Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Russian Movie in Space Part 6

Four actresses who are short-listed for trip to the ISS can now be named. 

Final selection will be announced on 15th May

The name of the actress who will be sent to the International Space Station, on the next Soyuz spaceflight will be revealed on 15th May, according to the Head of Roscosmos. This unusual spaceflight will be connected to the filming of the movie «Вызов», (The Challenge).

Here at the 'Space Sleuthing Blog', we've followed this developing story for six months, bringing regular updates. We're really pleased to be the first media outlet in the World to reveal the names of the four finalists, one for whom will be going to the International Space Station, in five months.

Speaking at a Press Briefing at the Progress Rocket Factory, in Samara, on 23rd April Dmitri Rogozin revealed that the Director of the movie Klim Shipenko had completed his medical checks and had been confirmed fit to fly to the ISS. The next step will be for Shipenko and his casting team to select the actress who will accompany him, and cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov onboard Soyuz MS-19.

Rogozin continued, "At the end of the day, we have to understand that it is always the Director who decides who he will work with. It is important for us now to show him, which of these girls is ready to handle the challenge of the spaceflight." 

He explained that, as expected, there had been a high elimination rate among the twenty actresses who had entered the final phase of the contest, in March, which we reported HERE.

"Several girls have been selected, after a huge dropout rate, which was to be expected. The  Doctors are very strict and they are checking the whole situation, as there are such high requirements to work in space, even for a short flight." explained the head of Roscosmos.

Although Rogozin declined to name the final candidates, or say how many there are, additional information which has become available to the 'Space Sleuthing Blog' confirms that the group consists of four women, aged between 27 and 36. Three are experienced professional actresses, whilst the fourth is an amateur actress, who holds a private pilot's license. 

Their names are :-

Alena Mordovina (b 1987)

Yulia Peresild (b 1984)

Sofya Arzhakovskaya (aka Sofya Skya) (b 1987)

Galina Kairova (b 1994)

Alena Mordovina

Yulia Peresild

Sofya Arzhakovskaya

Galina Kairova

According to Rogozin, the leading lady, who will join the Prime Crew of Soyuz MS-19, and her understudy/back-up, will now be selected by Klim Shipenko's creative and casting team, and the TV company First Channel, over the next couple of weeks, as would be the case with any other movie.

It also seems likely that the question of the contracts, agreements and waivers which all parties will doubtless be required to enter into, will be quite complex. The project is unprecedented, and there are numerous scenarios, which could arise during training, the spaceflight and after return to earth which will need to be considered, and ironed out. For example, what if the chosen actress decides to pull out? 

Once the actress is chosen, and contracted, the whole crew for Soyuz MS-19, which will be commanded by Shkaplerov, and their back-ups are due to be confirmed, by the State Commission on 13th May. This will tie in with the official announcement which Rogozin alluded to, being made two days later.

However, in a curious twist, on 30th April, just after we published these names above, for the first time, it was revealed that a further group of actress at appeared at the Cosmonaut Training Centre, for testing. It is not clear if these were women from the original twenty finalists, or even the original 3000 entrants. 

What we do know, is that this is connected to possible changes to the way the movie will be funded. It seems that private investors have emerged who will fund, or partially fund, the movie, but they also want to have input into the selection of the 'star'. 

Pavel Vlasov, Head of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre has previously stated that Soyuz MS-19 will be launched on 20th September, giving a training period of only four months. Vlasov has previously said that he, and his team, want to perfect a training process of around this duration, for future Space Tourists. However, other sources still give a projected launch date of 5th October.

After a twelve day stay on the ISS, during which large parts of the movie will be filmed, Shipenko and his leading lady will return to Earth onboard Soyuz MS-18, with departing ISS commander Oleg Novitsky.

The Commission meeting on 13th May, should also confirm the widely predicted crew of Soyuz MS-20, being Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin, and two clients of Space Adventures, Austrian aviator Johanna Maislinger and Japanese entertainer Yumi Matsutoya. 

© Tony Quine April 2021

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Russian Movie in Space Part 5


Russian actresses who will compete for trip to ISS identified

Twenty women who applied for the lead role in first movie to be shot in Space are currently going through the medical and physical tests, at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre

In November last year, we brought our first update on the emerging Russian ‘Movie in Space’ project, with the working title ‘The Challenge’. This would involve sending an actress to the International Space Station, onboard a scheduled Soyuz flight, in late 2021. All the background and details of the key organisations involved can be found here, so we will not repeat all of that content, rather we will pick up the story, as it is now unfolding.

It is fair to say that the project met with a degree of resistance and opposition, from the Russian scientific and aerospace communities, with criticism for putting art before science, depriving trained cosmonauts of their flights, and as an inappropriate use of Federal funds. Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov spoke of ‘over my dead body’! It is rumoured that the project was taken to Vladimir Putin, for endorsement, to overcome such resistance, and that Putin gave it the green light.

The original plan was that thirty, or so, woman would be selected, and they would then compete in a Reality TV style contest, between January and April, to find the two winners. However, these plans seem to have been scrapped, and for many weeks, little information emerged, other than a statement that around 3000 applications had been received. This number is around six times the number of applications received for the last conventional call for cosmonaut applications, in 2019!

In early March, First Channel, the TV company behind the project, and Roscosmos announced that the project was proceeding, and a shortlist of twenty actresses to potentially play the lead role, and her understudy, had been drawn up. It was also announced that the film’s director, Klim Shipenko, would also travel to the International Space Station, to oversee the filming the scenes to be shot in space.

Several well-known Russian actresses appeared in a promotional video, and were presented as being among the twenty finalists, whilst others commented on Social Media. These included Olga Kuzmina, Svetlana Ivanova, Maria Valeshnaya, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Marina Kazankova and Svetlana Mironenko. Others were featured in a short video about the audition and selection process. But, there is no published list, from the producers, or Roscosmos, at this stage.

However, at the Space Sleuthing Blog, we present our ‘unofficial’ list, drawn from these sources and others. 

We don't assert that this list is 100% accurate, but we do estimate that twelve or so, of these names are solid, and two or three are more speculative. It is worth remembering, that whoever is chosen will be only the fifth Russian or Soviet woman in space!

The process of putting these twenty through the daunting and demanding cosmonaut selection process began March, but not all candidates have yet started. Shipenko has said that they plan to reveal the lead and understudy, or prime and back-up, in early April. However, this looks ambitious. Shipenko has also said that he has only partly completed the medical test to secure his own seat, as the process typically take around a month, so the April date for the actress, may not be met.

An interesting aspect of the selection process, is that the producers have chosen several women who are not professional actresses. They have passed the artistic auditions, but come from different backgrounds, connected to aviation, aerospace, or extreme sports. There is a pilot, a parachutist, a psychologist and an aerospace doctor, and probably a couple more. These are people who have the professional or technical background to enter a regular cosmonaut selection process. They have been chosen for a reason.

The producers always said that ‘ordinary’ women could apply, and that a small number would be taken to the final stage. But this sub-group are not ‘ordinary’ women. Analysing the situation, it would appear that this sub-group are included as something of an insurance policy. If the medical and physical selection process removes too many of the actresses, perhaps this group are seen as more likely candidates to make it through, due to their different backgrounds, and existing skills, experience and knowledge.

Indeed, maybe a tentative plan exists that one of this group will, at least, be the back-up? The selection will only be the beginning. If a professional actress is cast in the main role, and therefore the prime Soyuz crew, there will still be many tough and daunting challenges ahead. Having a back-up with a different professional background, different skills, a different temperament, but also acting ability, would make a lot of sense.

Once the selection process has been completed, the actress and Shipenko will be assigned to the crew of Soyuz MS-19, which will be commanded by experienced cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov. It is due to launch on 5th October, so time is tight. This flight will now be the first to launch with two non-professional cosmonauts on board. This milestone was originally planned to occur on Soyuz MS-20, in December 2021, which will carry two paying ‘space tourists’ to the ISS. These plans remain in place, and are not impacted by the movie.

However, other aspects of the Soyuz crew schedule for 2021/22 are impacted. Klim Shipenko and the actress will return to Earth after around twelve days in space on board Soyuz MS-18, along with departing Soyuz commander Oleg Novitisky. However, his crew mates, Peter Dubrov and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei will have to wait for a future Soyuz crew exchange, in order to return to Earth, in early 2022. Head of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, Pavel Vlasov, has said, ‘We will not ask them to do a double shift!’ a reference to a one year stay, ‘So we will bring Soyuz MS-21 forward, by a few weeks.’

Head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, who is very much one of the architects of the project, has described the movie project as ‘an experiment’ to see if Roscosmos can prepare two ordinary people for spaceflight in around 3 to 4 months. Rogozin and his colleagues in Glavkosmos, the commercial arm of Roscosmos, want to sell more seats on future Soyuz missions to wealthy tourists, and they know that streamlining the time for training and preparation is key to competing with American players in the market.

One thing is clear though. This project will move quickly now, and we’ll bring further updates, as they emerge.


© Tony Quine 


© Maciej Stolowski


Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Soyuz plans for 2021 - Part 2

Soyuz crewing plans for 2021 now clearer

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the confused state of space crew planning for the three Soyuz flights planned to visit the ISS, this year. (Soyuz plans unclear as Gagarin 60th Anniversary approaches ).  This was comfortably our fastest read Blog yet, with well over 1000 views in the first 24 hours. So, now that the picture is a little clearer, it’s appropriate to summarise how plans have now evolved and been clarified.

Last week, Roscosmos made two announcements about the plans for Soyuz MS-18 (April) and Soyuz MS-19 (October). Firstly, after several weeks of rumours, it was confirmed that NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei would join the crew of MS-19, flying with Oleg Novitisky and Peter Dubrov. As anticipated the deal was brokered by Axiom Space, with the Russians apparently receiving a seat on an American spacecraft, in 2023, in return, with no money actually changing hands.

The unlucky cosmonaut who loses his seat is Sergei Korsakov, and the first planned all-Russian crew to visit the ISS, is also broken up. Korsakov now seems likely to become the first Russian go into space on a new generation American craft, as there is a vacant seat on USCV-3, due to launch in September, although this assignment is unlikely to be confirmed until after USCV-1 has returned safely in early May.

The second announcement concerned the proposed ‘Movie in Space’ announced last October which we covered here but about which little had been heard in the intervening three months. Considering the apparent lack of available Soyuz seats, the uncertain financial arrangements, and a certain degree of political and scientific opposition, many space-watchers had expected the project to quietly fade away.

However, the plans have been firmed up, significantly, with two seats on Soyuz MS-19 now being assigned to the project. One of these should be occupied by the film’s Director and Screenwriter, Klim Shipenko, and the other by an, as yet, unidentified actress. First Channel, the TV company behind the project have identified 20 candidates from an applicant pool of 3000. Incidentally, this is around six times the number of applications received for the last call for professional cosmonauts!

These twenty finalists will now be put through medical, physical and psychological assessments to see whichof them is suitable to go into space. The Cosmonaut Training Centre will undertake this work, and will have the final say, on who flies, in October. Shipenko has said that he also needs to ungo this process, which he has started, but not yet completed.  The women are mostly professional actresses, but First Channel have also said that several come from other backgrounds; a pilot, a parachutist, a psychologist, a scientific researcher. These woman have all passed the artistic audition, and are presumably included as ‘insurance’, just in case none of the professionals make it through the demanding cosmonaut tests. 

Here at the Space Sleuthing Blog, we have worked with contacts in Russia and elsewhere, and we have identified most of these twenty finalists, and this will be the subject of a separate Blog, in the coming days. Shipenko has said that the actress-cosmonaut and a back-up will be named in early-April, although that seems rather optimistic, bearing in mind that some of the candidates don't yet have a date for their medicals to start.  

The commander of Soyuz MS-19 will be Anton Shkaplerov, and he will remain in ISS for an extended stay. The movie people will return to Earth, after a stay of twelve days, with Oleg Novitisky, aboard Soyuz MS-18. This movie related crew will now take the title of the ‘first all-Russian' crew, to visit ISS.

Dubrov and Vande Hei will remain on ISS after October, and will return on Soyuz MS-19, when they are relieved by Soyuz MS-21, in early 2022. Pavel Vlasov, Head of the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre has said that they ‘won’t be completing a double shift’, a reference to a twelve month flight, suggesting a return well before April 2022.  

Before Shkaplerov, Dubrov and Vande Hei make that return, there will be a twelve day visiting mission, the long anticipated double-tourist flight Soyuz MS-20. The detailed plans for this final Soyuz of 2021, MS-20, still remain unannounced. The mission has been arranged by Space Adventures, and was initially to be the first Soyuz flight with two paying Spaceflight Participants. However, Soyuz MS-19, which will now have two non-professional passengers onboard rather dilutes this claim, albeit that the movie crew are not paying for their seats.

It has been clear, for many months, that the commander will be experienced cosmonaut, Alexander Misurkin, who has worked on the development of modified Soyuz control interfaces, to enable the craft to be flown by the commander alone. However, it now seems that these techniques may need to be debuted on Soyuz MS-19, as that will also have only have one professional cosmonaut onboard.

The two Spaceflight Participants (SFP) have not yet been revealed officially, but it has been hinted that an announcement is due, later this month. The Austrian aviator Johanna Maislinger has been linked to this flight, for well over a year, and Space Adventures have always been very cagey when asked about her, never confirming, but never denying anything. Maislinger herself has remained totally silent about her plans and dreams, ignoring, or side-stepping media questions and interest. 

However, in March 2021, she appeared on a German TV documentary, which followed her undertaking her job as a Boeing 777 airline captain. Although there was no dialogue about spaceflight, there was an intriguing on-screen caption "Will irgendwenn als Astronautin ins All" - "Wants someday, as an astronaut, to go into space"

However, we now know that in late 2020, Maislinger had a mishap, in which she sustained multiple fractures. Although she returned to her flying job, in January 2021, it is possible that these injuries have derailed her spaceflight plans. Even if she has to relinquish her place, Johanna Maislinger’s prominence, in the media, during the build up to this flight has probably cemented her place in Space Tourism folklore!

For many months, rumours suggested that the second SFP would be a Japanese woman, and in early March, the name of Yumi Matsutoya, a famous singer and musician, in her own counrty, emerged. It was possible to triangulate this name through sources in Japan, Russia and Europe. Space Adventures gave 'no comment' in response to sharing Matsutoya’s name with them.

She was also identifed and reported in the Russian media by respected agency RIA Novosti. The only factor which throws up a doubt about this name, is that Matsutoya is 67 years old, which would make her, comfortably, the oldest woman in space. However, our Japanese source confirmed that she is known for being very fit and healthy, and she has haboured the dream of spaceflight since visiting the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre back in 1990, when the above image was taken. 

Of course, we cannot rule out the scenario that it my have suited Space Adventures to allow these names to circulate widely, in order to deflect attention from their other clients. However, this would not explain how, or why, Maislinger and Matsutoya themselves have also allowed their names to become linked to Soyuz MS-20! 

It is likely that Space Adventures will also want to name at least one back-up SFP. They will want to a degreehave operational, and financial, resilience within what is a complex, high value financial and business transation.

With plans for Soyuz MS-18 and Soyuz MS-19 now fairly clear, it would will be good to see the Soyuz MS-20 crew, and their objectives while on the ISS, revealed shortly.

© Tony Quine  March 2021

Monday, February 22, 2021

How an Austrian airline pilot could upstage ESA's female astronaut plans


Last week, the European Space Agency launched its first drive to recruit new astronauts for well over a decade, with a strong emphasis on attracting more female applicants.

However, the next European woman in Space has already begun preparing for her spaceflight, and she will be launched under a privately funded initiative, taking a ride on a Soyuz rocket, to the International Space Station, in December this year.

A source at the Yuri Cosmonaut Training Centre, said, last week, "For the first time we will send up two tourists, one of them will be Johanna Maislinger. She is included in this crew as Spaceflight Participant Number One.”

When the 35 year old Austrian adventurer's spaceflight is officially announced, by American company Space Adventures, perhaps this month, will her story inspire other women, to apply to ESA, before the May 2021 deadline? Ironically, despite being a very experienced and versatile aviator, an engineer and holding a medical degree from a top German university, Maislinger does not meet the initial requirements to apply for the ESA call, which does seem a little harsh. But she is probably not too concerned.

It’s not a secret that here at the Space Sleuthing Blog, we’ve been following tenaciously the story of Johanna Maislinger and Soyuz MS-20, which she herself revealed to us, back in 2017, before deciding to take herself off the radar. At that time, she'd just been ejected from German Woman in Space project, Die Astronautin where she'd initially been allowed to participate, despite not being German. Indeed, when she embarked on the Soyuz project, it was initially a requirement of her Berlin based sponsor, that she gave up her Austrian citizenship, and became a German. 

Soyuz MS-20 itself will be a unique spaceflight, as it is to be the first double space-tourist Soyuz mission ever. It is being flown solely because Space Adventures, currently still the only company to send space tourists or spaceflight participants, into orbit, and to the ISS, has been able to create the demand. It will be flown by a single cosmonaut, Alexander Misurkin, and the Soyuz controls have been re-engineered to facilitate this. The other Spaceflight Particpant may be a Japanese woman, but their identity has not be revealed, so far.

When announced in February 2019, it was billed as the first ever private manned spaceflight, although with SpaceX and Axiom Space also planning to fly non-professional astronauts, this year, or in early 2022, it’s unclear who will actually claim this cosmic ‘first’.

But Johanna Maislinger probably doesn’t care about those small details. A Boeing 777 captain, with Lufthansa associate, Aerologic, she is, on the face of it, a pretty smart woman. She sees a flight into Space as a logical way to combine her skills, qualifications and thrill-seeking nature. And she’s found someone who is prepared to pay around $45 million, for her to do it! A remarkable, and unprecedented achievement in itself. 

Maislinger participates in a number of adventurous sports and she counts a number of Austrian and German celebrities among her friends. She has been unmoved by the online circus which has built up around her, since she claimed back in 2017, that ‘someone in Berlin is very interested to send me into Space', ignoring all media approaches and attention. 

That ‘someone in Berlin’ has never been fully identified. Some sources in Germany have suggested that a company called Interstellar Ventures, run by Sebastian Straube, are behind Maislinger. Straube and his co-director have fuelled this speculation by refusing the make any comment. As mentioned, in 2017, she had claimed that she would have to take up German citizenship, to meet her sponsor’s requirements, and to become the ‘First German Woman in Space’. But, we know that she remains an Austrian national, at least according to documents shared with the Space Sleuthing team by contacts at Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency.

For two years, from 2017, Maislinger’s claims seemed unlikely and rather absurd. Who would pay that $45million to send her into Space? And why? But, in July 2019, Space Adventures revealed that she was actually on their potential client list. A year later, in August 2020, Roscosmos announced that two Space Adventures clients had signed contracts to fly on Soyuz MS-20. Numerous well connected sources in Russia, including some inside Roscosmos, immediately confirmed that they understood that Maislinger was one of them. 

Space Adventures official line is always the rather unconvincing 'we neither confirm or deny anything', but individuals contacts in their US office have, through their careless words and actions, given clear indications that Maislinger should fly on MS-20. 

In September 2020 a TV production company, began shooting her backstory, initially shadowing her as she commanded a DHL-branded 777-200 from Leipzig to East Midlands and back. The TV company, KG Media Factory, later indicated that their filming was linked to the spaceflight project. 

Soon after, one of her Aerologic flightdeck colleagues spoke to us about Maislinger, "There is some chat on our flightdecks about Johanna's plans, but I don't know anyone who has actually spoken to her about it. It probably wouldn't be fair to do that, at this stage"  

Another aviation colleague said, "I can definitely believe that Johanna would love to do this, but how she'd persuade someone to pay such a vast sum of money. Good luck to her, if she has!"

Back August 2020, Roscosmos had said the clients for MS-20 would be named in ‘early 2021’. However, this has not yet happened. Maybe CoVid-19 travel restrictions caused some issues or delays.

Another possible factor, is that we know that Maislinger suffered some sort of mishap, in late 2020, in which she sustained multiple fractures. She returned to her job at Aerologic, in January 2021, but whether this incident impacted on her general fitness, or timely medical clearance from Russia, is unclear. We have asked Space Adventures about this aspect, but as always, their response was "No comment".

An enquiry to the very helpful Roscosmos Press Office, in mid-February was met with a rapid, but inconclusive response, that The Soyuz MS-20 crew will be announced in due course, we have no additional information for you now.” However, they did acquiesce to the publication of this text.

But, in late-February, and on a more helpful note, an employee at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “As far as the flight of the Soyuz MS-20 spacecraft is concerned, there are no changes to the planned crew…. for the first time we will send up two tourists, one of them will be Johanna Maislinger. She is included in this crew as Spaceflight Participant Number One.”

A second source remarked, “She hasn’t appeared at our Centre yet, but she, and the other space tourist, will need to come here soon, to complete the Winter Survival Training. This will be essential, as the crew will be launched, and will land, in December.” 

So, when will Johanna Maislinger actually appear at Star City, and keep her plans, and dreams, on course?  

Will she update the tag line in her Social Media accounts that currently says ‘would love to visit the Moon…’ to 'I am going to visit the ISS...'   

And, going back to where we started, will official confirmation of her plans help ESA's push to attract more women to their 2021/2 call for new astronaut recruits?

© Tony Quine  February 2021





Friday, January 22, 2021

Soyuz plans for 2021


Soyuz plans unclear as Gagarin 60th Anniversary approaches


In April, it will be 60 years since Yuri Gagarin took mankind’s first tentative step in to Space, onboard Vostok 1. This presents a golden opportunity for Russia to celebrate this occasion, by not only reflecting on past achievements and influence in manned spaceflight, but to showcase new milestones, and to re-ignite public interest, and enthusiasm, for cosmonautics.

But will this happen? As we enter Gagarin’s anniversary year, all these things are possible, but at this moment detailed planning for Soyuz flights in 2021, seems unclear and even disorganised.

Russia plans to launch three Soyuz MS flights, and two Expedition crews to the International Space Station in 2021, to support ISS operations, and the long-awaited arrival of the ‘Nauka’ science module. Roscosmos, with entertainment and media partners, would like to send an ‘ordinary’ citizen into Space in the person of an as- yet-unknown actress, and at the end of the year, to re-start orbital ‘space tourism’ after a twelve-year gap.

The three flights Soyuz MS-18, MS-19 and MS-20 have been in the flight roster for a couple of years. The hardware is in the pipeline; Soyuz MS-18 and its carrier rocket are already at Baikonur. But with less than three months to go until that first launch, crewing plans for all three missions are in a fairly confused state.

Politics, and money, appear to be driving the schedule, rather than Space Science, or celebrating Gagarin.

Until a few months ago, plans seemed fairly straight forward. With NASA dependence upon Soyuz ending with Kate Rubins’ launch on Soyuz MS-17, in October 2020 (at a cost of an eye-watering $90 million) MS-18 and MS-19 were to be routine crew exchange missions carrying all Russian crews, of ISS expedition members. Prime and back-up crews were provisionally in place.

Indeed, in November 2020, the crew of Oleg Novitsky, Pyotr Dubrov and Sergei Korsakov had been revealed as the first all-Russian crew to fly to the ISS, in its history. This was due to happen on 9th April 2021, on Soyuz MS-18, just three days before the 60th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight. Their back-ups would be Anton Shkaplerov, Andrei Babkin and Dmitri Petelin who, in the usual pattern of these things, would then fly the following mission MS-19, on 5th October. All, except the two commanders, are rookies, but all have been trained for the arrival and commissioning of Nauka, currently due to be launched in July 2021, after well over a decade in development.

However, within a few weeks of that crew announcement, photographs were published, by both NASA and Roscosmos showing five of the six cosmonauts mentioned above, training in Houston, with NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei. Andrei Babkin was the missing cosmonaut, whilst Vande Hei had been the back-up to Rubins, and so had previously trained with Novitsky and Dubrov, for MS-17. These images raised a few questions, and within days, rumours began to surface that Vande Hei might be flying on MS-18, in April.

As NASA has no further Soyuz seats purchased, the potential deal was being negotiated by Axiom Space, presumably acting as an agent for NASA, or perhaps under some arrangement where Vande Hei would become a temporary employee of Axiom? This would seemingly be a mechanism to circumvent NASA procurement processes and conclude a deal quickly. With launch of Soyuz MS-18 under three months away, it is obvious that this matter needs to be concluded rapidly, but at the moment of writing, no official announcement has been made by any party, and photos continue to emerge of the all-Russian crew now training in Moscow.


It’s worth mentioning, at this point, that both NASA and Roscosmos have previously committed to the principle of exchanging seats on each other’s spacecraft. This is known as the ‘barter scheme’ and would mean that a cosmonaut would fly to the ISS on either Space-X Dragon or Boeing Starliner, and NASA astronauts would continue to fly on Soyuz. No money would change hands, and the arrangement would mean that both agencies would be assured of a continuous presence on the ISS, in the event of a major problem on a future crew exchange mission. The Russian side are not yet ready to begin this arrangement, presumably wanting to see more the Dragon, and later the Starliner, a little more flight proven.

It is well known that the end of NASA purchasing Soyuz berths has left a substantial hole in Roskosmos finances, and although several tourist and commercial Soyuz flights are in the pipeline for 2021 to 2023, the cashflow from these, is months and years away. So, the notion of selling a seat to Axiom is probably quite attractive to Roscosmos. The trade-off, is that there would be no prestigious all-Russian crew to celebrate Gagarin’s anniversary, and they would lose the presence of third crewman, for at least six months. As Novitisky and Dubrov are the most trained for the arrival of Nauka, it would probably be Sergei Korsakov who would miss out.

But why might NASA want to fly Vande Hei, at such short notice? The most logical answer, is that there is a concern, within NASA, that if the scheduled exchange of US crews, Dragon Crew-1 to Crew-2, due in late April was delayed, or significantly disrupted, there are various scenarios where the crew of Soyuz MS-18 would be alone on ISS, with no NASA presence. Exactly the situation which the future barter scheme is intended to prevent.  

To muddy the waters further, in January 2021, Andrei Babkin was removed from the back-up crew, on medical grounds. This latest development is very sad for Babkin. He had previously trained for the Nauka related missions with Nikolai Tikhonov who was grounded last year, and who later left the cosmonaut squad after fourteen years of flightless preparation. Babkin was replaced by the very experienced Oleg Artymev, who looks like an over-qualified placeholder, for a back-up MS-18 crew which is unlikely to actually fly, but which is needed to support the prime crew, less than three months before launch. After this assignment, he'll probably revert to his previous planned slot as commander of Soyuz MS-21, due in 2022.

The situation with the Soyuz MS-19 crew, due to launch on 5th October, is even more confused. Nominally, it is currently the original Soyuz MS-18 back-up crew; Shkaplerov, Babkin and Petelin that is provisionally assigned. Anton Shkaplerov's place, as commander, seems pretty solid, regardless of what else happens. It seems unlikely that Babkin will reappear, so quickly after being removed from the previous back-up crew. If Vande Hei does fly, that will mean Korsakov is bumped from MS-18, so he becomes available for MS-19. So that would give us a new nominal crew of Shkaplerov, Korsakov and Petelin.

However, firstly we have to consider the proposed 'Movie in Space Project' described here named “The Challenge”. This involves sending a Russian actress to the ISS which would require at least one seat to be freed up for the, as yet, unknown woman. Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos has thrown his weight behind this proposal, as a means of popularising spaceflight, in Gagarin’s anniversary year, and is one of the Executive Producers, named in the movie’s initial media release.

From the outside, it is impossible to judge how many actresses, or other qualified women have applied. This author has interviewed a couple, Svetlana Savina and  Anastasia BarannikTV channel, ‘First Channel’ and Roscosmos encouraged participants to signify their participation by using the hashtag #хочувкосмос, on Social Media.  Around eighty have done so, and a handful of well-known actresses have confirmed their wish to enter. Otherwise, we have no clues on the level of interest.

However, the suggestion has met some opposition. Several prominent spaceflight observers have expressed concern that Roscosmos appear to be putting entertainment before science, and are diminishing the role and skills of professional cosmonauts, some of whom have trained for a decade, while waiting for their first flight.

Deputy Prime Minister, Yuri Borisov also spoke out during an interview with Moscow journalist, Inna Sidorkova, making it clear that he did not support the notion that Roscosmos might be bank-rolling a commercial project. “It is probably necessary to publicise the achievements of Russian cosmonautics……. If they find sponsors who will pay for the actors' stay in orbit and this does not interfere with the main scientific programme of the ISS, then by all means, let them film…….. but, I can tell you for sure that as long as I am in this position, I will not ignore any proposal for funding a feature film at public expense.”

So, it looks very much as though political heavyweights, on opposing sides of the argument, will determine whether this interesting project, clearly conceived to upstage Tom Cruise, will happen. According to the timeline which Roscosmos and the ‘First Channel’ announced in November, a short list of actresses, and other qualified women, would be made by the end of January. So, once again, some updated information should be imminent.

In addition, the third seat on Soyuz MS-19 could, according to Roscosmos sources, in December, also be occupied by another non-professional cosmonaut. There have been assumptions, among many commentators, that this would be another person connected to the movie. The name of the Director, Klim Shipenko, has even appeared on Wikipedia, in this connection. Certainly, someone will have to be a camera operator and/or sound recordist, and if this is not a specialist, a cosmonaut will have to do it!

Other sources have suggested that a paying Spaceflight Participant could fly. Space Adventures have their pioneering dedicated ‘double-tourist’ mission, due to fly in December, of which more, later. But, Glavkosmos, the commercial arm of Roscosmos is also now offering commercial Soyuz seats, from 2022. However, their Press Office have confirmed that they have no seats available on this flight, so this rumour seems doubtful.

Connected to all these scenarios will be the flight duration for the MS-18 crew. Commander Novitisky will doubtless return to Earth on MS-18, after MS-19 arrives, but who he'll have with him is anyone's guess? If the movie happens, Dubrov would probably have to stay ISS for a year, until Spring 2022, and perhaps Vande Hei too. Or maybe the third seat on MS-19 (up) will be another NASA astronaut to replace him? Oleg Novitsky will probably return to Earth with any two from Korsakov, Dubrov, Vande Hei, the Actress, the Movie Producer, SFP!! 

In all this, there are several circumstances where Novitsky (landing) and Shkaplerov (launch) might have to fly with two non-professional passengers. This requires modification to Soyuz software and special training, for which, as far as we are aware, only Alexander Misurkin and Sergei Prokopyev are currently training, in preparation for Soyuz MS-20. This also needs to be factored in to training, logistics and risk assessment processes and planning. Nothing in any of this is easy.

And then there's Soyuz MS-20, the Space Adventures double tourist mission, for which the original contract was signed in February 2019, and is due to launch on 8th December for a twelve-day ISS visit. This will be the first Soyuz to carry two paying ‘Spaceflight Participants’ (SFP) and is being flown specifically for this purpose. As mentioned above, cosmonauts Alexander Misurkin and Sergei Prokopeyev have been working with Soyuz designers and engineers on modifications to the Soyuz MS interfaces, to allow it to be flown by a single cosmonaut, with the SFP’s being literally passengers, during the active phases of the flight.

Although no official announcement has been made, Misurkin is expected to command this mission. Two clients had signed-up for the flight by Summer 2020, according to previous statements from both Roscosmos and Space Adventures, and their identities were due to be revealed in January. Whilst there are still a few days of January remaining, it seems likely that this ‘reveal’ will be delayed, as travel to and from Russia is still restricted, and may not be a particularly attractive option, for those Space Adventure’s clients, until the travel and infection risks reduce.

And, is there any rush? Looking back at previous Space Adventure’s clients, in the period 2001-2009, they have generally been officially revealed, and begun training in Moscow, around six months before their planned launch. On that basis, it might be May or June 2021, until their identities need to be released. Space Adventures have previously said that such announcements are made in conjunction with their clients, who clearly need to be ready to synchronise their own PR, and handle any media attention which may ensue.

The duo who signed the contracts are understood to be an as yet unnamed, Japanese female pop singer, and the Austrian pilot and extreme sportswoman Johanna Maislinger. Both will fly with support from commercial sponsors.

It is possible that others candidates are in the background. Space Adventures will want to have back-ups, either to generate more revenue by selling the ‘back-up experience’ or to have genuine alternative candidates for the actual flight. There is a long history of non-professional cosmonauts dropping out, for one reason or another, Enomoto (2006), Ko San (2008) and Brightman (2015), are obvious examples.

Indeed, it is known that Maislinger may already have a problem, as she had some sort of accident, towards the end of 2020, in which she suffered several fractures. It is possible that this may remove her from contention for this mission, depending on her recovery, and any long-term impact. Neither Space Adventures, or her apparent sponsors, German venture capital outfit Interstellar Ventures GMBH, would make any comment on any Maislinger’s current status. As we said, it is possible that other candidates, who have managed to keep a lower profile, could still emerge. 

If the plan above holds up, the two women will be the first orbital SFP’s since 2009, but the pace is about to pick up. The very helpful Glavkosmos Press Office have confirmed that they plan to have four seats available, on dedicated tourist or commercial flights, in 2022/3, and that they too are already negotiating with potential clients. Furthermore, if demand is there, they may accommodate additional clients on crew rotation flights. However, Glavkosmos do not envisage any involvement in Soyuz MS-20, which is Space Adventures exclusive mission.


What seems clear in all this, is that with funds from NASA drying up, Roscosmos, through Glavkosmos, are seeking to develop new income streams from their future Soyuz flights. While Space Adventures seem likely continue to play a role in this, and they have a further Soyuz contracted for 2023, Glavkosmos should emerge as an strong alternative and rival. Some of this income generation will be driven by the deals which are already contracted, some seem to be predicated on seizing short notice opportunities, as they arise.  

Are the critics who suggest that Roscosmos are putting money ahead of science right?

Will Roscosmos be able to put on a display befitting of the Gagarin anniversary, and which will put Russian cosmonautics in the spotlight?

Will the Russian public pay more attention to manned spaceflight, in 2021, than in any other year?

Perhaps, those are questions to be answered in January 2022.


© Tony Quine January 2021





Sunday, January 10, 2021

Russian Movie in Space Part 4

 Elizaveta Zaretskaya - ready for an acting job in orbit!

When we last visited “The Challenge” project, several weeks ago, the window for women to submit their applications was still open. It was closed on 31st December, just as Russia entered the long New Year and Orthodox Christmas holiday. If the organisers follow their original schedule they should spend January identifying and calling around 30 candidates to the next stage. As part of the efforts to encourage interest, anyone interested in entering was asked to use the hashtag #хочувкосмос, on social media posts, videos etc. Some women have done this, but our impression is that the number is quite small – probably under 100. That said, perhaps not everyone, and especially professional actresses want to advertise their plans, in this way. Time will tell.

In addition, since our piece on this topic, their has been a little more opposition to the project, in the political sphere, so the organisers still have some hurdles to overcome, if they are to get their actress into Space, in none months.

Meanwhile, we’ve been talking to another adventurous young woman who is ready to rise to the challenges. Elizaveta Zaretskaya is 31. She is a talented singer, musician and song-writer, with her own fitness business, and taste for adventure. She has a significant presence on social media, with a very active, and vibrant, Instagram account, which has 32,000 followers.

 What did Liza think, when she first saw the project advertised, in October? “

“Honestly, the first thing that popped into my mind was ‘Why the hell not?’. We only get one shot at life and there is nothing more amazing to do with that shot than going into space. And when such opportunity presented itself, I knew that I had to give it my all. I also thought, ‘Who else can do it, if not me?’. My life has been filled with challenges that I’ve faced and overcame and it seem fitting that the film will be called ‘The Challenge.’ To me, it’s a challenge that I cannot back down from. I have dreamed of going into space all of my life.”

Our interviews for the Space Sleuthing Blog have shown that this project especially appeals to young women who have already enjoyed extreme sports, and who are not fazed by taking calculated risks, and Liza fits this profile.

“All of my life I have been very active and I have an abundance of experience in skydiving. I have over 100 jumps, more than 300 hours in high tier wind tunnel. I have mastered free fly and dynamic free fly, which encompasses various complex acrobatic maneuvers in the air. Additionally, I am an avid motorcycle rider, with years of experience, as well as a surfer and skier. Ultimately, I am very adaptive and accustomed to extreme and high-risk environments.”

The initial requirements of the ‘Challenge’ set out fairly strict physical and fitness requirements. First and foremost, the successful candidate will need to meet the strict physical and psychological dimensions required to be a cosmonaut. In this project, these will be more important than acting skills or experience. How is Liza tackling these specifications?

I am taking this competition very seriously and therefore made the decision to get ahead in this regard. I have worked as a coach for years and now run my own stretching school, in which I assist my students in getting more agile and flexible for their athletic needs. I have also already started preparations for this spaceflight. I have daily running, swimming and weight routines that I follow. On top of my experiences outlined above, I began training the same day as I found out about the competition. I have 2-3 sessions a day which include swimming, running as well as endurance and cardio training. All of these are guided by professional trainers.”

But, what about the performing, acting and artistic side of the project?

I write and perform my own songs and music. I am a capable musician and singer. In 2019, I held my first concert to perform my album in Moscow, to which over 200 people showed up. Later, I had the pleasure to perform live in front of over a thousand people at a business congress. I have experience as an author, composer and performer. Public speaking is another area in which I have a generous amount of expertise. I had the pleasure to deliver presentations as a motivational speaker, as well as a businesswoman at various business forums at Citrix 24 congress. Regarding acting, I have my own blog on Instagram that I update daily for tens of thousands of people. Naturally I must possess charisma and make every post and live event entertaining to maintain an audience of this size.”

So, how does Liza sum up her overall passion and motivation to participate, in “The Challenge”? How does she feel about sitting on top of a rocket, waiting to be fired into Space?

“I consider this project to be wild and a little bit mad. But it’s precisely things like this that captivate me. I love doing extraordinary things, defying expectations and doing what most people only dream of. Going to space is exactly that. It is the craziest, extraordinary and, dare I say, coolest thing I could ever do in my life.”

“The things that would incite fear in most people, awakens a wild fascination in me. I always yearn to test myself in extreme conditions. There is no more satisfying feeling then knowing that I was able to face the challenge and overcome it where others would turn away. I imagine that when I would approach the rocket, I would feel pride, anticipation, most importantly, joy. The joy of knowing that this is happening. That I am onboard a spaceship and am about to reach the stars!”

As we said earlier, the next few weeks should move this project to the next stage. Here at the Space Sleuthing Blog, we wish Liza, and our earlier interviewees, Svetlana Savina  and Anastasia Barannik success in reaching the final thirty candidates, and would love to see one of them, eventually make it into Space!

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Interstellar Ventures


Are German VC providers, Interstellar Ventures, ready to fund first privately sponsored human spaceflight?

Likely sponsor of Austrian pilot's spaceflight plans identified.

The Space Sleuthing Blog has been reporting the bizarre story of Johanna Maislinger, for over three years.

Who is Johanna Maislinger? Well, she is a regular airline pilot, born in Austria, but who has worked, studied and lived in Germany, for the last 11 years. In 2016, she was allowed to enter the ‘German Woman in Space Project – Die Astronautin’ despite not being German. After she was eliminated, at the final thirty stage, she began to pursue her own project to get herself into Space.

The whole story can be read Here.

Bizarrely, Maislinger had told other candidates in 'Die Astronautin'  that she was eliminated because she could not obtain her German citizenship, in time. In truth, she had simply failed the assessment carried out my the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine. Looking back, that untruth now makes sense. If any would-be sponsor had been aware of the facts, they would quickly lose interest in her. She needed a good cover-story to stop that happening.

What began with a seemingly casual comment, in April 2017, “Someone in Berlin is very interested to send me into Space…” has evolved into a three year relationship with Space Adventures, the world’s leading Space Tourism provider. Her name is on the lips of cosmonauts, instructors and officials at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre, and her details appear on every credible internet projection of Soyuz space crews, for 2021. She even has her own  Wikipedia page.   

Although numerous people have tried to organise a spaceflight through private sponsorship before, regardless of what happens from here, Maislinger has got closer to success than anyone before her. As we enter 2021, she seems to be on the very brink of being named to crew of the Space Adventures  organised Soyuz MS-20 flight, due to launch to the ISS next December!

But, with around 30,000 views of this Blog, in the last two years, the most popular question, in various forms, has been, “Who would pay $40-$50 million to send this woman into Space, and why?”

For three years, there has been no easy answer to that question.

However, in December 2020, a number of sources, connected to the ‘Die Astronautin’ project, recalled that in 2017 another ‘German Citizen in Space’ project emerged briefly. One report, from a source very closely associated to ‘Die Astronautin’ indicated that they understood this project was about to reappear. Further investigations indicated that this ‘German Citizen in Space’ project emerged in Berlin, and then vanished, at exactly the same time that Maislinger was starting to talk about her plans, and her sponsor, before she also vanished.

So, what do we know about the ‘German Citizen in Space’, and who was behind it?

Several contacts in Germany who recalled this short-lived project, being announced in April 2017, connected it to a Berlin-based Venture Capital company, Interstellar Ventures GMBH  set up in 2016, by entrepreneur, Sebastian Straube.

This company, when launched, was reported to have access to in excess on Euro 100 million, in Venture Capital funding, through a network of VC Investors, Family Offices and Business Angels. Clearly, this organisation presents itself as having access to sufficient resources to fund a private spaceflight, at a cost of around US$50 million. But, the return they would get is more difficult to determine, apart from the publicity of being the innovators who funded the first ever private orbital Spaceflight? Or perhaps, one of Straube's wealthy associates simply wants to help Maislinger fulfill her seemingly impossible dream, and generate substantial 'bragging rights', in the process?

Clearly, when faced with such clues, and circumstantial evidence, that Interstellar Ventures and Herr Straube had the opportunity, timing, motivation and resources to back Maislinger, the most obvious step was to ask them! If there is no connection, it would be logical for them to say so.

However, they have chosen not to make any comment, whatsoever.

In pursing the Maislinger story, for three years, we have approached numerous organisations or individuals who may have been involved. There has been a clear pattern of responses. Those who are not involved say so, clearly and unambiguously. This includes such blue-chip names as Siemens, Red Bull, Airbus, Lufthansa, ESA. 

Conversely, those who are involved, Space Adventures, Aerologic (Maislinger’s employer), DHL and Maislinger herself, remain evasive and silent. At this point, it seems reasonable to add Interstellar Ventures to that list.

In October 2020, just as negotiations and contracts would have been reaching a critical stage, a new company, Interstellar Ventures LLC,  was registered in the US state of Delaware. Coincidence?

So, whilst we cannot say with absolute certainty that Interstellar Ventures and Sebastian Straube are facilitating Maislinger’s funding, and her eventual launch into Space, as long as they do not distance themselves from the suggestion, they are certainly in pole position.    

In August 2020 both Space Adventures, and the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, confirmed that two clients* had signed up for the Soyuz MS-20 trip, and the clients would be named in January 2021. Conversations with personnel at Space Adventures** and Roscosmos confirmed that Maislinger was one of those two, and her name was familiar to many people at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre.

However, this January deadline seems unlikely to be met, due the travel and other logistical considerations connected to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

In addition, crewing plans for the two Soyuz flights due earlier in 2021 are currently in a state of flux. So, it currently seems more likely that any announcement from Space Adventures will come, no earlier than March.

Whether all parties are likely to be able to close the deal, was discussed in this earlier Blog. 

*The other client is understood to be a Japanese singer/actress, whose name we don't wish to reveal, at this stage. 

**Space Adventures are always keen to stress that they have never made any official comment about Johanna Maislinger, or any other client.