Chalking up a space first of sorts, a Russian actress, her director-cameraman and a veteran cosmonaut rocketed into orbit, chased down the International Space Station and successfully docked Tuesday, setting the stage for an out-of-this-world movie shoot.
Wearing a bright red flight suit, Yulia Peresild, who will play the role of a surgeon making an emergency house call to the station in the movie "The Challenge," was all smiles floating into the lab complex, telling Russian television viewers she felt like she was dreaming.
"Everything was new to us today, every 30 seconds brought something entirely new," she said through an interpreter during a brief video conference from the Russian Zvezda module. "We just met the rest of the crew, the cosmonauts and astronauts who've been living on board the station for some time now. But I'm still in a dream.
"I still feel that it's all just a dream and I am asleep," she marveled. "It's almost impossible to believe this all came to reality."
Added her director, Klim Shipenko: "It was incredible. It was hard, but it was great to arrive on board the station. We were met by friends."
Soyuz MS-19/65S commander Anton Shkaplerov said his two space rookie crewmates performed during the launch and rendezvous, "exactly the way it was required by their training. They did a great job."
Adding a bit of real-life drama to the rendezvous and docking, Shkaplerov had to take over manual control during final approach when the Soyuz spacecraft's automated rendezvous system was unable to cope with "ratty data."
"Just as you trained for," a Russian flight controller radioed. "You'll be fine."
Despite frequent communications drop outs and a "God be with us" from someone on the Russian radio channel, Shkaplerov, a three-flight veteran, had no problems manually guiding the Soyuz MS-19/65S spacecraft in for docking at the space station's Russian Rassvet module.
The linkup was confirmed a little more than three hours after Shkaplerov, Peresild and Shipenko blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazkhstan atop a Soyuz 2.1a rocket at 4:55 a.m. ET.
Live video from inside the cockpit showed all three crew members monitoring instruments and displays as the booster accelerated out of the dense lower atmosphere through a clear blue sky.
After a problem-free eight-minute, 45-second ascent, the spacecraft separated from the booster's third stage, solar arrays unfolded and the crew set off on a two-orbit rendezvous with the space station.
The laboratory flew directly over the launch site about 33 seconds after liftoff, but moving at nearly five miles per second, the station leapfrogged ahead of the Soyuz and was 1,200 miles in front by the time the crew reached its preliminary orbit.
Cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy photographed the distant Soyuz exhaust plume from the space station, tweeting "we are waiting for you in 3 hours!"
Flying at a slightly lower altitude, and consequently moving faster than the space station, the Soyuz quickly caught up with the laboratory for what turned out to be a manual docking. Hatches were opened after extensive leak checks to verify an airtight structural seal.
Welcoming their new crewmates aboard were French station commander Thomas Pesquet and his three SpaceX Crew Dragon crewmates — Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide — along with Novitskiy, Pyotr Dubrov and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who rode to orbit last April aboard the Soyuz MS-18/64S spacecraft.
Peresild and Shipenko plan to spend 12 days aboard the space station, filming in the Russian segment of the lab before returning to Earth in the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft with Novitskiy, who will be wrapping up a 190-day mission.
Shkaplerov will remain aboard the station and return to Earth next March or April aboard the MS-29 spacecraft with Dubrov and Vande Hei, who will have logged 355 days in orbit since launch last April 9.
Novitskiy will play the part of Peresild's patient while Shipenko acts as makeup artist, lighting director and cameraman.
"This job would've been enormous even on Earth," Peresild said before launch. "We'll have ten days. But it won't be like ten regular 12-hour shooting days, rather like two to three hours a day, when the cosmonauts will be able to work with us. The rest of time Klim and I will be shooting with only me in the frame.
"Our only task out there is shooting the film without interfering with the crew."
The Russians frequently mention Tom Cruise when discussing their mission, citing widely reported but unsubstantiated claims the American actor is planning a similar trip.
"There was certain competitiveness involved," Shipenko said in a translation provided by Channel One Russia. "It was making us speed up the production, the preparation process. Having a strong opponent you can compete with really matters. The fact that Tom Cruise is keen on his space project made him a strong competitor."
NASA officials say no such visit to the space station is currently in the planning stages.
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