Space Station becoming a movie set

This article was first published by The Conversation.'s Expert voices: Op-Ed and Insights was contributed by the publication.
Alice Gorman, Associate Professor of Archaeology and Space Studies at Flinders University

A unique crew will fly to space on October 5. Yulia Peresild, the Russian actor and director Klim Shipenko will spend the week on the station filming scenes for the Russian movie Challenge. Peresild is a surgeon who has to perform a heart surgery on a sick cosmonaut.

This is a significant, but controversial development for the station which orbits approximately 250 miles (405 kilometers) above Earth. It could be possible to make a profit from its facilities, which would help keep it in orbit. Also in development are a Japanese documentary and an American movie featuring Tom Cruise.

16 modules are arranged in a cross-shaped configuration to form the station. Six Russian modules are in the Russian Orbital Segment. The U.S. Orbital Segment is comprised of 11 modules operated by the U.S. and Japan as well as the European Space Agency. Spacecraft such as the Russian Soyuz or SpaceX's Dragon dock regularly with the station to deliver crew and supplies to Earth.

Related: Russian crew of film crew declared medically fit to launch Oct. 5 to the space station

The station usually has between three to six crew members. Although the main job is scientific experiments and some stations are older than 20 years, there is a lot of maintenance.

The movies often depict space stations as futuristic and minimalist with futuristic interiors. The International Space Station, however, is more chaotic than 2001: A Space Odyssey. The crew has lost over 6,000 items and cables are all around the station.

"Challenge," the first professional space movie, raises many questions. These are my five thoughts.

What will the reaction of the cosmonaut crew to a female "space tourist?"

In 1963, Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to orbit in space. (Image credit NASA

Only four other Russian women have ever left Earth after Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to orbit in space in 1963.

Svetlana Svitskaya, a female cosmonaut, was the second in 1982. She was presented with an apron by her crewmates aboard the Mir space station, joked that she would work in the kitchen. Even a cosmonaut trainer once said that space is not a place for women.

Russia considers medicine a woman's profession. It's interesting to see how Yulia Peresild will react to Sergei Krikalev, a veteran cosmonaut who objected to the movie plan. He was later reinstated.

How about the use of space toilets?

In the microgravity of space station, personal hygiene can be difficult. Crew members must learn how to use space toilets that use vacuum pumps to drain everything from their bodies and into tanks. The station uses urine to supplement its water supply. As the joke goes, yesterday’s coffee is tomorrow’s coffee.

There's also the politics surrounding space poo. Due to tensions between Washington and Moscow, crews from the U.S. were banned from sharing their toilets in 2009. Crew claimed that being unable to use the nearest toilet disrupted their work.

Peresild, Shipenko have been in training since May in Russia's Star City. This presumably includes potty-training. NASA installed the first female-friendly toilet in 2020.

One old toilet was designed for male anatomy in the Russian segment. NASA created its new toilet for female anatomy to accommodate this. Peresild will choose to use the NASA toilet. She will be the first Russian woman ever to use space toilet technology.

NASA's $23 million female-friendly toilet was installed at the ISS in 2020. (Image credit: NASA, CC BY)

What will be the realistic surgery scenes?

Uncontained liquids can form bubbles in space and float around. This poses challenges to heart surgery, particularly as blood tends pool in the upper body. Although there have been some limited experiments in microgravity surgery, these were done using artificial bodies or animals like rats.

Future space missions will feature robotic surgery and capsules that can enclose patients, with surgeons operating through arm portholes. It will be fascinating to see how these key parts of the film are presented.

Continue reading: Space surgery can be done with floating or'sticky blood'.

What will the space crew do with their film crew?

As a space archaeologist, it is of interest to me whether this strange activity will add to the archaeological record for the station. The film crew will need to bring their entire equipment, but scientific experiments can be done in a limited space on the return trip. Peresild or Shipenko may have left behind objects that are stuck to Velcro patches on walls or hidden in storage.

The Russian Zvezda Module has a section of wall that the cosmonauts made into an informal gallery. Analysing how pictures are displayed over time shows that it almost always displays images of Soviet space heroes Yuri Gagarin and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, as well Russian Orthodox icons.

Peresild's dad is an icon painter well-known in the world, so maybe she will bring one to help with this display.

Many things are lost in space, like these photos of Russian space heroes that hang on an informal shrine. (Image credit: NASA, CC BY)

What's next?

Peresild, Shipenko, and others will be officially space travelers. They'll also become the first professional space filmmakers. They will join an elite group of people who have travelled to orbit.

Although many people have been able to nudge into space in the past year on suborbital flights such as Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and the Inspiration4 crew, it is still exciting to live in space.

At least 45 films about space travel were nominated for Oscars for Best Visual Effects. However, in the case "Challenge", the visual effects will be actual.

This could be a turning point for how space habitats are shown in movies. Are audiences more likely to choose the fantasy of space travel, or will they prefer the reality of a space station in operation?

This article was republished by The Conversation under Creative Commons. You can read the original article.

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