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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)

Robert Heinlein died in 1988 at the age of 81. This July marks the 100th anniversary of his birth, an event that will be celebrated with a conference in his hometown of Kansas City. More than any other science fiction writer, and possibly more than any other writer in general, Heinlein influenced how people have conceptualized and thought about space exploration. This should not be surprising, because in many ways it was Heinlein’s goal—he made no secret of the fact that many of his early fictional writing was intended to deliberately advance the goal of human spaceflight. He was also open about his attempts to spread his message beyond the ghetto of science fiction literature and into the mainstream. Heinlein viewed himself as a prophet, and because of this it is worth investigating how much of his teachings still influence the faithful today, and whether or not that influence is positive or negative.

Libertarian sci-fi

Heinlein was one of the early masters of science fiction, along with Issac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. He was also the most openly political of the masters, pushing a libertarian agenda in many of his works. More than either Clarke or Asimov, Heinlein tended to proselytize in his books, frequently having his characters deliver political speeches or making other social commentary, such as his claim that “an armed society is a polite society” (two-word rebuttal: Lebanon; Somalia). He was not exactly Ayn Rand, but he was rarely subtle.

More than any other science fiction writer, and possibly more than any other writer in general, Heinlein influenced how people have conceptualized and thought about space exploration.

Encapsulating Heinlein’s ideology is not easy. Although he advocated conservative ideas in his early works, Heinlein was not socially conservative in his own life. For instance, he was a nudist and frequently described his last wife as an anarchist. Unlike, say, Orson Scott Card, the importance of family is not a theme that appears in many of his books. However, politically conservative themes appear in many of Heinlein’s early writings: anti-communism, pro-capitalism, pro-democracy, pro-American, pro-business, pro-technology, and a positive view of the military. According to Heinlein, the galaxy could be conquered, and would be conquered by Americans, or at least people who thought like Americans. Another theme that occasionally appears in his writings is the strong belief in the capitalist savior, the rich businessman who bucks the system and builds a rocketship. The most obvious example is Heinlein’s 1951 short novel The Man Who Sold the Moon, about a businessman named Delos Harriman who believes so fervently in travel to the Moon that he uses virtually every trick in the book to get people to invest in his dream. Harriman is probably the most symbolic Heinlein character, but there are numerous other examples of Heinlein’s characters doing and saying things that reflected his libertarian beliefs.

However, one of the problems for determining Heinlein’s influence on people who encountered his work is that he explored many themes over the years. His fans as well as those who have studied him generally agree that the quality of Heinlein’s later books was significantly lower than his early works. But even the ideology of his books changed significantly over a relatively short time. For instance, his 1959 book Starship Troopers advocated a society where citizenship and voting rights are only gained after government service, causing many of his critics to label it fascist. At the very least it does not reflect a typical libertarian viewpoint. But in 1961 Heinlein published Stranger in a Strange Land, containing a rather hedonistic message that resonated strongly with the counterculture later in the decade. After that, many of his books abandoned the hard science fiction themes of his early years in favor of rambling explorations of social issues and structures. Occasionally he could still incorporate both his libertarian leanings into a good, exciting story with a strong plot. His 1966 book The Moon is a Harsh Mistress replayed the American revolution, but this time it was a lunar colony declaring independence from Earth. But many of his works in the 1960s and later were more hedonistic and libertine than libertarian—or coherent.

Thus, the challenge for identifying Heinlein’s influence on society and on spaceflight is determining which of his messages resonated, who they influenced, and why. That is a tall order, probably worthy of a serious academic investigation. Arguably, his earlier “hard sci-fi” works were more influential on spaceflight and his latter works were more influential on society in general. So for an exploration of Heinlein’s influence on spaceflight, a good place to start would be by limiting the focus to Heinlein’s early works, at least before Sputnik. Heinlein was naturally most vociferous in advocating spaceflight in the years before spaceflight actually occurred. He wanted to make it happen.

Even this limitation is fairly broad; Heinlein was a prolific author. So, rather than try to cover a large number of Heinlein’s early works, this article will instead focus on the 1950 movie Destination Moon. This is not an entirely arbitrary decision. Destination Moon in many ways typifies Heinlein’s early writings. It was also based on one of his earliest successful books. It was in many ways transitional, converting one of his stories aimed at young boys to a story aimed at a general, adult audience. As a movie, it managed to reach a much broader audience than the readers of his books, at least at the time that they were originally published. Furthermore, Destination Moon was specifically mentioned in a citation presented to Heinlein’s widow accompanying a NASA medal in 1988.

Operation Moon

In the 1940s, after leaving government employment, Heinlein regained his life as a writer and entered the most productive period of his life. He accidentally stumbled into writing novels aimed at young boys for Scribner’s publishing house, books known as his “juveniles.” Although they were written for a younger audience, the books did not speak down to their readers. If anything, Heinlein tended to treat his male protagonists as pre-adults, capable of accomplishing great things through hard work. This form of literature was not unusual, the most notable example being the Tom Swift series of adventure books for boys, but the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery novels had similar socially uplifting themes. Heinlein’s juvenile novels were probably his most influential works and were read by young boys for decades afterwards. Heinlein also realized that he had a captive audience and could use these books to preach to developing young minds.

Heinlein was naturally most vociferous in advocating spaceflight in the years before spaceflight actually occurred. He wanted to make it happen.

In 1947 Heinlein published Rocket Ship Galileo, about a brilliant scientist and his young male assistants who together build a rocket to fly to the Moon. Upon reaching the Moon they discover that they are not the first to land there: they have been beaten to the Moon by neo-Nazis. The book was dated even as Heinlein wrote it, Nazism having been destroyed as an entity and discredited as an ideology. However, communism was not yet the menacing threat that it would soon become.

In 1948 Heinlein went to Hollywood for the first of two attempts to try his hand at screenwriting. He collaborated with German film director Fritz Lang, whose famed 1929 movie Die Frau im Mond (The Woman in the Moon) was most similar to what Heinlein actually wanted to produce—a documentary drama that would accurately portray spaceflight.

Their collaboration did not go well. Lang was not noted for being easy to deal with. But one characteristic of Heinlein’s life was that he apparently did not get along with a lot of people, and ended relationships with many friends and collaborators over time. After ending his partnership with Lang, Heinlein teamed up with a Hollywood writer, Alford “Rip” Van Wonkel. The two produced a lengthy story outline—a “treatment” in Hollywood jargon—and soon teemed up with producer George Pal.

Today Pal’s name is synonymous with early Hollywood science fiction films, but in the 1940s he was primarily known as a director of animated short films. In fact, science fiction film was essentially unheard of at the time, and Pal was not yet a major producer. The term producer can mean many things in Hollywood, but in this case it meant that Pal secured the money to turn the project, then called Operation Moon, into a movie. He did so in part by packaging it with another production that he promised nervous investors was a sure hit—that movie, The Great Rupert, ultimately flopped. Once Pal obtained funding for the production he hired Irving Pichel as the director. He also hired James O’Hanlon to assist with the screenplay to help make the story a little more accessible to the public.

Pal also made two key decisions that inevitably shaped the movie and assured its scientific and technical accuracy. He hired famed illustrator Chesley Bonestell as the film’s science advisor. As a space illustrator, Bonestell was familiar with the features of the Moon and also had a good idea of how to portray them on film. Pal also brought Heinlein on board as the film’s technical advisor and Heinlein returned to Hollywood for several months during production. He had served in the Navy, and worked for the Bureau of Aeronautics as a civilian engineer during World War 2. He was technically trained and well-suited to the job.

Bonestell was apparently one of the few people that Heinlein never had any qualms with and the two men worked well together. Early in production Bonestell suggested that rather than basing the Moon landing at Aristarchus crater, they should instead base it at Herpalus crater. Bonestell argued that from this vantage point Earth would be visible down near the horizon—and thus could be included in shots of the astronauts walking on the lunar surface.

Chesley Bonestell was apparently one of the few people that Heinlein never had any qualms with and the two men worked well together.

However, Bonestell was also responsible for one of the film’s few scientific inaccuracies—the craggy mountains on the Moon. By 1950 many scientists believed that meteoric erosion had smoothed out the lunar surface. Bonestell was certainly aware of this, but craggy peaks and valleys were more dramatic. According to Gail Morgan Hickman’s book on the films of George Pal, Bonestell was not responsible for one of the film’s other scientific inaccuracies, however. The cracked lunar surface featured on the main lunar set was actually the idea of the film’s art director. Such cracking only occurs in the presence of water. But the art director used an old trick known as forced perspective—by adding features to the ground, they could reduce the size of those features according to distance from the camera and on the wall paintings in the background. This made the set look much bigger than it actually was.

Before the movie premiered, Heinlein also started writing a novella titled Destination Moon that was published shortly after the movie debuted (and also appears in the 1992 anthology Requiem). The story has several notable differences from the movie, but parallels the film in terms of theme and ideology. Several character names in the short story also differ from the movie.

All hail the syndicate

The movie starts with a rocket test in the American desert. A scientist named Charles Cargraves and a retired military officer, General Thayer, watch as a V-2 rocket soars into the air and then falls back to Earth and explodes. Cargraves tells Thayer that all of the problems with the rocket had been solved and the only possible explanation for the failure was sabotage. He declares that there is no point in continuing the project because he fully expects the government to cut their funding—failure in rocketry is not rewarded with more money. Cargraves reluctantly says that he plans to reconnect with the family that he’s been ignoring while working on the rocket.

In the next scene, apparently several years later, General Thayer has gone to see a top aerospace executive, Jim Barnes, CEO of Barnes Aircraft Corporation. (The scenes were filmed at Lockheed’s aircraft factory in Burbank, California, and four-engine Lockheed Constellation airliners are under construction in the background.) Barnes is a technically knowledgeable executive who works on the factory floor with his engineers and technicians. General Thayer makes an appeal to him: they need to build a rocket to fly to the Moon. Thayer tells Barnes that a scientist has recently perfected an atomic rocket that can provide the three million pounds of thrust needed to launch it to the Moon.

Thayer explains that the remaining obstacle is not technical, but political. The government won’t fund it in peacetime, but the mission is so important that they cannot ignore it. He adds that no single company could do it. The general wants Barnes to form a group of companies that will both pay for and build the rocket. In the short story, Heinlein refers to this as the “syndicate.”

In the next scene Barnes is meeting with a bunch of executives from various industries, dressed in the regrettable male fashion of the day—short, fat ties and pants pulled up to their armpits. We never find out which industries they represent, but some of the industry leaders are obvious capitalist stereotypes, like the Texan with the grating accent.

Heinlein understood that building a rocket ship was a massive undertaking. A scientist and some teenagers could build a rocket in a book for young boys, but Heinlein clearly understood that no single company could build a real rocket and in the movie the industrialist Richard Barnes does not build the rocket by himself, but enlists the aid of other companies.

Trying to control the Earth from the Moon is like trying to control Tibet from the top of Mount Everest.

Barnes shows the industrialists his schematics for the atomic powered rocket ship. But the filmmakers also realized that they would have to explain the Moon flight to a general audience that would probably not understand even the basics of spaceflight. They developed a clever trick for doing this—a Woody Woodpecker cartoon that Barnes has commissioned to explain spaceflight to his fellow CEOs. Jack Haggerty, writing for Filmfax magazine, suggested that the idea came straight from Frau im Mond.

The industrialists do not seem concerned about the technical aspects of the project. Their concern is its justification. Why go to the Moon, they ask? Barnes replies with an answer that sounds as if it came straight from today’s NASA: “We’ll know when we get there, we’ll tell you when we get back,” Barnes says. But some of the industrialists reply that the decision is not solely up to them, but to their stockholders, who want their money spent wisely. Barnes explains that the mission is not merely a matter of patriotism and national survival, but also capitalistic self-interest. “If we want to stay in business, we have to build this ship,” Barnes says. The government will later foot the bill if they are successful. “There is absolutely no way to stop an attack from outer space. The first country that can use the Moon for the launching of missiles will control the Earth. That, gentlemen, is the most important military fact of this century.”

Heinlein did not invent this justification on his own. Barnes’ explanation was an idea that was clearly in vogue in the late 1940s. Science fiction writer G. Edward Pendray wrote in 1946 that “Control of the moon in the interplanetary world of the atomic future could mean military control of our whole portion of the solar system.” In 1948 Collier’s magazine ran an article titled “Rocket Blitz From the Moon” featuring dramatic artwork of rockets blasting off from the Moon and a massive atomic explosion over Manhattan. Clearly people were thinking of the Moon in terms of strategic high ground. Seven years after Destination Moon, immediately after Sputnik, Air Force General Homer Boushey advocated using the Moon as a missile base. Heinlein’s 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress relied upon a similar theme.

But it is a concept that had only a tenuous connection to reality. It is far easier and more useful to put weapons in Earth orbit than to base them on the Moon. Earth orbit has no gravity well to overcome, and it is much closer to the actual target. Rockets launched from the Moon would take three days to hit their targets, and given the new realities of atomic warfare, they might arrive after the war had ended. Trying to control the Earth from the Moon is like trying to control Tibet from the top of Mount Everest.

Whereas Rocket Ship Galileo featured neo-Nazis, Destination Moon alludes to an unnamed adversary. The protagonists briefly mention enemy agents, but they are never shown and are not part of the plot. The story focuses instead on the ideological issue that Heinlein cared most about: reaching space.

page 2: “the ting won’t woik” >>