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Astounding Science Fiction Magazine

Robert Heinlein detailed his experiences on the set of "Destination Moon", in this Astounding Science Fiction magazine. - Image credit: NMMSH Archives

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“Destination Moon” | This Week In Space History

by michael shinabery
The manned rocket lifted off from the New Mexico desert in 1950 and the space race was on. When the four astronauts stepped onto the lunar surface, America won.

“By the grace of God and in the name of the United States of America, I take possession of this planet on behalf of and to the benefit, of all mankind,” the mission commander declared.

In actuality, man wouldn’t go to the Moon for another 19 years, but the Technicolor film so realistically depicted the future that the website imdb.com praised Destination Moon as “highly informative about basic science facts regarding space travel.”

Screenwriter and science-fiction author Robert Heinlein, born on July 7, 1907, described the production when Astounding Science Fiction magazine hit newsstands the first of July 1950.

an online simulation
Robert Heinlein. Enlarge

“The greatest difficulty we encountered in trying to fake realistically the conditions of space flight,” Heinlein wrote, “was in producing the brilliant starry sky of empty space. In the first place, nobody knows what stars look like out in space.”

The storyline tells of a private United States company that builds the world’s first spacecraft. When the astronauts learn the government intends to stop the launch because of negative “public opinion” over the nuclear-powered rocket, they rush to lift off.

“There’s no law in taking off in a space ship. It’s never been done, so they haven’t gotten around to prohibiting it,” one of the characters argued.

The escape scene takes place 37 minutes into the film; but, to set the space ambiance, the opening sequence shows a launch of a Bumper: a V-2 first stage with a WAC-Corporal missile (an acronym for Without Attitude Control). The rocket appears to be actual footage from White Sands Proving Ground’s Launch Complex 33.

“I arrived in Hollywood with no knowledge of motion picture production or costs, no experience in writing screenplays, nothing but a yen to write the first Hollywood picture about the first trip to the Moon,” Heinlein said.

He and Alford van Ronkel “turned out a screen play from one of my space travel stories,” Heinlein said. They got their script into producer George Pal’s hands, but a year went by before Pal convinced anyone to finance the movie.

On the set, according to Heinlein, “actors, grips, cameramen, office people – became imbued with enthusiasm for producing a picture which would be scientifically acceptable as well as a box office success. … Waits between takes were filled by discussions of theory and future prospects of interplanetary travel.” Cast and crew pored over “Willy Ley’s ‘Rockets and Space Travel,” and “Conquest of Space” by Ley and Chesley Bonestell.

Ley, a native Berliner who escaped Nazi Germany, helped found the Society for Space Travel in his early twenties. He became “a public spokesman for rocketry and space travel over the next half century,” said Ted Spitzmiller in “Astronautics: Book 1” (Apogee/2006). In the July 1948 Astounding he reported on an early V-2 flight at White Sands.

Bonestell, whom The Washington Post (Dec. 31, 1985) called “the acknowledged ‘dean of space art,’ ” was an architect on such projects as the Supreme Court and Chrysler buildings, and the Golden Gate Bridge. In 1938 he headed to Hollywood and painted background scenes for many films including Citizen Kane, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, War of the Worlds, and Destination Moon. On the latter he modeled the lunar landing site.

“I had selected the crater Aristarchus,” Heinlein said. “Chesley Bonestell did not like Aristarchus; it did not have the shape he wanted, nor the height of crater wall, nor the distance to apparent horizon. Mr. Bonestell knows more about the surface appearance of the Moon than any other living man; he searched around and found one he liked.”
Bonestell proceeded to model “it on his dining room table, using beaver board, plasticine, tissue paper, paint, anything at hand,” Heinlein said. “Most of creating the illusion of space travel lay not in such major efforts, but in constant attention to minor details.”

an online simulation
July 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction Magazine. Enlarge

When Destination Moon grossed $5 million worldwide, Hollywood churned out space opera. Thrillers such as Rocket Ship X-M, with Lloyd Bridges, competed with camp, as in 1953’s Cat-Women of the Moon, in 3-D.

The space marketing race was on. Capitol Records released Destination Moon on vinyl, which earned the coveted Bozo Approval seal for kids, according to kiddierecords.com.

“The very first record album of ‘outer space exotica’ was Music Out of the Moon on the Capitol label, and it was arranged and conducted by Les Baxter” in 1947 said exotica/outerspace/destination on google.com. In 1953, Larry Elgart released Impressions of Outer Space, on Brunswick. “Although borrowed from Startling Stories magazine, the artwork on the front cover is as good as it gets, with spacemen floating around a spectacular crater-worn asteroid.”

Harry Revel’s Music From Out of Space hit shelves two years later. For years, a plethora of albums ensued, including From Another World, in 1956. On the cover was “a headshot of a happy woman in a fishbowl helmet.”

Pianists Ferrante and Teicher released “four early albums” with “outer space titles and covers,” the site said. “In late 1957,” after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, Baxter recorded Space Escapade.

Music for Heavenly Bodies, in 1958, had a titillating cover for the era and general public; song titles included Holiday on Saturn.

Around “the time of John Glenn’s actual journey into orbit, RCA Victor released Futura,” the site said. In the 1970s, Isao Tomita recorded, completely electronically, Gustav Holst’s 1914 work The Planets. The website said of Holst’s original composition: “The suite was so far ahead of its time that it still remains today as the best loved and most influential musical depiction of outer space.”

Early TV fare entranced the public as well. The first Twilight Zone episode, “Where is Everybody?,” which aired in October 1959, dramatized a potential astronaut in a sensory deprivation chamber. His mind, which could not cope with the solitude and loneliness he would experience in space, fantasized that he was the sole occupant of a fictitious small town. He slowly went mad.

Michael Shinabery is an education specialist and Humanities Scholar with the NM Museum of Space History. E-mail him at michael.shinabery @ state. nm.us.

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2 Responses to ““Destination Moon” | This Week In Space History”

  1. […] Michael Shinabery writes about the 1950 movie Destination Moon, which portrayed a privately financed mission to the Moon. Robert Heinlein wrote the script and was involved in the making of the movie: “Destination Moon” | This Week In Space History – Moonandback. […]

  2. From the film:
    “I’m serious Jim.

    Oh, you can’t be. It’s too fantastic. The Moon?! Impossible!

    Even with an atomic energy engine, exhaust velocity potential of 30,000 ft/sec?

    What?

    Thrust of three million pounds?”

    Converted to some more modern terms:

    ISP = 933 s
    Thrust = 138,854 N
    Maximum gross mass = 1,191,926 kg

    The vehicle was a single stage to orbit, flying a direct trajectory to the Moon. You need about 13 km/s to impact the Moon from launch, 4 km/s to slow down and land when you get there and another 3 km/s to get back to Earth. A grand total of 20 km/s.

    That ISP is nice, it means the mass of the vehicle on return will be 133,946 kg. This is a mass ratio of 8.9. For reference, the first stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 1 had a mass ratio of about 16.

    So yeah, so long as you postulate the existence of a nuclear engine with higher ISP than any that have ever been built, in a time when none had ever been built, and can imagine that private industrialists could get their hands on the necessary materials to build such an engine, the rest of it is realistic 🙂

    Great flick. All hail Heinlein.

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