The elite band of super-rich tourists willing to pay millions of dollars to voyage into outer space are spotlighted in a documentary vying for honors at the Sundance Film Festival.
Swiss director Christian Frei’s latest film, “Space Tourists,” explores the phenomenon of wealthy individuals who have capitalized on the fading glory of the former Soviet Union’s space program to fulfill the journey of a lifetime.
Frei says he was drawn to the subject after reading a newspaper article about a Japanese billionaire willing to pay 20 million dollars to journey into space wearing a spacesuit based on his favorite cartoon character.
“I thought, ‘There is something crazy, there,’” said Frei, who has already earned an Oscars documentary nomination for his 2001 film “War Photographer.”
“I was also curious to what was left of the Russian side of the Space Race.”
While following the preparations of the eccentric Japanese tycoon who inspired the film, Daisuke Enomoto, Frei discovered the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the former hub of the Soviet space program situated in the desert wilderness of the Kazakhstan steppes.
Frei’s film also shines a light on the Kazakh scrap merchants who make a living scouring the vast expanse of the steppes searching for debris from rocket launches which is then sold to China.
“When the Soviet Union collapsed, actually the whole steppe was kind of covered with rockets and other debris,” Frei told AFP.
“But nobody dared to touch them. After people realized that they could sale them to China, and that’s when the business started.”
Russia, which leases the Baikonur facility from Kazakhstan, barred Frei from filming the scrap merchants, disparaging them as “alcoholic scavengers.”
However with the help of Google Earth, Frei and his production team were able to capture the work of the merchants.
“With Google Earth, we zoomed-in and my assistant made a huge map so we could see the tiny little tracks of the collectors’ trucks. I realized that I could actually approach them from the south,” Frei said.
“The Russians couldn’t do anything.”
The ingenuity of Frei’s approach reaped rewards. The images of the merchants waiting in the middle of nowhere to pounce on debris are among the film’s best moments. “I’m pretty sure no-one has ever filmed that,” Frei said.
Frei’s project was almost derailed when Enomoto withdrew from his space odyssey for health reasons to be replaced by Anousheh Ansari, an American-Iranian who had held a lifelong dream of journeying into space.
“I knew, in my heart, that I would find the way,” Ansari told AFP. “When I got married, I told my husband that if I die and I did’t make it to space, I wanted him to make sure that he would find a way to send my ashes to space.”
For Frei, who was able to benefit from using the footage shot by Ansari during her eight days on board the ISS, space travel holds little appeal.
“If I had 20 million dollars I wouldn’t go to space because I have other dreams,” Frei said.
Ansari however has been bitten by the bug and is already on the waiting list of passengers for British tycoon Richard Branson’s “Virgin Galactic.”
“Space travel is like a drug,” Ansari said.