For some in the space community, it sounded like the rehash of an old rumor: “Tom Cruise Plots Movie To Shoot In Space…” read the headline of a Deadline Hollywood article published last month.
The “exclusive”—all three paragraphs of it—was short on details, but the mention of Cruise and space was all that was needed for other publications to want to run with the story and for social media to light up with the news.
But this was not the first time that had happened.
Four years ago, almost to the day, a British tabloid claimed that Cruise had been training for a flight on the space shuttle and could have been among the astronauts who died on board the orbiter Columbia in 2003. The Daily Star’s report of the actor’s previous “top secret mission” quickly spread across the Web until NASA stepped in and quashed the story.
Whether spurred on by that bit of “fake news” or Cruise’s track record of trying to top his own daring stunts in each of his hit action movies, another rumor began gaining traction in 2018 that the next installment in Cruise’s Mission: Impossible franchise would be what finally sent him off the planet. “He’s not going to space, nor does he need to go to space,” Director Christopher McQuarrie told Empire in February of this year.
So in light of that precedent, it was a bit of a surprise when the head of NASA, Jim Bridenstine, took to Twitter the day after that Deadline report to confirm the scoop: “NASA is excited to work with Tom Cruise on a film aboard the International Space Station!” he wrote.
Why is the idea of filming in space any different this time around? Just when the 2018 rumors about the next Mission: Impossible movie were starting to make the rounds, Cruise himself explained why the concept of an actor going into space was a problem.
“It is the mechanics of getting it there,” Cruise said in an August 2018 interview with Collider. “How do you build a sequence there, and how long can we have that sequence? Because if I went up … how do you put that into the structure of a screenplay of a ‘Mission?’
“It’s just not there yet,” he concluded.
Barely two years later, why Cruise reportedly changed his mind might have to do with the second half of Deadline’s May 4 headline: “…With Elon Musk’s SpaceX.”
In 2018, SpaceX was still two years away from launching its first crew—a feat the company finally achieved on May 30 with the flight of NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the space station. While that launch was primarily focused on demonstrating to NASA that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule was ready to safely fly astronauts to and from Earth orbit, it also marked the beginning of a new commercial era of US human spaceflight.
“NASA doesn’t want to be the owner and operator of the hardware. We also don’t want to be the only customer,” said Bridenstine after SpaceX’s history-making launch. “We want SpaceX and others to go get customers that are not us.”
And today, Hollywood still qualifies as “not NASA.”
Seats for sale
Tasked by the White House to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024, NASA has sought to free up resources by turning over its activities in low-Earth orbit to commercial partners. To that end, in June 2019, the space agency announced it was making the space station available for commercial opportunities and “marketing these opportunities like we have never done before.”
“We’re announcing the ability for private astronauts to visit the space station on US vehicles and for companies to engage in profit-making opportunities,” said NASA’s then-chief financial officer, Jeff DeWit.
Seven months later, the agency entered negotiations with Axiom Space, a space services company based in Houston, to attach at least one new module to the station as a precursor to Axiom establishing its own commercial outpost. Led by Michael Suffredini, NASA’s space station program manager from 2005 to 2015, Axiom is targeting 2024 to begin launching its “Axiom Segment.”
Before then, the company plans to begin launching customers for short stays on the station using SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. A first mission with three passengers—including a veteran astronaut as a guide—is slated for the fall of 2021.
Since SpaceX’s Demo-2 launch, “everybody’s starting to wonder where their place in line is,” Suffredini told The Associated Press on June 4. “That’s a really, really cool position to be in now.”
Axiom has not said if it is involved in Cruise’s plans, but Bridenstine confirmed the company’s involvement in an interview with the Off-Nominal podcast posted online on June 15: “Axiom is working with Tom Cruise in the making of a movie,” he said.
In addition to offering the seats to launch to the space station, Axiom is also set up to provide the training that a project like this would require using the same team that has prepared NASA astronauts for the journey.