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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 2)

Destination Moon, while certainly not one of Robert Anson Heinlein’s most influential works, epitomizes several of Heinlein’s most influential themes. That movie certainly reached a larger and broader audience than any of Heinlein’s previous writings. The studio engaged in a massive publicity campaign for the movie and advertised it in numerous media. Although much of the publicity stressed the technical accuracy of the film in addition to its thrilling drama, the studio also took out ads in magazines aimed at women, such as Stars Parade magazine, which ran an ad asking “Would you let your man take the first flight to the Moon?” That question was probably inspired by the fact that the first cut of the movie featured an extensive subplot about the family life of a scientist working on the project and his wife’s opposition to the journey. The subplot was deleted in favor of more focus on the actual spaceflight. Destination Moon, like many other Heinlein works, was primarily about males, and intended for males.

Although producer George Pal had been so concerned about the success of Destination Moon that he had packaged it with another movie he thought would be a winner, the other movie flopped, whereas Destination Moon reportedly made $5 million at the box office—a nice return on a total investment of around $2 million. According to Jack Haggerty writing in the August 2000 issue of Filmfax magazine, the movie caused a sensation when it was released and fans eagerly lined up to see it. Haggerty noted that Destination Moon was clearly influential on other movies that soon followed it. Robert Wise was just starting production on The Day the Earth Stood Still when he saw Destination Moon and realized that it had raised the bar and he needed to significantly improve the quality of the effects in his own movie. The film also boosted the visibility of George Pal, turning the director of animated short movies into a well-known producer of science fiction films, who soon went on to make When Worlds Collide and later War of the Worlds.

Whereas Destination Moon clearly had much influence on the technical aspects of science fiction filmmaking, it apparently had far less influence on the stories of films that followed.

Haggerty also claimed that Destination Moon had a direct influence on the technical look of later films. For instance, when Stanley Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey over a decade and a half later, he borrowed Destination Moon’s concept of color-coded spacesuits, even going so far as to use the exact same colors. But the film’s influence was not always positive. As Haggerty noted, Chesley Bonestell’s studio backdrop paintings of a cragged lunar surface were apocryphal even in 1950. Most scientists expected that the Moon probably had a much smoother surface, battered by billions of years of micrometeorite impacts. Bonestell painted jagged peaks, however, and this image persisted in numerous movies that followed—several of which Bonestell also worked on.

Whereas Destination Moon clearly had much influence on the technical aspects of science fiction filmmaking, it apparently had far less influence on the stories of films that followed. There have been movies that mimicked aspects of the movie’s storyline, such as the 1967 Robert Altman sleep-inducing Countdown, which also featured a rushed mission to the Moon. Part of this is the fact that Destination Moon strove for reality, and reality is boring, or, at best, is difficult to portray dramatically. The most likely threats to a space mission, such as a software glitch or an air leak, are not visually exciting—certainly not as dramatic as a monster dripping slime from its fangs or killer meteorites punching a hole in the spaceship.

But perhaps more importantly, Destination Moon’s positive view of spaceflight is, at its core, a weak story, and occasionally borders on preachiness. Destination Moon ends with the heroes beginning their risky return trip to Earth. The words “The End” are quickly amended with “of the Beginning.” It was almost as bombastic as films from the previous decade ending with an exhortation to buy war bonds. Destination Moon was a message movie, and that may have limited its influence in some ways while enhancing it in others.

From Ayn Rand to Apollo

In her well-regarded history of the American science fiction film, Screening Space, Vivian Sobchack noted that Destination Moon, unlike other science fiction films before and since, had a decidedly positivist, optimistic message. Whereas many films have depicted space as hostile (Solaris, Alien) and many more have portrayed technology and science as dangerous threats that can easily be unleashed by reckless scientists (Frankenstein, Godzilla), in Destination Moon the scientists, engineers, and military men are heroes, space is not inherently hostile, and the universe is mankind’s playground.

However, Heinlein’s message went beyond mere optimism. Science fiction historian M. Keith Booker noted in his book Monsters, Mushroom Clouds and the Cold War that the film depicted spaceflight as a “distinct victory for free-market capitalism, not only over communism, but also over government in general. The mission is a purely private affair, funded and carried out by enlightened capitalists, who in fact are forced to overcome opposition from the United States government to accomplish the mission.”

Destination Moon influenced the look of other movies, but its ideology did not resonate with later filmmakers. One of Heinlein’s most famous books, Starship Troopers, spawned an array of imitators and critiques. Joe Haldeman’s Forever War, for instance, took Heinlein’s positive view of military service and turned it on its head, demonstrating the absurdity of martial spirit. But Destination Moon appears to have exerted little ideological influence on other movies. Certainly the 1950s were filled with science fiction movies that portrayed invading aliens as surrogates for the communist menace. But this was little more than an updated version of the Frankenstein theme—beware!—than a true ideological message. The Day the Earth Stood Still was affected in terms of technical quality, but it is an open question if the story’s political message was tweaked in any way in response to its predecessor. The Day the Earth Stood Still has a decidedly liberal message: abandon your warlike ways or the alien United Nations will snuff you out.

Heinlein’s message of enlightened capitalists undertaking a space mission using the tools of the free market, and doing so in spite of government opposition, was virtually unheard of after the early 1950s.

A better place to look for Heinlein’s influence is the 1951 movie When Worlds Collide, also produced by George Pal, but without any involvement by Heinlein (although Heinlein’s co-writer, Alford “Rip” Van Wonkel did participate in that film). In When Worlds Collide, Earth is threatened with destruction by a passing planet and a rich industrialist funds an escape rocket to save the last remnants of humanity. The rich capitalist is not like Destination Moon’s heroic CEO Jim Barnes. Rather, he is a selfish, wheelchair-bound ogre whose primary interest is saving his own hide. He never gets off the planet, dying with the majority of humanity, and one of the final lines of the film is that people like him—rich greedy capitalists (and old white men)—are not needed on the new world. The ideologies of When Worlds Collide and Destination Moon are clearly in opposition.

Two other movies of the 1950s were also influenced by Destination Moon: The Conquest of Space in 1956 and Project Moon Base in 1953. Neither is very good, but both strove for greater technical accuracy than some other films, and Moon Base was based in part upon a Heinlein story. Notably in both of these movies the space missions are not mounted by capitalists, but by the military, and indeed by the mid-1950s most popular portrayals of spaceflight depicted military missions. The incredible Disney-produced space films of the mid-1950s also reflect this new belief that space will be explored by the military, not capitalists.

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, President Dwight Eisenhower responded in numerous ways, including creating a civilian space agency to lead space exploration. When John F. Kennedy established a goal of sending humans to the Moon, Apollo was a civilian program and a massive government undertaking.

Heinlein’s message of enlightened capitalists undertaking a space mission using the tools of the free market, and doing so in spite of government opposition, was virtually unheard of after the early 1950s. It does not quite rise to the level of irony, but perhaps the most enduring legacy of Destination Moon was Buzz Aldrin virtually repeating a comment made in the movie about the lunar surface. Aldrin’s comment about “magnificent desolation” was more poetic than the comment in the movie, and was made by a government employee, not a privately-funded scientist. Apollo may have hijacked heroic capitalist science fiction, but there is little evidence that Heinlein’s themes were resonating even in the 1950s. It is therefore remarkable that the themes resonate today, not in other fiction, but in the actions of individuals.

Echoes of a distant Earth

Various rocket societies sprang up around the world in the 1920s, but the modern American pro-space movement really started in the 1970s with the establishment of the National Space Institute and the L-5 Society. The National Space Institute was the establishment institution, founded in part by Wernher von Braun. The L-5 Society had a more freewheeling, even liberal (and occasionally libertarian) message. Both eventually joined together to form the National Space Society, which is generally viewed as the most pro-NASA space activist group.

The loudest parts of the pro-space movement today tend to be the most conservatively libertarian. They have a generally anti-NASA, anti-government, pro-entrepreneurial space message. They view government as the obstacle to action, and believe that enlightened capitalists—bold men with bold ideas—are the way that humanity will eventually settle space. They believe that the rewards, while currently ephemeral, will eventually be realized. And they believe that human survival is at stake. In other words, they have embraced Robert Heinlein’s 1950 vision of spaceflight. This is no coincidence.

A significant number of people involved in the entrepreneurial space business have declared that they were inspired, or at least influenced, by Robert Heinlein. These include Chuck Lauer of Rocketplane Inc., Rick Tumlinson of The Space Frontier Foundation—which received some of its initial money from Heinlein’s widow Ginny—Jim Benson of the Benson Space Company, Sam Dinkin of Space-Shot Inc., David Gump of t/Space, and Peter Diamandis of the X Prize Foundation. Many of them cite Heinlein’s book The Man Who Sold the Moon as their inspiration, and Dinkin’s company is actually modeled on it.

A significant number of people involved in the entrepreneurial space business have declared that they were inspired, or at least influenced, by Robert Heinlein.

The connection between science fiction and spaceflight dates back long before the space age. People like Wernher von Braun openly admitted they were inspired by the writings of Jules Verne. Various publications and documentaries have credited Star Trek with inspiring many people to pursue careers in science and engineering in general and spaceflight in particular.

But the difference between those cases and Heinlein is an ideological one: most of those who were influenced by science fiction were influenced in what to do with their own lives, but not necessarily why to do it, or how to do it. Those who have taken their inspiration from Heinlein have adopted a particular aspect of his early “hard sci-fi” writings: the entrepreneurial capitalist pro-space message. It seems unlikely that Heinlein was the sole literary or ideological influence on them, but rather the one who best codified both excitement about spaceflight, and a belief in the power of the free market.

Heinlein, therefore, has had a positive impact on spaceflight by inspiring people to believe that a small group, with some venture capital, can indeed conquer space. But is there a negative aspect to Heinlein’s message as well? Is it perhaps overly idealistic, even unrealistic? Could it be causing people to believe things that may not be true? Considering the fact that so few authors were inspired by Heinlein to explore similar themes in the decades since The Man Who Sold the Moon and Destination Moon, it is worth being skeptical of a message that has not resonated beyond a very narrow niche of true believers.

Heinlein wrote at a time when human knowledge of space and spaceflight was limited. Heinlein was an engineer, but he lacked data. When he wrote about relatively small groups making their way into space he lacked knowledge about the threat of radiation, or the long-term effects of weightlessness. Indeed, Heinlein and many science fiction authors wrote—even into the 1980s—that the primary effect of weightlessness would be to make it impossible for people to return to Earth, but they rarely mentioned the possibility that this would lead to debilitating problems affecting human life in space. Heinlein and others also tended to ignore or underplay the dangers of radiation. Heinlein did not write about an environment more hostile to human life than anywhere on Earth. He wrote about possibilities, and to some extent he needed to downplay the potential hazards in order to sell books—very few killjoys make much money as authors.

Heinlein’s message was positivist—spaceflight can be accomplished and can be achieved by individuals. But it was also simplistic, possibly even naïve, and certainly not omniscient.

Similarly, Heinlein was an engineer, not an economist. His vision of space was not only physically easier than the reality, but economically easier as well—the businessmen who footed the bill for the mission in Destination Moon only had access to their own capital, not to billions of dollars in government contracts, and this was enough to fund a project that was far more ambitious than any current entrepreneurial space project today. (Although notably the film’s lead capitalist hero, Jim Barnes, argued that once they were successful, the government would reimburse them—capitalism might make it happen in the short run, but everybody hoped that the taxpayers would ultimately foot the bill.) Heinlein also wrote stories that were constrained by the requirements and structures of storytelling, meaning that they had to be simpler than the real world because they had to fit in the pages of a book or the running time of a movie. They had to contain typical elements of fiction. A story about a massive bureaucracy building a moonship is harder to write. It is not only vastly more complicated, it lacks the handful of protagonists that a novel or a movie can accommodate.

Heinlein did not write a textbook for space. He wrote fiction.

Heinlein’s message was positivist—spaceflight can be accomplished and can be achieved by individuals. But it was also simplistic, possibly even naïve, and certainly not omniscient. Faith might be necessary, but it is insufficient for success. Throughout history there have been numerous proposals for technological projects that never succeeded despite the fact that many people at the time believed in them. In the 1950s many people predicted that nuclear powered merchant ships would eventually circle the globe, but the United States built only one, and even nuclear-powered naval vessels remain rare. Similarly, during the 1960s many people expected that supersonic commercial aircraft would circle the globe, but economics doomed them as well. There is no inherent reason why capitalist human spaceflight will succeed.

Heinlein’s early hard science fiction stories, as typified by Destination Moon, were remarkably technically accurate. However, the real determinant of success in the entrepreneurial space field will not be a hard science like physics, but the softer sciences of economics and human behavior. Like the heroes in Destination Moon, the rocket may take off, but we do not know how the mission really ends.