Tom Cruise in space – NASA’s stroke of genius

Jake Foster May 12, 2020
Tom Cruise in space – NASA’s stroke of genius

Movie superstar Tom Cruise will collaborate with NASA and SpaceX to produce the first feature film made in space. The filming is set to take place aboard the International Space Station (ISS), 408 kilometres above the earth. Yes, really!

The story was broken by Deadline before being confirmed in a tweet by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.

SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk also seemed to confirm the news the following day, responding to Bridenstine’s tweet with: “Should be a lot of fun!”

The only details known about the project are it will be an action-adventure movie with Cruise as the lead and probably a large role in production.

For some, this venture may sound fanciful and grandiose. Others may see it as a disservice to use the ISS as a backdrop for Cruise’s Hollywood shenanigans.

Tom Cruise at a premiere for Mission: Impossible – Fallout in 2018 (Credit: Tom Cruise)

It will undoubtedly be the most ambitious project in the history of cinema – but is it a good move? It could be a disaster waiting to happen.

Shouldn’t we leave space to trained professionals or is Bridenstine’s risky business move an act of genius? Let’s discuss.

Commercial space takeover

The 21st century has seen passion reignite for commercial spaceflight and space tourism. Those heading the new space race aren’t national space agencies. Instead, the new titans of space travel are billionaires who made their money elsewhere.

The likes of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin all have their sights literally set on the stars, keen to usher in a new era of interplanetary space travel.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in flight on 1 May 2020 (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

While these private space endeavours are rekindling public interest in space travel, NASA has done little to attract mainstream media attention in recent years.

NASA’s marketing problem

NASA has always struggled with its marketing. The broadcast of the 1969 moon landing (arguably the greatest achievement in human history) attracted about 650 million viewers worldwide. However, each of the five successful Apollo moon landings that followed saw dwindling viewing figures.

By the time Apollo 17 landed on lunar soil in 1972, public interest had hit rock bottom. The moon was no longer a hot topic. The planned Apollo 18, 19 and 20 landings were cancelled due to lack of public interest and shrinking funds. Thus the Apollo programme was brought to an abrupt end – with a whimper rather than the bang of rocket fuel.

That brings us to May 2020 and, in stark contrast to Apollo’s marketing failures, NASA’s master stroke – to launch a movie star into space.

As Bridenstine’s tweet makes clear, the goal is inspiration. Millions of young people seeing Cruise aboard the ISS is undeniably inspiring. No CGI, film sets or wires. Instead, real weightlessness, real views of the earth from space, real danger.

“We need popular media to inspire a new generation of engineers and scientists to make NASA’s ambitious plans a reality”

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine

This project is more than a mere marketing ploy. It will be a chance to reach out to the people who weren’t old enough to witness a moon landing. It’s also an opportunity to reach those who haven’t been drawn in by NASA’s recent lacklustre outreach campaigns. In a world where real live rocket launches fail to compete with CGI intergalactic space battles, NASA is taking the fight to cinemas.

Cruise’s credentials

To many, Cruise may merely appear a ‘reasonable fit’ for the job. He’s an action hero with a habit of performing his own stunts. In fact, such a description would do the man an injustice.

Believe it or not, Cruise is probably the only actor on earth qualified for the job. The Mission: Impossible star has held a private pilot’s licence since 1994 and has been known to regularly fly his own jets and fighter planes, recently acquiring a P-51 Mustang Second World War fighter.

The 57 year-old actor is also a qualified helicopter pilot, learning to fly specifically for one scene in the latest instalment of the Mission: Impossible franchise, Mission: Impossible – Fallout.

For the same film, Cruise became a certificated solo skydiver so he could perform a HALO (high altitude low opening) jump from 25,000 feet. The technique is extremely dangerous and is usually only performed by highly-trained military personnel.

Tom Cruise performing a HALO jump from 25,000 feet (Credit: Tom Cruise)

Other bizarre physical feats of the world’s most famous Scientologist include hanging off the side of the Burj Khalifa at 2,700 feet and clinging to the side of an Airbus as it took off, both for Mission: Impossible.

Many of these skills are highly sought-after qualities in an astronaut. Many candidates are favoured for having piloting and skydiving experience. It not only shows a high level of skill but also an ability to keep cool under pressure. For the role of a lifetime, there’s no candidate more suitable than Cruise.

Lasting impacts

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether the movie is any good. It could end up being a hollow yet entertaining explosion-fest despite its impressive backdrop. Regardless, two major victories will emerge from this venture.

Firstly, it will end up inspiring people. If not through the movie then the news coverage alone. Tom Cruise is NASA’s ace in the hole, the ultimate marketing tool. His involvement is crucial – no other actor could take on such a mammoth task.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, it will open a door for the space tourism industry. At present, seven private citizens have spent time in space aboard the ISS. Each spent between $20 million and $30 million for a ticket to ride.

All seven made their visits between 2001 and 2009 through private space tourism company Space Adventures. Since then, no tourist has been allowed to venture into orbit, but that is about to change.

NASA, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have all made it clear they plan to send private citizens into space in the coming years. Celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Bieber have already put down deposits to be on Virgin Galactic’s inaugural SpaceShipTwo flight, for example.

Cruise has inadvertently become the poster child of space tourism. Once other famous and wealthy people see Cruise return to earth safely, the floodgates will open.

In summary

While space travel is always a risky business, it seems NASA and Cruise are making all the right moves. Once again, NASA is proving itself top gun of inspirational space ventures, with a few good men mixing a cocktail for sub-orbital success.

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Science Communicator and Science Museum Explainer, specialising in Physics, Astronomy, Spaceflight and Robotics.