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:: Saturday, November 08, 2003 ::

Destination Moon

For more than one hundred years, people have been making movies about traveling to the moon -- most of them bad movies. But at the mid-mark of that century, a team of top-flight science fiction film makers thought they might as well tell another story and get the details right.

Naturally, they got the Maestro to write the story.

Adapting his novel Rocketship Galileo, Heinlein spun a yarn in which rugged individualists fight communists, environmentalists and even their own government to reach the moon and establish an atomic missile base so the United States could dominate the Earth.

Now that's what I call a good movie!

Costing over half a million dollars, Destination Moon was a big-budget blockbuster for its day (1950). Audiences' expectations were high: charged by profiles of the film in magazines such as Life.

To get the details right, the production crew required more than two years to complete the film -- long enough for a copycat outfit to sneak Rocketship XM into theaters a month or so beforehand. Nevertheless, Destination Moon wowed the crowds and made a nice return of more than five million dollars and won the year's academy award for best special effects.

To this day, Destination Moon remains one of the most accurate and oft-imitated films in the canon of science fiction cinema. You've seen its spacesuits in countless other films, such as Cat Women of the Moon and Radar Men from the Moon, (and you'll be seeing them again, trust me). But did you also know that the film featured a gimbaled rocket cockpit? Indeed, Kubrick nicked that trick for the interior of his Discovery spaceship (which also borrowed the idea of an atomic engine from this film).

Film purists have long insisted that 2001: A Space Odyssey is the most accurate science fiction movie. But look at its errors. Contrast with Destination Moon. As you'd expect, the Maestro's movie is a more accurate depiction of spaceflight -- an accolade made more impressive when you consider that 2001 benefited from the knowledge brought back by Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. Poor old Heinlein had to guess, but his guesses are more accurate than Kubrick's informed postulations.

Destination Moon is the first (and probably the best) of the realistic rocketship films. And because it made so much money in its time, it established the genre and paved the way for many more movies. If you like science fiction movies -- even the bad ones -- you owe it to yourself to find and watch it. You aren't a true connoisseur of the oeuvre until you do.

Now let's look at the film:

As the film begins, General Thayer (Tom Powers) invites Dr. Cargraves (Warner Anderson) out to the blockhouse. General Thayer's been funding the research and development of Cargraves' new atomic engine. Today is rocket day: the Army has installed the engine in a trusty old V-2 and has started the countdown.

But wait: something's wrong! The engine malfunctions, sending the rocket corkscrewing around in the sky.

The V-2 crashes to destruction, converting years of hard work (and lots of government greenbacks) into what Cargraves apologetically calls "the most expensive pile of junk in history." It's back to the old drawing board for Cargraves.

The results couldn't be worse for General Thayer. Like Billy Mitchell, he's a crusader -- bucking the system as he tries to get he armed services into the space race. For him, the crash is worse than a humiliation: it's the end of his career in the service. But he still won't give up the dream of sending rockets into space.

General Thayer (USA, Ret.) pays a visit to his old friend Jim Barnes (John Archer, father of Anne Archer). Barnes runs his own aviation business, cranking out the Connies for the post-war boom.

General Thayer pitches his proposal to Barnes: build me a rocket to the moon. Barnes isn't having any of that.

Barnes reminds General Thayer that Cargraves' atomic engine exploded, and therefore probably isn't spaceworthy. "Did it blow up, or was it blown up?" responds General Thayer, arching his eye to indicate that the failure might be Communist related.

"Doesn't intelligence know the answer?" queries Barnes. "Oh they know... they know..." quips General Thayer.

Folks that's what I like about this movie. Consider its era: right smack in the middle of the Red Scare. While all the screen actor socialists bravely take the Fifth, Heinlein and his friends aren't afraid to make an anti-communist film. The choice of enemy is deliberate. Consider that Destination Moon is a Man versus Nature movie. The story is the struggle to reach the moon. You don't need a human antagonist, but Heinlein includes one anyway. Good for him! Now, back to the movie:

General Thayer's case is persuasive. Since the atomic engine failed only because it was sabotaged, it needs no forther testing. It can serve as the model for the scaled up version they'll use to power their rocket to the moon. The basic design is sound. All General Thayer needs is a company to build it.

Barnes demurs: his company is just too small for that kind of project. General Thayer presses home, noting that he'd always envisioned a consortium of companies for this endeavor, and Barnes is just the man to lead it.

How to raise that consortium? Barnes calls together a meeting of his competitors and venture capitalists. Cargraves shows off his model for spaceship Luna. The builders are intrigued and have lots of questions about the details of the project.

And that's where the movie could have run right into a brick wall. Again, consider the era: in the late forties people freaked out about reports of flying saucers. Others reported being abducted by aliens from Mars or Venus. Obviously the public wasn't very rocket-savvy. And they were the same folks to which Heinlein wanted to introduce a great deal of astrophysical information. Knowing his audiences weren't rocket scientists, he found the perfect dramatic device through which he could get his viewers up to speed.

A Woody Woodpecker cartoon. No really!

As a film-within-a-film, (another Shakespearian touch from the Maestro) the cartoon short is a satisfying way to illustrate how rockets work. The film doesn't talk down to its audience, rather it talks down to Woody. The short opens as the narrator pitches the prospect of a lunar rocket to the little bird-brain. Woody's skeptical, but by the end of the cartoon he's ready to pony up the money. Yes, the cartoon is heavy on the message, but it's directed at the investors and not at the audience.

Now that the venture capitalists know how to get a rocket to the Moon, they want to know why. Perfectly understandable, and General Thayer explains it to them: the Moon is the ultimate high ground. Whoever can put a fort on the Moon will control the planet.

With visions of juicy defense contracts dancing in their heads, the investors leap at the chance to sign onto the project. Now Barnes can begin to build his spaceship. But first he must calculate!

While Barnes futzes with the figures, General Thayer and Dr. Cargraves take care of the smaller details -- like wardrobe.

There it is: the most famous spacesuit in bad movie history. Who knows how many movies have borrowed it? It's a legend, and you're seeing it in its first appearance right here. I think a moment of silence is appropriate, don't you?

Meanwhile, spaceship Luna's coming together quite nicely. You can see the oxygen tank for the crew and the water tank for the atomic engine. Yep, Luna is a steam-powered spaceship. Is that possible? I'd have gone with the Project Orion approach (it's even more nukey).

Like the spaceship, the plan comes together gradually. For the trip Barnes and General Thayer will be pilots. Dr. Cargraves will tend to his atomic engine. Rounding out the crew is Brown (Ted Warde), radio man. He and Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson) are just finishing the installation of their electronic suite, when Brown's stomach attacks!

Sweeney attributes Brown's cramp to too many green apples. Actually there's another reason, but you'll have to read on to find out.

With almost everything going according to plan, the only way to raise dramatic tension is to introduce obstacles between our heroes and rocket day. Obviously, Brown is one of them. Another obstacle is a group of environmentalists who have petitioned the Atomic Energy Commission to halt the countdown.

Stop right there and name one other movie brave enough to feature both environmentalists and communists as antagonists.

Barnes picks up a newspaper and realizes the full scope of the forces pitted against them. This isn't good old American grass roots protesting, it's organized propaganda (by you know who). Against these odds, our heroes couldn't possibly win. Instead they accelerate the countdown. The next launch window opens in seventeen hours, and that's the new deadline.

As the protagonists calculate into the wee hours, Sweeney drops by with some bad news: Brown's appendix just burst. Now the crew is short one radioman, but Sweeney might just be qualified to stand in. Dr. Cargraves extends an invitation, but Sweeney declines for the best of reasons.

With no other options available, our heroes are insistent: Sweeney must come along. Mind, Sweeney's been skeptical of the project from the beginning. He wonders how a spaceship filled to the brim with water could ever hope of leaving the ground. Playing to his skepticism, the crew point out that if he's right and if the rocket's a failure it won't upset his social calendar. And with that, Sweeney agrees to play along.

As the clock clicks down, another obstacle emerges in the form of a process server, standing at the gate and holding an injunction against rocket day. One of the technicians jumps into his jeep and drives off to warn our heroes: it's now or never!

Of course there's still time for Dr. Cargraves to say good-bye to his wife (Erin O'Brien-Moore). She has all of twenty seconds in this picture At least that's longer than Barnes' secretary.

Narrowly escaping the server, our crew take their stations and initiate an abbreviated countdown. Everybody else clears waaaay back. It's an atomic rocket, after all.

And with that, it's rocket day.

Since this film tries to present spaceflight in a serious manner, it is probably the first science fiction movie to feature actors faking the Gees. At least they're on real acceleration couches, which they'll need because here come some serious Gees (warning: LOUD). Well it is an atomic engine. What did you expect, an elevator ride (as featured in Project Moonbase)?

Once Luna reaches space, Sweeney unstraps and goes weightless. The experience is unsettling, and Sweeney begins to express doubts about the mission. And he gets spacesick (an accurate prediction). Yuk Yuk,

Folks you've seen other rocketship movies. You know they have their clichés. They're here in this film, too. Even if you can't appreciate them for their charm, at least you can admire this film for doing them first and getting them right.

Remember the gimbaled set? Here it is. To simulate gravity, the crew wear magnetic boots (modeled above by Barnes). Naturally they can walk anywhere there's a ferrous metal: floors, walls and ceilings. It's a neat effect, but it does complicate Sweeney's stomach ailment.

Even Woody Woodpecker knows the rest of the flight to the Moon will be one long and boring coast. To keep viewers interested, Heinlein introduces a dramatic episode involving the failure of Luna's radio antenna (as duplicated by Kubrick with his A.E.35 unit). In this film, the antenna's frozen in place because good old Joe Sweeney greased it up back on Earth. If they're to talk with Earth, the crew will have to go on a spacewalk.

(I still love those spacesuits in glorious technicolor.)

Sweeney and Barnes work on the antenna while Dr. Cargraves heads aft to check out how his atomic engine has held up. Dr. Cargraves shouldn't separate himself from the group -- spacewalks are dangerous. But at least he's got his magnetic boots and his safety rope.

When Dr. Cargraves reaches the end of his rope, he lets go and peers into the exhaust bell. And because Luna is titanium hulled his boots don't stick to the surface at all.

Dr. Cargraves shouts for help. But by the time Barnes and Sweeney reach the other end of the rocket, Dr. Cargraves has floated far enough away to be out of range of their lariats. Thinking quickly, Barnes asks General Thayer to bring out an oxygen bottle. Barnes seizes the cylinder and rides to Dr. Cargraves' rescue.

(Note: that's Barnes' radio antenna sticking up behind his helmet.)

With everybody safely aboard, and with the ship's antenna freed, the film advances to Moon day.

Here's where the film really gets eerie: the crew already has a landing site in mind. When they get close, they realize it's just too rocky. Barnes guns the engines to coast out of the danger zone. The maneuver costs them precious reaction mass, and will pose a prominent problem in the film's last act.


There was no doubt in Armstrong's mind about landing in the boulder field. It wasn't essential that he land the LM perfectly upright. A tilt of up to fifteen degrees would cause no particular problem with a launch. However, if he hit the engine bell or one of the landing struts on a large rock, there would be a real chance of sustaining structural damage. Two minutes after pitchover and about two minutes prior to the landing, Armstrong took action. He decided to follow an old maxim: "When in doubt, land long." To do that, he would have to overfly the crater and land well to the west of it; and there was clearly no point - nor really much time - to give the computer enough of an update via the hand controller. The Landing Point Designator (LPD) was designed for fine tuning and what Armstrong needed was a big change. So he switched to manual control, pitched the LM forward, and began to fly it like a helicopter. Within seconds, he had slowed his rate of descent from about twenty feet per second down to about three and flew the LM about 1100 feet west beyond the craters and the boulders
While Armstrong flew the LM toward a good landing spot, his attention was totally focused on the job at hand. Aldrin did virtually all the talking; and he, too, was all business. He read the computer output to Armstrong, giving him their altitude, their rate of descent and their forward speed. Back in Houston, Flight Director Gene Kranz and other members of the support team in the Mission Control Room were watching telemetry from the LM. They did not know about the crater yet - Armstrong wouldn't discuss it until well after the landing - but it was obvious that the landing was taking longer than planned. Indeed, with each passing second there was mounting concern about how much fuel remained. Because of uncertainties in both the gauges in the tanks and the estimates that could be made from telemetry data on the engine firing, the amount of time remaining until the fuel ran out was uncertain by about 20 seconds. If they got too low, Kranz would have to order an abort.
(Post-mission analysis indicated that they actually had about 45 seconds of fuel left, rather than 20. Nonetheless, it the smallest margin of all the Apollo landings. Note, also, that, in the interest of reducing uncertainty, the fuel gauging system was improved for Apollo 12.)
(Apollo 11 Summary)

Life imitates the art of the Maestro, of course.

And speaking of art, Destination Moon depicts the surface of the Moon through a giant Chesley Bonestell painting. That fellow really knew how to paint for science fiction. Click on his name to check out other samples of his work.

Once the rocketship settles into its landing site, the crew can switch off the gyroscopes and flywheels (!) and go outside and explore. Naturally, they'll need to bring along their trusty ladder.

Upon setting foot on the Moon, Dr. Cargraves claims it for the United States (and the rest of the world, when we're feeling friendly). But where's the flag? Can you believe they forgot to bring one? Isn't this a Heinlein film? What gives?

No matter: after staking, Dr. Cargraves calls Earth and repeats his claim. Glad that clears things up. I understand some other countries are thinking of taking the trip. But first they'll have to pay us a toll.

The rest of the crew debark and set up all kinds of scientific gear. Sweeney takes a moment to indulge in a little lunar acrobatics. Wheeee!

While the scientists study the Moon, Barnes heads back into the cockpit to recalculate the remaining reaction mass. He's a bit worried whether they'll have enough to make it back to Earth (spoiler: they don't). Sweeney isn't a scientist and thus he's got time on his hands for sightseeing.

Meanwhile, General Thayer scouts around for stuff he can use to build atomic missiles. Remember: that's the purpose of this trip: to prove you can build an atomic fort from which you can dominate the world. And what do you know: he finds uranium. Well done General!

Barnes finishes his calculations and discovers they don't have enough water for their atomic engine to bring them back home. When he delivers the bad news, the crew has no choice but to strip their ship of everything non-essential.

A trash dump on the Moon: another first for Heinlein! But it's not enough. The ship's just too heavy.

Naturally the crew take hacksaws to the fittings. Well you would if your life were at stake. They even throw out their space suits. Or rather, all but one spacesuit. Sweeney still needs his suit for trash detail.

No matter what they throw away, they're still over their water budget. Checking in with Earth (where others are calculating the same figures), Barnes has really bad news: they're 110 pounds too heavy. And that mass has got to come from somewhere or someone. Horrified at the prospect of being stuck on the moon, Sweeney realizes he'll never get his chance at a glorious suicide.

Or will he?

Since he is wearing the last spacesuit, Sweeney jumps out the airlock and volunteers to stay behind. The others plead for him to return, but Sweeney ain't budging.

With less than an hour before they must launch, our heroes desperately search for a way to save Sweeney. With a Flash of inspiration, Barnes realizes that Sweeney's spacesuit weighs enough to meet the critical margin of mass. If he could only remove his suit and get back into Luna, everybody could go home. But of course that's impossible.

Or is it?

If Sweeney can file a notch in the outer hatch, he could lay a rope into the groove. If the end of the rope sticking outside the spaceship were attached to a weight, Sweeney could close the hatch and pressurize the airlock. Sure there'd be a slow leak, but not enough to harm him. If Sweeney could remove his suit, bundle it up and attach it to the end of the rope inside the airlock, he could be saved. All he'd have to do is exit from the airlock into the cockpit and open the outer hatch. Gravity would tug the suit out the hatch and away from the rocketship.

And what do you know, it works. Now everybody can go home!

As our heroes blast off they face the prospect of a long boring coast home on iron rations. Not an exciting prospect, and the film wisely spares the audience the nuisance. Briefly we see the Earth drawing nearer as the music swells and the final credit rolls.

Or does it?

There: the old "will there be a sequel" cliché. Now it really is over. The end.

Now that I've praised the film and presented it to you, I'd like to discuss its flaws. Oh there are a few technical flaws. Here they are again. And the Moon's surface doesn't look like parched mud at all. That's obvious to us now, but not established in the late forties when Heinlein, Pal and Bonestell made the picture.

The biggest flaw in this film is its story. Even though the Maestro wrote it, it's not above criticism. The story feels more like a documentary than an adventure. Frankly it's not exciting. Perhaps its special effects were enough to evoke wonder and amazement out of a audience in 1950. After all, they won the year's Oscar for their achievement. Today they are less impressive and don't hide an essentially pedestrian tale.

Another fault: there are no female characters of any significance. The dames are notable by their absence. You can see why imitators would (ahem) broaden the diversity of subsequent crews.

Some folks fault the film for implying that anything less than a government agency could fund spaceflight. Oh yeah? Tell it to the X Prize (and tell it to Andy Griffith). Heck, it's not even beyond the means of regular folks to make an authentic Heinlein/Ley film.

Lastly, there are no aliens or ray-guns. Maybe that's not fair for a film trying so hard to be realistic (and come to think of it, Apollo 13 is missing the same). But if the following commenter is correct, Heinlein considered their inclusion:

Heinlein actually published a THIRD Moon-trip story in 1950, a novelette featured in the September issue of `Short Stories Magazine' under the title `Destination Moon'. This version is so similar to the film, it was probably intended as a promotional piece, but it does include one fascinating story element not in the film. The explorers find evidence of previous lunar visitors -- either Russians or aliens, they aren't sure which!

Faults aside, Destination Moon is eminently watchable today. While it's not the first science fiction movie and it's not even the first rocket-to-the-moon movie, it's the one all subsequent films imitate. Whenever bad movie writers pen a lunar trip, they feature the obligatory tropes of Gee-faking, weightless-nausea and all the other clichés first featured here. They must think: if Heinlein did it, so must we. Even (as I illustrated above) Kubrick wasn't above borrowing bits and pieces. Nor was Tintin. And I hate Tintin.

Even if Destination Moon is not a perfect movie (and it certainly isn't), it's head and shoulders above the competition. And goodness: it's less than five bucks (note: I do not vouch for "Bestprices.com." Caveat Emptor.). A small price for an authentic piece of history. Even real space experts agree. You already knew I'd award this treasure:

Two Ears Up (on tiptoes)!
:: Anna 6:21 PM [+] ::

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