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Project Moonbase scene
Scene from the 1953 movie Project Moonbase. This B-grade science fiction movie was written by Robert Heinlein and Jack Seaman.

Sex and rockets

Very few of Robert Heinlein’s stories ever made it to film or television despite the author’s great popularity in print. Unlike, say, Philip K. Dick, whose novels have been adapted into numerous movies, Heinlein’s Hollywood productions can be counted on a single hand with a few fingers missing. These include Destination Moon, which was clearly influential on other movies, at least in terms of its technical approach to spaceflight (see “Heinlein’s ghost” part 1 and part 2, The Space Review, April 9 and 16, 2007), and Starship Troopers, which became a lousy movie, but was more interesting in its animated television form.

One of Heinlein’s works that made it to the screen but has been long overlooked is the 1953 movie Project Moonbase. It is easy to see why this film has received little attention: it is not very good. Certainly there are worse movies from the same time period—Rocketship X-M immediately comes to mind—and at least Project Moonbase does not feature embarrassing space monsters or scantily clad alien women with spears, and also sought to be more technically accurate than other films. Despite its flaws, the film does feature some important and occasionally unusual precedents, and deserves a closer look from a historical viewpoint.

Despite its flaws, the film does feature some important and occasionally unusual precedents, and deserves a closer look from a historical viewpoint.

Project Moonbase originally started out as a pilot episode called Ring Around the Moon for a proposed television series called The World Beyond. However, science fiction movies became very popular after 1950’s Destination Moon and The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951, and the 1953 World Beyond pilot was soon turned into a movie. Donna Martel, the female lead, explained in an interview that she did not learn that it was a movie until she complained that she was being given extra pages of dialogue and was told that the show had been expanded for cinematic release. It was a short movie, however, running only slightly over an hour long. Unfortunately, the budget does not appear to have been expanded to fit the venue, and the production quality was rather low, with cheap sets and costumes. Unlike Destination Moon three years earlier, it was filmed in black and white.

Heinlein shared writing credit with producer Jack Seaman. Various sources have reported both that Heinlein was opposed to turning Project Moonbase into a movie, and also that he was unhappy with the final result. But according to Bill Patterson, who has written an extensive two-part biography of Heinlein due to be published later this year, there is no evidence that Heinlein was opposed to turning the television show into a movie. Heinlein also apparently did not object to the script, but was unhappy with the quality of the movie.

Another claim made by a number of authors writing about science fiction movies of this period is that very little of Heinlein’s ideas made it into the movie, and that the script suffered from the typical modifications that often occur whenever a factually-based science fiction story is adapted by Hollywood. This even prompted Gary Westfahl to write a 1995 article for the Science Fiction Research Association’s journal Extrapolation, seeking to prove that many of Heinlein’s ideas did end up in the film.

But the claim that Heinlein’s influence is hard to find in the film is rather odd, because there are a number of aspects of the movie that undoubtedly originated with him, and in general the film adheres to Heinlein’s belief in scientifically accurate depictions of spaceflight as typified by his earlier work on Destination Moon. Westfahl makes some excellent observations about the movie that are worth expanding upon, although his analysis does at times seem to over-interpret a relatively shallow film. As with all collaborative film projects, an unanswered question is who should get credit, and blame, for different parts of the story. This includes the film’s most annoying, even disturbing aspect: its bizarrely contradictory approach to gender. Women are shown in positions of great authority, but also unworthy of that authority. The men are the competent ones.

Spies, lies, and spaceflight

The movie starts with a crawl—several paragraphs of explanatory text intended to set the stage for the story:

“In 1948 the Secretary of Defense proposed that the United States build a space station as a military guardian of the sky. By 1954 atom bombs and intercontinental rockets made it a necessity. In 1966 the first orbital flight was made by Colonel Briteis.

By 1970 the space station has been built and free men were reaching for the moon to consolidate the safety of the Free World.

But while this was going on, the enemies of Freedom were not idle—they were working to destroy the space station.”

The first part of this text is based in fact: in 1948 the Secretary of Defense did sign an order concerning the development of a satellite—not a space station. That order ultimately went nowhere, however. Heinlein, like many of his science fiction contemporaries, was also keenly aware of missile and nuclear development and as it turned out, 1954 was the year that the development of the hydrogen bomb actually made the ICBM feasible. That year the Air Force kicked the development of the Atlas missile into high gear.

In fact, the first third of this movie is dominated by people standing around telling each other what is going on and why, rather than anybody actually doing anything.

The tedious textual exposition is immediately followed by a tedious bit of dramatic exposition as the audience is introduced to a foreign spymaster who announces that he has recruited hundreds of people who physically resemble scientists who may be asked to travel to the American space station. After several months, the spy—whose nationality is never revealed—learns that a “Dr. Wernher” will travel to the space station in order to fly on a spacecraft intended to circle the Moon. As luck would have it, the spy happens to have an agent who closely resembles Dr. Wernher and can take his place. The imposter is informed by the spymaster that there are only two ways to destroy the space station, either detonate one of its nuclear weapons, or crash the moonship into it. The fact that both actions would undoubtedly kill the spy is never discussed. The real Dr. Wernher is then kidnapped and his double assumes his identity, traveling to the rocket launch site. We never see the spymaster again.

“Dr. Wernher” is clearly an allusion to Wernher von Braun, although the scientist in the movie does not speak with a German accent and is supposed to be a photography expert, not a rocket engineer. The threat to spaceflight from espionage and sabotage was also a theme in Heinlein’s Destination Moon and that movie also refused to explicitly name the nationality of the threat. Considering that Heinlein was stridently anti-communist, it is odd that neither movie mentions the communist threat. But the spymaster in Project Moonbase was possibly inspired by the case of spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were placed on trial in 1951 and executed in June 1953. Clearly espionage and subversion were occupying the American zeitgeist in the early 1950s and Heinlein did not need to name a specific enemy in order for his audience to imagine one.

After all of this early exposition one would normally expect the action to kick in, but unfortunately there is yet more exposition—in fact, the first third of this movie is dominated by people standing around telling each other what is going on and why, rather than anybody actually doing anything. Bill Patterson, Heinlein’s biographer, suggests that this was primarily due to the fact that the script was shot with television techniques rather than movie standards. Dialogue, he points out, is cheaper to film than action, and television in the early 1950s had not yet switched to multiple cameras for filming. Thus, the director probably had a single camera that he stuck in the middle of the set to film his actors speaking, not moving.

The audience is then introduced to General Greene. He is briefing Major Bill Moore, who along with a co-pilot is scheduled to make the first circumlunar flight. When we first see him, the general is spouting off some bit of meaningless orbital mechanics dialogue intended to signify to us that he is not simply a military man but also a technically trained individual. This is another Heinlein characteristic; rather than simply aggressive soldiers, Heinlein’s military men—and his capitalist industrial leaders—tended to be smart and educated. Certainly in later decades Hollywood resorted to clichés: corporate leaders are usually depicted as greedy and unethical and military men as bloodthirsty (although portrayals of the military in American film have undergone several transformations, whereas the capitalists have not). Heinlein had been a naval officer in the 1930s and worked as a civilian scientist in the Navy rocket program during World War 2, and certainly had a unique perspective on the military.

In the middle of his briefing General Greene receives a telegram from the President informing him that the White House desires that Colonel Briteis, the first person to orbit the Earth, also make the first circumlunar flight. Moore is unhappy to hear this and even more unhappy to learn that he will now fly as co-pilot—he also lost out the first orbital flight to Briteis who got promoted to colonel from captain and now outranks him. He announces that he would rather not fly the mission, but is overruled by the general and leaves the room, presumably to go sulk in his quarters at how unfair life in the military can be.

We are then introduced to Colonel Briteis and for the first time we learn that Briteis is a woman—and in General Greene’s words, a spoiled brat. Briteis has a reporter in tow, a large woman by the name of Polly Prattle, and is joined by the imposter Dr. Wernher. (Alliterative names were one of Heinlein’s rather tedious quirks—“General Greene,” “Major Moore,” “Polly Prattle”—and obviously “Prattle” is meant to be telling for a reporter.) Ms. Prattle, the general, and Dr. Wernher then discuss the upcoming mission, which will start at the space station. Despite the fact that the space station has been operating for several years, Prattle is essentially ignorant about it and asks numerous dumb questions of the general so that he may explain such things as weightlessness, rendezvous, and the upcoming mission—both to her and to the ignorant audience. He explains that the visitors to the space station (the term “astronaut” had not yet been coined) would walk with the assistance of magnetic boots.

Prattle, like the typical clichéd woman obsessed with her weight, is particularly interested in the prospect of weightlessness, and the director milks the irony of a fat woman enticed by the possibility of not weighing anything to its fullest. She asks if she could travel to the space station and General Greene informs her that because it costs over $300 a pound to launch things to the space station, subsequently all passengers must weigh less than 160 pounds, the crude implication being that Ms. Prattle is obviously too fat to meet the weight limit.

America had to reach it first, before any other power, and the country’s leaders would figure out why they had gone after they had reached the lunar surface. It is a surprisingly prescient statement because even today the White House and the NASA leadership struggle to provide a sufficient rationale for a decision—landing on the Moon—that they have already made.

Prattle also asks why the United States is flying a circumlunar mission. Her editor, she says, claims that it is all a waste of money (note that Heinlein wrote this four years before Sputnik and even before the United States started its first satellite program—an example where Heinlein’s prophetic abilities approach omniscience). The general responds with a speech that is also typical Heinlein: “Maybe someday the statesmen will make military bases and military men unnecessary,” he replies. “If so, fine, but in the meantime, if there is going to be a base on the moon, and there will be, it’s my business to see that it’s in safe hands.” He then softens his tone slightly. “Ma’am, the most important thing in the world to me is the military security of the United States, and I’m not the least apologetic about my attitude.”

In Destination Moon, the rich industrialist Jim Barnes explained the need to reach the Moon in remarkably similar terms: it was strategic high ground that had to be conquered simply because it was there. America had to reach it first, before any other power, and the country’s leaders would figure out why they had gone after they had reached the lunar surface. It is a surprisingly prescient statement because even today the White House and the NASA leadership struggle to provide a sufficient rationale for a decision—landing on the Moon—that they have already made.

Dr. Wernher asks about the nuclear weapons onboard the space station and is coolly informed by the general that the topic is strictly classified. Wernher and Prattle are then dismissed so that Greene can speak to Colonel Briteis in private.

What follows is one of the most embarrassing scenes in the entire film. Greene informs Briteis that she will fly with Major Moore. Like Moore, she objects, but unlike Moore, the general treats her with chauvinistic contempt. General Greene keeps referring to Briteis as “Bright eyes.” When she corrects him, he chews her out, telling her that the only reason she flew the first orbital mission was because she weighed only ninety pounds and therefore fit in the spacecraft. He concludes with the most blatantly sexist comment in the entire film: “Any more guff out of you and I’ll turn you over my knee and spank you.”

After that unfortunate scene, Moore, Briteis, and Dr. Wernher are ferried to the space station aboard a rocket—all wearing tee-shirts, felt skull caps, and shorts (when Project Moonbase was shown on the late, lamented Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1990, the robotic Tom Servo quipped that all of the astronauts were dressed “like camp counselors.”). Only the lithesome Briteis is able to pull off the shorts and tee-shirt look, however, and the cameraman makes no effort to avoid showing her legs or derriere. The rocketship’s interior design is similar to the earlier movie Destination Moon. A series of jarringly odd scenes then follow, as we see the moonship crew and other space station occupants walking at odd angles around the space station. In one scene they walk down a hallway as someone passes them “walking” on what is their ceiling. In another scene they sit in chairs mounted at a 90 degree angle to a chair occupied by General Greene.

The special effects are nothing other than a crude split screen, and obviously the filmmakers wanted to avoid the difficult process of hanging their actors in wires, but the scenes on the space station are also classic Heinlein. What they manage to convey, in a manner that is unfortunately more awkward than thought-provoking, is the fact that space is significantly more bizarre than Earth. With no clear up or down, spaceflight will be supremely disorienting, just as the scenes on the station. To make that point, the walls are stenciled with the words “Please do not walk on walls.”

Briteis, Moore, and Wernher then depart the space station in their moonship, which looks like a ball atop a cluster of D-cell batteries fitted with legs. They head off to the Moon and on the way Wernher reveals himself to be a terrible imposter. Not only does he apparently know very little about spaceflight or even the camera systems that he is supposedly an expert about, but he hails from Brooklyn and yet is completely unaware of the Brooklyn Dodgers (this, of course, is the future, when the Dodgers have moved back to Brooklyn). His comments arouse the suspicion of Major Moore, but he is dismissed by Colonel Briteis. Wernher overhears the conversation, however, and pulls a gun on them. As Briteis uselessly screams in panic, Moore and Wernher struggle and somehow manage to switch on the rocket engines. Moore and Wernher are pressed to the floor by the acceleration, whereas Briteis is conveniently plastered to her acceleration couch, and the camera provides long views of her chest, proving that the acceleration is easily compensated by her industrial-strength brassiere.

Somehow, in a manner that is never fully explained, the moonship manages to actually land on the Moon intact. Moore recovers and ties up the spy and then he and Briteis discuss what to do. Briteis panics and then apologizes for “getting all female.” Moore works out a plan: in order to communicate with the space station they need to set up a relay antenna on a distant mountain. He and Wernher will set out to establish the line-of-sight communications link. During their trek, however, Wernher falls off a rock, breaks the faceplate of his spacesuit, and conveniently dies, removing himself from the rest of the story. Moore limps back to the ship and soon he and Briteis are in communication with General Greene aboard the space station.

Greene is shocked and dismayed to learn that they have set down on the Moon. He says that he requires more time to develop a course of action. Later he contacts them to say that they have been reassigned. No longer are they a circumlunar mission, now they have been designated “Project Moonbase.” Gary Westfahl, in his 1995 Extrapolation article, noted that this is akin to declaring a crash site a “base,” and it seems strange that the general is more concerned about what to label the site than the fact that the crew has no means of returning to Earth. Greene informs them that supplies are on the way. He also asks to speak to Major Moore in private.

It seems strange that the general is more concerned about what to label the site than the fact that the crew has no means of returning to Earth.

When he has the major alone, General Greene states that Moore and Briteis are going to be on the Moon for a long time and that Greene and the President agreed that it would appear improper for an unmarried man and woman to be living together in such close quarters. He suggests that things would go better if Moore proposes marriage to Briteis. Moore agrees to do this. During their conversation, Briteis has been listening expectantly. She then announces that she has gotten lonely staying in the storage room of the ship and asks to come up. Later she makes a private request of the General.

In the final scene, Major Moore and Colonel Briteis are married via a long-distance wedding ceremony. They are informed that they are about to be addressed by the President of the United States who then appears—and is a woman. She announces that Major Moore has been promoted two full grades to Brigadier General and is now in command of Project Moonbase—and now properly outranks his wife. Briteis proudly pins a paper star to his chest. After the president ends her transmission, Moore and Briteis—who have been bickering throughout much of the film—finally kiss.

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