Published on April 8th, 2020 📆 | 5254 Views ⚑0
I was bored, so I watched the movie that astronauts must view before launch
Sometime Wednesday, perhaps around the time this article is published, NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and his two Russian crew mates— Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner—will repair to their quarantine crew quarters for movie night in the Cosmonaut Hotel.
This Soviet-era building in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, is where astronauts spend their final days before launching into space on board the Russian Soyuz vehicle. Cassidy’s crew is due to launch on Thursday afternoon, at 1:05pm local time. (This is 4:05am ET Thursday, and 8:05am UTC). They will spend about six hours catching up to and docking with the International Space Station.
The Russians have the oldest space program in the world and by far the most traditions and superstitions related to launch, including peeing on the wheel of the bus that takes the crew to the launch pad—a tradition that dates back to Yuri Gagarin’s first human spaceflight in 1961.
Among those traditions is watching a movie the day before launch in the Cosmonaut Hotel. It’s always the same movie, White Sun of the Desert. No one is quite sure why this Soviet-era film, which came out in 1970, is always watched (yes, it’s mandatory). But it likely dates to Soyuz 12, in 1973, when cosmonauts Vasily Lazarev and Oleg Makarov watched the movie before their mission. This return-to-flight mission followed the disastrous Soyuz 11 flight two years earlier, when the spacecraft depressurized as the crew prepared to reenter Earth’s atmosphere, killing all three men. Soyuz 12 proved a success, and the movie came to be seen as a good luck charm. Since then, over the course of five decades, the Soyuz has never lost a crew.
Anyway, Cassidy, Ivanishin, and Vagner are in quarantine before their spaceflight Thursday. And most of the rest of the world is in some kind of quarantine, too, myself included. So I decided to watch White Sun of the Desert, which the Russian film studio Mosfilm has helpfully put on YouTube with helpful English subtitles. The astronauts don’t get this perk in Baikonur, alas. “I honestly didn’t understand that much,” one former flier told me.
I can understand why. Let’s just say that I did not grow up in the cultural milieu of the Soviet Union in the late 1960s or early 1970s, when White Sun of the Desert was released. Moreover, the movie is actually set in the 1920s, in what is now Turkmenistan, amidst the Russian Civil War. Don’t get me wrong. I like history. But outside of the actions of Lenin and the October Revolution, I am not up on my Russian Civil War details, especially as it pertains to Central Asia. So the film’s setting and the historical background are somewhat bewildering.
On the positive side, the movie does have a likable central character, Fyodor Ivanovich Sukhov. He is a Red Army solider seeking to make his way home, across the desert, after recovering from wounds. During dream-like states, Sukhov pines for his wife Katerina Matveyevna, whom he envisions waiting for him. Sukhov is honorable, inventive, and faithful to his wife throughout the film.
The basic plot revolves around Sukhov and a Central Asian man named Sayid who he saves and befriends. The main antagonist is a warlord named Abdullah who has a harem that falls under the temporary protection of Sukhov. There is fighting, there are hijinx, there are lots of tall, brooding Central Asians—but beyond Sukhov, there is far too little character development.
Apparently the film was Russian director Vladimir Motyl’s response to Western genre movies becoming popular in the United States. The film proved very popular in the Soviet Union at the time and remains so today. I found it hard to follow at times, even with the subtitles. And during various scenes, I wasn’t sure whether I was watching something that was supposed to be serious like High Noon or slapstick like Airplane! But overall, it held my attention, which is a good thing.
The film has nothing to do with space. However, I do think the symbolism of Sukov being far from home and his wife might hold parallels for astronauts about to fly into space, far from their loved ones back on Earth. They will be in the vast expanses of space rather than the empty dunes of the desert, but they will be lonely all the same.
Listing image by Mosfilm/YouTube