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Heinlein on Destination Moon set
Robert Heinlein and his wife on the set of the 1950 movie Destination Moon. (credit: Heinlein Society)

Heinlein’s ghost (part 1)

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“The ting won’t woik”

Soon after the industrialists agree to unite and build Barnes’ Moon ship, the project gets underway in the desert—a site that Heinlein later identified as California’s Lucerne Valley and was actually filmed in Apple Valley, northeast of Los Angeles. Although the filmmakers built a full-scale set of the bottom of the rocket, the movie also employed models for the rocket, which is shown under construction and then later completed and pointing toward the sky.

Barnes, Cargraves and General Thayer work day and night to complete the atomic powered rocket and prepare to launch it amidst growing opposition—which according to Thayer is fueled by manufactured propaganda, as if public concern about radioactivity could only stem from foreign influence.

The rocket must be flown by four men—Cargraves, Thayer and Barnes—and a communications technician who is stricken with appendicitis shortly before launch. In desperation, Barnes turns to the only other qualified technician he knows, Joe Sweeney. Sweeney is from Brooklyn, has slicked back hair and speaks with an exaggerated accent: he pronounces “Earth” as “oith.” His primary interests are beer, babes and baseball. Sweeney reluctantly agrees to the trip because he does not think it will actually happen. “The ting won’t woik,” he says.

“There’s no law against taking off a spaceship. It’s never been done before, so they haven’t gotten around to prohibiting it,” Barnes proclaims in the days before the FAA granted launch licenses.

It is obvious that Sweeney was screenwriter O’Hanlon’s invention. Hollywood has always had two major concerns about science fiction: that audiences will not understand the technology and that the audience will not identify with scientists, military officers, and engineers. So for decades filmmakers have both dumbed down the science and technology and also tried to introduce the “everyman” character in the hopes that the audience will identify with him. Sweeney is the film’s everyman—just like the working class oil drillers of Armageddon or Val Kilmer’s “space janitor” in Red Planet. But Sweeney also serves a useful plot function. Because he is ignorant of spaceflight, the other characters have to explain things to him and, coincidentally, to the audience as well. Frequently the actor is a little too obvious, and at times borders on the clownish.

The team is now ready, but the men learn that there is a court order to prevent the rocket launch. Barnes and Thayer decide to launch immediately, before the government can stop them. “There’s no law against taking off a spaceship. It’s never been done before, so they haven’t gotten around to prohibiting it,” Barnes proclaims in the days before the FAA granted launch licenses.

Thirty-five minutes into the film the audience finally has liftoff. “Can you see Brooklyn?” Joe asks.

Magnificent barrenness and desolation

After the obvious discomfort of high-acceleration during launch, the crew then experiences weightlessness, which has the unfortunate effect of making Sweeney “spacesick.” Barnes gives him some pills to quiet his stomach. The crewmen counteract weightlessness inside the spacecraft by using magnetic boots.

On their way to the Moon the spaceship suffers a problem: the radar is stuck and won’t deploy. Despite instructions, Sweeney has used grease to lubricate the ship’s communications antenna and in the cold of space it has frozen the antenna. The men decide to do a spacewalk to fix the problem. But in the course of their repair effort Cargraves detaches from his tether and floats away. Barnes rescues him using the exhaust from an air tank valve to propel him through space.

Eventually they reach the Moon and in a beautifully filmed shot the rocketship turns around and points its engines toward the surface so that it can decelerate. But Barnes overshoots the landing site and in a scene eerily reminiscent of Apollo 11 nineteen years later, they run perilously low on fuel before successfully settling down on the surface.

They descend to the lunar surface where Barnes announces boldly: “For the grace of god and in the name of the United States of America, I take possession of this planet on behalf of and for the benefit of all mankind.” Dr. Cargraves is a little more poetic: “My first impression is one of utter barrenness and desolation.”

For several hours the men explore the surface and set up scientific experiments such as a large telescope. Unfortunately, they soon learn the bad news from Earth: they have used too much fuel during their descent and must lighten the load in order to return. They dump everything that they can, even cutting portions of their ship with a hacksaw. (Nobody ever mentions how cutting all this material from the crew compartment will affect the ship’s center of mass.) But they realize that they are still 150 pounds short. They conclude that one of the men must stay behind. Sweeney is the only one who does not volunteer, but in the end, he nobly leaves the ship in order to sacrifice himself. Fortunately, Barnes develops a last minute solution—they can dump the radio and the remaining spacesuit. They cut a hole in the airlock seal that they use to drag the spacesuit out of the airlock. The ship rises from the surface and begins the trip back to Earth, but the film ends without the audience knowing if they return successfully. Instead, the screen is filled with a bit of bombast: “This is the end… of the beginning.”

Worshipping at the altar of realism

Destination Moon cost $600,000 to make and nearly three times that amount to market, but was not really a big budget movie for the time. Nevertheless, it managed to achieve a remarkable degree of accuracy on a limited budget. Much of this can be credited to Heinlein and Bonestell. But clearly the entire production crew placed a high value on technical accuracy, apparently because of Heinlein’s proselytizing. Heinlein wrote about the making of the film in Astounding magazine at the time (the article was reprinted in the 1970s in Starlog magazine and again in 1992 in Requiem, along with the Destination Moon short story). Science fiction did not have much of a reputation in Hollywood at the time, but Heinlein said that he told the crew that what made their film distinctive was that it was essentially a blueprint for how man could explore space. He said that after that the production crew became obsessed with making a movie that was as realistic as possible, and they agreed that the story would be subject to the constraints of science and engineering—things that are commonly ignored in most science fiction films. For the production team scientific and technical accuracy became their religion.

Science fiction did not have much of a reputation in Hollywood at the time, but Heinlein said that he told the crew that what made their film distinctive was that it was essentially a blueprint for how man could explore space. For the production team scientific and technical accuracy became their religion.

This was not always easy given the limited state of movie effects at the time. To depict the acceleration of launch, the moviemakers put the actors on couches that could be deflated to make it look as if they were being pressed into the mattress. They covered the actors’ faces with a thin membrane that they pulled down from below, stretching out their skin. But there were also limits to what was technically possible. Today even the best movie wirework still looks somewhat fake, but the scenes in Destination Moon are very crude, in part because the actors’ legs hang down. Heinlein wrote that a technician equipped with a pole and a paint-coated sponge on the end had to paint over parts of the wires that reflected light and showed up in the camera.

The movie depicted some clever thinking about what it would be like to operate in a weightless environment. For instance, the men drink coffee from plastic bags with straws. But sometimes the filmmakers goofed—one of the characters opens up a regular tool chest drawer to withdraw a packet of pills and miraculously the contents of the drawer stay at the bottom.

Heinlein’s direct influence is obvious in many of the technical details. During the war he had worked on designing pressure suits for high altitudes and the scenes involving the spacesuits in the movie clearly benefited from his knowledge. For instance, Heinlein knew how an airlock worked and the airlock in the movie reflects this. In his article about the filming of the movie, however, he claimed that the two-layer spacesuit, with an inner pressure suit and an outer “chafing” suit was not his idea, but required by the costume designer because there was no way to accurately puff up the suit and yet still have the actors climb into it.

Heinlein also explained that the rocketship was technically accurate and that he had calculated exactly what should happen on such a trip to the Moon: “The Luna took off from Lucerne Valley in California on June 20th at ten minutes to four, zone eight time, with a half Moon overhead and the Sun just below the eastern horizon. It blasted for three minutes and fifty seconds and cut off at an altitude of eight hundred seven miles, at escape speed in a forty-six-hour orbit.” Little of the data was presented in the film, but it influenced how the movie looked—“what the audience sees out the ports is consistent with the above. The time at which they pass the speed of sound, the time at which they burst up into sunlight, the Bonestell backdrops of Los Angeles county and of the western part of the United States, all these things match up. Later, in the approach to the Moon, the same care was used,” Heinlein wrote.

But despite Heinlein’s claims, the rocketship was not completely technically accurate. Jack Haggerty wrote in his Filmfax article that the crew could not have flown it to an Earth landing in their ship: they would have been oriented in the wrong direction in their acceleration couches. And there is another example of the constrained thinking of the day—why did they have to fly the entire rocket to the Moon? Why not use a descent vehicle like the one proposed by the British Interplanetary Society in the 1940s?

Expedition Moon Mars

But if there is any doubt about the technical achievements of Destination Moon, one needs only to look at the other movie that was released in 1950 that featured a flight to the Moon, Rocketship X-M. The movie started production around the same time as Destination Moon and was rushed to completion. The filmmakers hoped that the public would see all the publicity about the George Pal movie and go to their film instead. In fact, according to science fiction historian M. Keith Booker, Pal actually threatened a lawsuit, forcing the filmmakers to change their story at the last minute, sending their astronauts to Mars instead of the Moon.

Rocketship X-M depicts a planned mission to the Moon by five astronauts—the X-M stands for “expedition Moon.” Their plan is to reach the Moon to establish a base “to control world peace,” although how they intend to do this is never explained. The five include the assistant to one of the scientists on the ship, who happens to be—gasp!—female. Rather than a gender pioneer, she serves primarily as the focus of sexist comments from her crewmembers.

Destination Moon was filmed in Technicolor, Rocketship X-M in black and white. Rather than an animated cartoon to explain the physics of space travel, the scientist on Rocketship X-M has a blackboard. Instead of multi-layered color-coded spacesuits, the crewmembers are equipped with World War 2 era bomber jackets and portable gas masks.

To the extent that such an awful piece of filmmaking can actually have a message, Rocketship X-M has a shallow and not terribly original message that nuclear war is bad for children and other living things.

However, lack of money was not the film’s primary weakness. The filmmakers did not simply not care about scientific accuracy; they were apparently oblivious to the concept. When the rocket launches into space it travels straight up and then turns ninety degrees to head toward the Moon. The crew compartment in the ship actually rotates—not to produce artificial gravity—but to ensure that the crew’s feet are always pointed in the direction of Earth, which is supposedly where the gravity always comes from. The crew is never weightless. Instead, the audience is told that they merely get lighter the farther they travel in space, and lightweight objects start to float inside the cabin before heavy ones. Rather than suspend the actors on wires, the director merely had a jacket start to float off a chair before a character hurriedly grabbed it.

The film featured what would soon become a tired cliché of early science fiction films: threatening meteorites. But soon the characters face a bigger problem when the ship’s engine stalls—and the ship simply stops in space, like a boat without a motor. It was probably at this point in the production that the filmmakers received the threatening letter from George Pal’s lawyer, because when they fix the engine the spaceship suddenly veers off from the Moon and into deep space and somehow, defying all odds, manages to end up at Mars. Perhaps sensing that even the stupidest audience might doubt such luck, one of the characters explains that the only explanation was that God sent them to Mars.

Soon the ship lands on Mars, which looks remarkably like an American desert. The crew then discovers the ruins of an ancient civilization that obliterated itself in a nuclear war. The survivors of this war, now essentially blind cavemen, then attack the crew, killing some and wounding others. The survivors reach their spaceship and blast off, but they do not have enough fuel to slow down upon reaching Earth and the movie ends just as the ship fatally crashes.

To the extent that such an awful piece of filmmaking can actually have a message, Rocketship X-M has a shallow and not terribly original message that nuclear war is bad for children and other living things. The universe is hostile, God hates us, and we’re all doomed. Have a nice day.

Preaching for the high frontier

Unlike some other movies that followed it in the next five years Destination Moon is generally not considered a science fiction classic like The Day the Earth Stood Still or War of the Worlds. The first half-hour of the film is slow and even when the plot gets going the movie is never a nail-biting adventure. The acting and dialogue were rather stiff and lacking space aliens or a menace to humanity, the story was not very engaging. Nevertheless, Destination Moon is to science fiction film what D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation was to filmmaking in general. Griffith’s movie is universally regarded as racist, but technically brilliant and highly influential on films that followed it. Destination Moon was certainly not racist, but had a definite technical influence on science fiction films that followed it. That influence, and the more abstract issue of the movie’s ideological influence on the pro-space movement, will be the subject of part two of this article.