Straight to the Moon! (When the Science was all the Fiction Needed)

With the release of Oblivion, and its plot point of the moon’s destruction, I was reminded of a piece I wrote a couple of years ago for a DVD company about George Pal and one of the things I mentioned was a statement by Ray Bradbury about Destination Moon.  What Bradbury said was that it was the first science fiction movie he knew of that really was all about the science.   From the earliest moon movies, such as A Trip to the Moon (1902) or Frau im Mond (1929), to the present day, Moon (2009), movies about the moon, when they’re not documentaries or docudramas, center around stories that have little to do with the science of getting there.  But when George Pal took a crack at it, getting there was the most exciting thing about it.

Dest Moon 01

By the fifties, getting to the moon was becoming a possibility in the minds of the scientific community and the science fiction community as well.   In 1952, Collier’s Magazine began a series that would run for two years that illustrated how humans would get to the moon (and Mars and beyond) and do so sooner than anyone expected.  In an age where atomic weapons had been unleashed upon the world, and rockets deployed in war, nothing seemed impossible.   But those scientific uses were horrifying and science enthusiasts wanted more information about the good uses of the atom and rocket power.  Of course, that meant heavy doses of feel-good propaganda as well, where nuclear power and rockets were benign inventions, completely in the power and control of humanity.   That propaganda found its way into even the most science centered stories about space travel, including the biggest one of all, Destination Moon, written by Robert Heinlein, produced by George Pal and directed by Irving Pichel.

Destination Moon tells the story of a group of entrepreneurs intent on getting the United States to the moon before the Soviets.  Dr. Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson) teams up with General Thayer (Tom Powers) and Jim Barnes (John Archer as kind of a Howard Hughes type) to design and build the rocket that will do the job.  Of course, doing that kind of thing means money and lots of it.  To raise the necessary funds they have a pitch meeting (Kickstarter, old school) with a bunch of rich, paranoid American industrialists.  Paranoid because the ringer to the sales pitch is that if they (the Americans) don’t get to the moon first, the Soviets will get there and use it as a launch platform to drop nuclear bombs on the United States (please take a moment to laugh hysterically and come back when you’re done).

Of course, this fear is about as unfounded as it is humanly possible for a fear to be.  First of all, you have to get the bombs to the moon.  Second, you have to have a remote hookup to launch them at will.   Third, you have to hope no one notices the bombs are on their way in the… wait for it… three days it takes for them to arrive!   Yes, in this scenario, the Soviets would launch their bombs from the moon, some American generals would have a good laugh and then send a squadron of bombers to vaporize the Soviet Union in about fifteen minutes.  Then track the exact trajectory of the incoming rockets from the moon (after a day or so, no need to rush it) and blast them once they’re in range.  It’s as if they thought the moon was actually about a thousand times smaller and hovering above the USA, just beyond the clouds.  Either Heinlein was one of the dumbest men who ever lived or just one of the most paranoid (hint, it’s the latter).  Nonetheless, this remarkable fear does the job and the sale is made.  The rocket gets financed.  But rockets; how do they work?!

Dest Moon 03

One of the most enduring and influential aspects of Destination Moon is in the method of its explanation of the science behind the effort.  Rather than awkwardly work it into dialogue, give it to a narrator to solemnly intone or crawl it up the screen on an expository title card, they simply show the movie-going audience the exact same movie the paranoid industrialists get to the see in the movie:  An animated movie presented by Woody Woodpecker that gives the viewers everything they need to know about space travel in five minutes.  And I gotta tell you, it’s brilliant.   Back in 1993, when I sat down in the theater to watch Jurassic Park, and the characters in the film sit down to watch an animated movie explaining the park to them, I had a wonderful sense of deja vu.  Writers Michael Crichton and David Koepp, or at least one of them, had clearly seen Destination Moon and thought the same thing I had: What a great way to get the pesky but necessary scientific exposition out of the way!

But the most notable thing about Destination Moon, as stated at the top of this piece (and in the title) is that aside from the momentary “Fear of a Soviet Moon” propaganda, the movie is all about getting to the moon.  There is no subplot that develops about the Russians sabotaging our efforts, no bizarre encounters once they get to the moon and find moon men who explode when hit with umbrellas or leather-clad women interested in enslaving them.   No, it’s just about getting to the moon and, once there, getting back.  That’s it.  And it works.

Viewed through the lens of history, it’s easy to spot the mistakes.   The rocket is single-stage (which requires far too much fuel to get there and back, best to go multi-stage so by the time you get to the moon, you’re in a small landing pod and only need a small burst of energy to get off the moon and head back to earth), they use magnetic boots to slowly, very slowly, walk around inside the ship in the weightlessness of space (when floating around is much easier and efficient, although for the long term, where magnetic boots, forcing gravity on the legs, would actually help in keeping the bones strong) and the mountains are far too jagged.  Also, the lift off is greatly exaggerated.  If astronauts underwent that much gravitational stress when leaving the planet, they’d never survive the trip.   But in 1950, none of that was known and considering this was done before Collier’s even got into the act (with the eyebrow raising assistance of former Nazi rocket designer, Wernher von Braun*), it’s pretty amazing how much they got right, or at least pretty close.

Dest Moon 05

Destination Moon isn’t a great movie.  The effects are good but, despite an Oscar, not great and, no, I don’t mean compared to today, I mean that even for 1950, they were good but not great.  The acting is also decent but nothing special (except for Dick Wesson, playing mechanic Joe Sweeney, who gives that kind of overly-eager, “I’m just a simply guy from Brooklyn,” type of performance that livens up the movie every time he’s onscreen) and yet, it’s a movie that has an importance in the annals of science fiction because it did something few other science fiction movies ever do:  It made the science more important than the fiction.

_______________________________

*In The Right Stuff, a favorite of mine, there’s a moment that plays perfectly off of the highly dubious practice of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in using former Nazis to advance their own space goals.   When the thinly veiled Wernher von Braun character is asked about the quality of the Soviet’s rocket scientists, he answers, “Our Germans are better than their Germans.”

Another von Braun joke is the famous pseudo-subtitle (“but sometimes I hit London”) to the name of von Braun’s biopic, I Aim at the Stars, but little known to most, it actually came from the movie itself.

37 Responses Straight to the Moon! (When the Science was all the Fiction Needed)
Posted By Doug : April 21, 2013 1:36 pm

Thank you, Greg, for highlighting this film. The science really does exceed the fiction, but a quibble or two for you.
Heinlein may appear paranoid to our eyes,but we didn’t live through the times that he did. Destination Moon fits into his fiction as an expansion of the idea of “The Man Who Sold The Moon”
Delos D. Harriman, a Donald Trump type who, rather than building self aggrandizing buildings, wants to travel to the moon uses all of his money and business chicanery to make that happen.
The threat of Russians using the Moon as a staging base to rain down bombs on America was fleshed out later in Heinlein’s book, “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”.
In that book the Moon is a penal colony, the prisoners working hydroponic farms, growing rice and wheat to feed a nearly starving Earth. The food is cast down from rocket launchers taking advantage of the Moon’s weaker gravity to send huge canisters of the grains back down to Earth, landing in the oceans to be picked up like Apollo astronauts.
The prisoners revolt,demand Freedom and when pushed becomes shoved, declare war on Earth and use the rocket launchers to toss huge rocks at cities.
I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t read it, but the science of rocks being tossed so that they would enter Earth’s gravity seemed very well thought out.
“The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” is supposedly loved by Libertarians due to its politics, but I’ve never heard a Libertarian comment on it.

Posted By Doug : April 21, 2013 1:36 pm

Thank you, Greg, for highlighting this film. The science really does exceed the fiction, but a quibble or two for you.
Heinlein may appear paranoid to our eyes,but we didn’t live through the times that he did. Destination Moon fits into his fiction as an expansion of the idea of “The Man Who Sold The Moon”
Delos D. Harriman, a Donald Trump type who, rather than building self aggrandizing buildings, wants to travel to the moon uses all of his money and business chicanery to make that happen.
The threat of Russians using the Moon as a staging base to rain down bombs on America was fleshed out later in Heinlein’s book, “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress”.
In that book the Moon is a penal colony, the prisoners working hydroponic farms, growing rice and wheat to feed a nearly starving Earth. The food is cast down from rocket launchers taking advantage of the Moon’s weaker gravity to send huge canisters of the grains back down to Earth, landing in the oceans to be picked up like Apollo astronauts.
The prisoners revolt,demand Freedom and when pushed becomes shoved, declare war on Earth and use the rocket launchers to toss huge rocks at cities.
I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t read it, but the science of rocks being tossed so that they would enter Earth’s gravity seemed very well thought out.
“The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” is supposedly loved by Libertarians due to its politics, but I’ve never heard a Libertarian comment on it.

Posted By Emgee : April 21, 2013 4:37 pm

I always feel a bit sad that all that wide-eyed romanticism and enthousiasm about space travel soon diminished after we actually landed on the moon. Fiction ended and science pretty much took over.

Posted By Emgee : April 21, 2013 4:37 pm

I always feel a bit sad that all that wide-eyed romanticism and enthousiasm about space travel soon diminished after we actually landed on the moon. Fiction ended and science pretty much took over.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : April 21, 2013 10:18 pm

Doug, it was just a gentle jab about Soviet paranoia, wasn’t try to run anyone down too much. I grew up in the Cold War and know how thick it was. Hell, I was afraid we’d be in a nuclear war at some point, too. But thanks for the info and I love a good sci-fi read so maybe I’ll give it a look.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : April 21, 2013 10:18 pm

Doug, it was just a gentle jab about Soviet paranoia, wasn’t try to run anyone down too much. I grew up in the Cold War and know how thick it was. Hell, I was afraid we’d be in a nuclear war at some point, too. But thanks for the info and I love a good sci-fi read so maybe I’ll give it a look.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : April 21, 2013 10:19 pm

Emgee, me too. I have books about the space race in the fifties and the attitudes of the scientists and community and it was so optimistic, so infectious. Wish it was here again. A real desire to explore.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : April 21, 2013 10:19 pm

Emgee, me too. I have books about the space race in the fifties and the attitudes of the scientists and community and it was so optimistic, so infectious. Wish it was here again. A real desire to explore.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : April 21, 2013 10:22 pm

i was just relieved to find out it wasn’t made from cheese…next stop was Mars and IT THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE !

Posted By DevlinCarnate : April 21, 2013 10:22 pm

i was just relieved to find out it wasn’t made from cheese…next stop was Mars and IT THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE !

Posted By jennifromrollamo : April 22, 2013 12:06 am

I love the different colors of the astronauts in the film pic you posted…made me wonder why our actual astronauts all wore the same, bland white suits??

Posted By jennifromrollamo : April 22, 2013 12:06 am

I love the different colors of the astronauts in the film pic you posted…made me wonder why our actual astronauts all wore the same, bland white suits??

Posted By Doug : April 22, 2013 1:58 am

Greg said:” it was just a gentle jab about Soviet paranoia, wasn’t try to run anyone down too much”
I understand, Greg-I lived through my share of it, too.
Heinlein WAS somewhat paranoid, more than the local Joes and June Cleavers of his day, as he took seriously his work as a futurist, a prognosticator. His pessimism about Mankind solving more problems than we create caused him to write dystopian works such as “Farnham’s Freehold”.

Posted By Doug : April 22, 2013 1:58 am

Greg said:” it was just a gentle jab about Soviet paranoia, wasn’t try to run anyone down too much”
I understand, Greg-I lived through my share of it, too.
Heinlein WAS somewhat paranoid, more than the local Joes and June Cleavers of his day, as he took seriously his work as a futurist, a prognosticator. His pessimism about Mankind solving more problems than we create caused him to write dystopian works such as “Farnham’s Freehold”.

Posted By Marty : April 22, 2013 8:36 am

Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds comprise the famous George Pal space trilogy. Conquest of Space is very wobbly in its production and message.
What I like so much about DM and the other two in the trilogy is the fact that they were made in a time in our country when there wasn’t anything we couldn’t do if we put our brains and our backs and our money into it. Yes, there is the usual cold war red scare beneath the stories (particularly DM)but it’s a showcase for American knowhow and initiative. I cherish my copies of all three. Having been born in 51 and growing up in the 50s, I remember when our country was really like this.
And Eagle Lion and Paramount Studios were bold, investing in this genre with Technicolor, big studio effects and matts, big scores. Those effects were done either on the studio floor, process and optical printing…using real actors.

Posted By Marty : April 22, 2013 8:36 am

Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds comprise the famous George Pal space trilogy. Conquest of Space is very wobbly in its production and message.
What I like so much about DM and the other two in the trilogy is the fact that they were made in a time in our country when there wasn’t anything we couldn’t do if we put our brains and our backs and our money into it. Yes, there is the usual cold war red scare beneath the stories (particularly DM)but it’s a showcase for American knowhow and initiative. I cherish my copies of all three. Having been born in 51 and growing up in the 50s, I remember when our country was really like this.
And Eagle Lion and Paramount Studios were bold, investing in this genre with Technicolor, big studio effects and matts, big scores. Those effects were done either on the studio floor, process and optical printing…using real actors.

Posted By Heidi : April 22, 2013 12:34 pm

Awesome post! Having lived through the tail end of the cold war 9we got to learn about the duck and cover for tornados AND atomic bombs!) I love this movie, because it is about the science,and i love it because it is dated. That just makes it seem much better. My husband and I are total NASA and space flight geeks and I join the rest in wishing we had the funding to get those optimistic dreamers back in the saddle, but science is falling by the wayside these days. I am trying to get through Volume one of the Tome that is the life of Heinlein. I love all of his books, especially the ones he wrote for young boys early on. As to his paranoia-I will just say, Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you!

Posted By Heidi : April 22, 2013 12:34 pm

Awesome post! Having lived through the tail end of the cold war 9we got to learn about the duck and cover for tornados AND atomic bombs!) I love this movie, because it is about the science,and i love it because it is dated. That just makes it seem much better. My husband and I are total NASA and space flight geeks and I join the rest in wishing we had the funding to get those optimistic dreamers back in the saddle, but science is falling by the wayside these days. I am trying to get through Volume one of the Tome that is the life of Heinlein. I love all of his books, especially the ones he wrote for young boys early on. As to his paranoia-I will just say, Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you!

Posted By Doug : April 22, 2013 1:50 pm

Heidi said, “My husband and I are total NASA and space flight geeks”
Heidi, have you seen “Imax Space Station 3D” narrated by Tom cruise?
I have a modest 3D TV system, and use that Blu ray to show off the system. A great show.

Posted By Doug : April 22, 2013 1:50 pm

Heidi said, “My husband and I are total NASA and space flight geeks”
Heidi, have you seen “Imax Space Station 3D” narrated by Tom cruise?
I have a modest 3D TV system, and use that Blu ray to show off the system. A great show.

Posted By Heidi : April 23, 2013 12:06 pm

Doug, we have seen all the other Imax Space station ones, except that one, only because 3d makes me sick. We are lucky to have a Challenger Learning Center in town, so we get planetarium shows and awesome space themed Imax movies too.

Posted By Heidi : April 23, 2013 12:06 pm

Doug, we have seen all the other Imax Space station ones, except that one, only because 3d makes me sick. We are lucky to have a Challenger Learning Center in town, so we get planetarium shows and awesome space themed Imax movies too.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : April 23, 2013 1:23 pm

I’ve seen every space-themed IMAX there is, I think, including the Cruise narrated space station one (marred by unfortunate references to Austin Powers – “Don’t think astronauts are fun? These guys are HUGE Austin Powers fans!” – I’m not sure how that makes them fun, I would’ve figured flying into space would do the trick). Saw the Hubble one last year at the Air and Space Museum in DC. Love that kind of thing.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : April 23, 2013 1:23 pm

I’ve seen every space-themed IMAX there is, I think, including the Cruise narrated space station one (marred by unfortunate references to Austin Powers – “Don’t think astronauts are fun? These guys are HUGE Austin Powers fans!” – I’m not sure how that makes them fun, I would’ve figured flying into space would do the trick). Saw the Hubble one last year at the Air and Space Museum in DC. Love that kind of thing.

Posted By swac44 : April 23, 2013 1:30 pm

Sad to say, I’ve never seen Destination Moon, and I’ve heard the DVD that came out in 2000 is a subpar transfer. Anyone know if there’s a better source for a copy?

Posted By swac44 : April 23, 2013 1:30 pm

Sad to say, I’ve never seen Destination Moon, and I’ve heard the DVD that came out in 2000 is a subpar transfer. Anyone know if there’s a better source for a copy?

Posted By Dr Spyn : April 23, 2013 2:25 pm

To clear up some questions and misconceptions:

jennifromrollam: The real astronauts wore white suits to reflect sunlight to keep from overheating. To distinguish themselves to the film/video audience, one astronaut would have red stripes around their arms and legs.

In DM, the “astronauts” were deformed from acceleration, not gravity [though the two forces are indistinguishable in a closed environment]. The effect of g forces was taken from Air Force centrifuge experiments where subjects experienced 9+ gees. Prone, humans can stay conscious up to 12 gees. Apollo astronauts were submitted to about 3 gees on liftoff, so little or no facial deformation.

To see astronauts/cosmonauts during a real launch, see
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rO7EF5IOEY

Staging of rockets is only necessary due to the energy of chemical fuels. The DM rocket used water as a reaction mass — it was heated through a nuclear reactor. With that much propulsive force, staging and a lunar descent/ascent vehicle is not needed, though as shown in the film, reaction mass was critical. The DMX project attested to the feasibility of a single-stage to orbit vehicle.

BTW, I wouldn’t want to be within 100 miles of Rocketship Luna’s exhaust [see the Air Force Project Pluto for a scary scenario of that type of motor].

Posted By Dr Spyn : April 23, 2013 2:25 pm

To clear up some questions and misconceptions:

jennifromrollam: The real astronauts wore white suits to reflect sunlight to keep from overheating. To distinguish themselves to the film/video audience, one astronaut would have red stripes around their arms and legs.

In DM, the “astronauts” were deformed from acceleration, not gravity [though the two forces are indistinguishable in a closed environment]. The effect of g forces was taken from Air Force centrifuge experiments where subjects experienced 9+ gees. Prone, humans can stay conscious up to 12 gees. Apollo astronauts were submitted to about 3 gees on liftoff, so little or no facial deformation.

To see astronauts/cosmonauts during a real launch, see
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rO7EF5IOEY

Staging of rockets is only necessary due to the energy of chemical fuels. The DM rocket used water as a reaction mass — it was heated through a nuclear reactor. With that much propulsive force, staging and a lunar descent/ascent vehicle is not needed, though as shown in the film, reaction mass was critical. The DMX project attested to the feasibility of a single-stage to orbit vehicle.

BTW, I wouldn’t want to be within 100 miles of Rocketship Luna’s exhaust [see the Air Force Project Pluto for a scary scenario of that type of motor].

Posted By robbushblog : April 23, 2013 7:42 pm

I have been meaning to watch this movie for years. It’s been pretty high in my Netflix queue for quite some time. I should stop adjusting the list.

Posted By robbushblog : April 23, 2013 7:42 pm

I have been meaning to watch this movie for years. It’s been pretty high in my Netflix queue for quite some time. I should stop adjusting the list.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : April 23, 2013 10:15 pm

Dr. Spyn, thank you for a lot of great info.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : April 23, 2013 10:15 pm

Dr. Spyn, thank you for a lot of great info.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : April 23, 2013 10:16 pm

Swac and Rob, the DVD is indeed a poor transfer. Still, I’ve got it and think it’s looks passable. Maybe a great restored one will be available soon but I wouldn’t bank on it.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : April 23, 2013 10:16 pm

Swac and Rob, the DVD is indeed a poor transfer. Still, I’ve got it and think it’s looks passable. Maybe a great restored one will be available soon but I wouldn’t bank on it.

Posted By Jayessell : April 24, 2013 8:51 am

I have the 50th Anniversary DVD and there are some film artifacts.
My main beef is, just after engine cutoff the crew experiences zero G for the first time.
“We’re in free orbit. There’s no up or down.”
“Tell that to my stomach. It says there’s nothing but up.”
BUT…..
I could have sworn what he said actually was:
“It says there’s nothing but up… and out.”
It even LOOKS edited.
Censorship or a badly placed film flaw?
The TCM version is likewise censored.
I may have a VHS somewhere… I’ll check that.

Posted By Jayessell : April 24, 2013 8:51 am

I have the 50th Anniversary DVD and there are some film artifacts.
My main beef is, just after engine cutoff the crew experiences zero G for the first time.
“We’re in free orbit. There’s no up or down.”
“Tell that to my stomach. It says there’s nothing but up.”
BUT…..
I could have sworn what he said actually was:
“It says there’s nothing but up… and out.”
It even LOOKS edited.
Censorship or a badly placed film flaw?
The TCM version is likewise censored.
I may have a VHS somewhere… I’ll check that.

Posted By James Lee : August 10, 2013 11:20 am

Destination Moon is owned by Wade Williams, so sadly we’ll probably never see a restoration.

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