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Destination Moon: A 70th Anniversary Appreciation

Al Jackson is back this morning with an essay examining another old friend, the 1950 film Destination Moon. Talk about fond memories! I first encountered the movie at a birthday party for a bunch of unruly 4th graders, finding the birthday boy absorbed in watching the spaceship Luna enroute to the Moon in an upstairs room while the party went on below. I stayed right there until his mother came up to scold him and bring us both back down to eat cake, dying to know what happened. Since then I’ve enjoyed the film numerous times, especially appreciating the Woody Woodpecker teaching sequence and the ingenious solution to the crew’s problems getting everyone back home. A veteran of the Apollo days and a science fiction fan with encyclopedic knowledge of the field, Dr. Jackson gives us a look at how the film was made and illuminates Robert Heinlein’s connections to the project. Time to pull out my DVD for another look.

by Albert A Jackson

I was two weeks away from age 7 in October 1947 when Chuck Yeager flew the Bell X-1 at Mach 1 over Rogers Dry Lake in California. That really seized my mind; I read what I could about rockets and jets. I built a StromBecker wooden model of the X-1. I finally got a spaceflight book in early 1951, when I was 10: Rockets, Jets, Guided Missiles and Space Ships, by Jack Coggins and Fletcher Pratt. Quite a treasure! I did not see a copy of Bonestell and Ley’s 1949 book Conquest of Space, which would have been a bit overwhelming when I was 10, until about 20 years later.

I remember seeing an article in LIFE magazine, (April 24th 1950), for a movie called Destination Moon [1]. Later there were ads for the film that really caught my eye. There was a movie about a rocket going to the Moon with people in spacesuits. There were even radio ads that I heard. Alas, I was 10 in the fall of 1950, and my family was 2 years away from taking me and brother and sister to downtown theaters. Destination Moon may have come to a neighborhood theater in the spring of 1951 but I did not see the film until the fall of that year at a kiddie matinee. The wait was worth it, for it was a moment of transport.


Destination Moon, or something like it, probably would have been made in the late 40s or early 50s; it pretty much owes its origin to Frau im Mond, the 1929 Fritz Lang film about a trip to the Moon. Willy Ley, who had worked as an uncredited technical adviser on that Fritz Lang film, came to know Lang well. (The technical adviser on Frau im Mond was Hermann Oberth, who Ley knew. Even though Oberth studied in Munich he was from a small town and hated Weimar Berlin. Ley had to shepherd him around and act as a liaison for Lang.) Lang moved to Los Angeles after the Nazis came to power. After the end of World War II, Robert Heinlein moved back to Los Angeles. During this time Willy Ley, who Heinlein knew, would come to LA to visit Lang.

With the end of World War II, Heinlein began to develop a close interest in rockets and atomic power. He made it a personal campaign at the end of 1945 and beginning of 1946 to get the Navy interested in rockets [2, 3]. The advent of the large rocket, the V2, was on Lang’s mind too; he talked to Ley about making another movie about a spaceship to the Moon. Ley put Lang in touch with Heinlein. Lang invited the Heinleins for dinner often in 1946 and 1947. During those years. Lang and Heinlein talked about a lot of things, Heinlein was reluctant to start writing young adult novels, but Lang convinced Heinlein it would be an excellent way to connect with an audience that had an appetite for space flight. So Heinlein wrote Rocket Ship Galileo, which turned out to be a commercial success. Finally, in March of 1948 [2, 3], Lang had Heinlein huddle with him over making a film. At first Heinlein suggested Rocket Ship Galileo, but he and Lang decided they needed a more adult narrative. During this time, Lang spent a lot of time trying to convince a studio to finance a film about a trip to the Moon. None would have it. Heinlein had earlier taken on a Hollywood agent, Lou Schor, because of the need to handle possible radio adaptations of his works. When Heinlein suggested that he and Lang use his Hollywood agent, Lang had a problem with this. This led, by mid-1948, to Heinlein and Lang parting ways, though they remained friends [2, 3].

Screenplay and George Pal

Heinlein now had a ‘Hollywood bug’, likely because he had just come out of a rough financial period. Lou Schor put him in touch with screen writer Alford (Rip) Van Ronkel [2, 3]. After a week of talking, Van Ronkel suggested Heinlein write a treatment of the story. Heinlein did this, and within a few weeks handed van Ronkel a 97 page story narrative called ‘Operation: Moon’ on July 21 1948 [3]. Heinlein may have had an extensive outline in hand from his work with Fritz Lang. Using his novel Rocket Ship Galileo, Heinlein took only the narrative about an atomic powered rocket, a trip to the Moon and a crew of four, now adults (the Nazis on the Moon in the novel were removed). Some of Heinlein’s “The Man Who Sold the Moon” also diffused into the treatment. Within a few weeks, van Ronkel wrote the first draft of the screenplay for the film. Shortly thereafter, Schor arranged for Van Ronkel to be at a cocktail party where he introduced him to George Pal; there he told Pal about the screenplay. At this time Pal wanted to move from his animated “Puppetoons” into full-up film features. Also, Pal’s home studio had lost its financing. Pal was intrigued and had Heinlein and Van Ronkel come to his office for a pitch meeting [2, 3]. They struck a deal; Pal took the project to Paramount, but that studio said no [4].

Heinlein and his wife Virginia moved to Colorado Springs in the fall of 1948. Pal was striking out when it came to finding a studio when the former head of RKO, Peter Rathvon, formed his own production company, Eagle-Lion, and showed interest. He made a deal with Pal for two films, although he considered Destination Moon too speculative, so arranged things so that if it had losses, Pal would make a ‘Christmas Film’ called “The Great Rupert” to cover Destination Moon’s shortfall at the box office. It turned out the other way around! [2, 3]

It took until May of 1949 for Pal to swing this deal. In April 1949 Heinlein finally got paid for the screen story and the rights to Rocket Ship Galileo (even though very little of the novel was to be used). Heinlein also contracted to be the technical adviser (1) for the movie. He insisted that Chesley Bonestell be hired to work on the film [3]. Heinlein and Virginia moved, temporarily, back to LA. There, he worked with the production design crew and director Irving Pichel. He found Pichel to be bright, understanding and in agreement about the story. This was good because Rathvon convinced Pal to take on another screen writer, James O’Hanlon, who rewrote the script even to the point of making it a musical, or at least inserting a musical number! (2) Thankfully almost all of O’Hanlon’s revisions were torn up by Pichel. Shooting was delayed from summer of 1949 to November so that The Great Rupert could be completed, which Pichel also directed. Principal photography on Destination Moon began on the 14th of November, 1949, and ran until roughly the 16th of December.

Image: Robert Heinlein with director Irving Pichel

Heinlein and Bonestell worked out many designs for the film. The space ship, called Luna, was initially submitted by Bonestell, and was the Lunar ship (2) in Conquest of Space by Ley and Bonestell [6], except that Bonestell (maybe consulting with Heinlein) did away with the aft V2-like fins and modified the wings. (2) Art director Ernst Fegté changed the design, keeping the central ogive and moving the wings back, the wings and a strut became part of the ‘landing gear’.

Luna is a beautiful ship and is functional enough. Bonestell made a model of the landing site, the crater Harpalus, and then a 14 foot matte lunar surface painting for the set. Pal’s production crew spent 2 months building the on-set ‘surface’. Heinlein and Bonestell were appalled when they saw it! It looked like a dried lake bed, impossible on the Moon. Pal and cinematographer Lionel Lindon decided that on a relatively small set they needed to increase the depth of field , so the added ‘cracks’. Heinlein went along with this, but Bonestell was never happy with it. Luna’s cockpit had to be designed four times in a back and forth between Heinlein and Bonestell and production design. Amazingly the cockpit was a rotating set [10], quite a feat for 1949, on a budget, (roughly 18 years before Kubrick used one, in a spaceflight movie, Kubrick and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey).

Image: At left is the ship from Conquest of Space; at right is Bonestell’s design for Destination Moon.

The Movie

The movie starts in a block house with stock footage of a V2 launch. This is the only time we see a control room, one that looks pretty good, if simplified. Heinlein was in one when he went to a V2 launch at White Sands, New Mexico in 1946 [3]. There is a ‘motor’ failure, which is a bit kludgy since Dr. Charles Cargraves ‘engine’ is supposed to be a nuclear reactor. There is talk about sabotage but it’s all kind of vague. A technician, Joe Sweeney, is about to run outside but Cargraves (3) stops him.

General Thayer later visits Jim Barnes, owner of an aircraft company, and tells him he suspects the rocket was sabotaged. Thayer wants Barnes to help Cargraves. He also speculates that the next rocket Cargraves builds will have an improved engine powered by atomic energy and could travel to the Moon. Jim is skeptical, but Thayer convinces him that the combined resources of American industry could put a rocket on the Moon within a year.

We have now been introduced to the crew that goes to the Moon: John Archer as Jim Barnes, Warner Anderson as Dr. Charles Cargraves, Tom Powers as General Thayer and Dick Wesson as Joe Sweeney. Pal, as some references say, looked for a cast of actors who were unknown but is not clear why it was B-list wooden Indians (4)! It is not Z- level movie acting but certainly near low B level. Dick Wesson is the comic-relief, an old Hollywood cliché, and it seems Heinlein went along with this. Wesson’s character plays the part of an ‘everyman’ to whom some of the scientific facts can be explained.

At a formal gathering, Jim tries to interest a consortium of industrial leaders in the project, and he shows them a Woody Woodpecker cartoon that explains how space travel could become a scientific reality. Besides teaching some basic physics, the cartoon has mission detail never mentioned elsewhere in the film, namely that when Luna returns to Earth there is some areo-breaking and a landing by parachute [1], with fins down but no full retro rocket landing.

Image: Woody Woodpecker explains rocket flight, and recovery methods on Earth.

General Thayer tells the group it is vital to global security that America be the first country to reach the Moon, warning that a foreign power could use the Moon as a missile base and thus gain control of the earth. Shades of the cold war! The industrialists fall all over themselves to finance the project. No mention is made of just which foreign power he is talking about.

When Luna is finished, Cargraves receives word that the government has denied his request to test it at the construction site, citing concerns about radioactive fallout. (Actually as I will note later, and though Heinlein would not have known it, this would have been an extremely dangerous launch.) Growing public opposition to the project leads Jim to suspect they have been targeted by a subversive propaganda campaign, and he decides to launch the rocket without waiting for permission. The crew is Cargraves, Barnes, Thayer and replacement radio man Sweeney. There is a stressful launch. High-g tests were being done by the Aeronautical Systems Center in 1948. I don’t know if there were photographs of the effects — it was not hard to extrapolate that a 5 g launch would distort the face — but this was a bit overdone in the film, and I’m not sure why Heinlein decided on 5 gs. It is notable that there are no ground control scenes, though indirectly we see what looks like a control center. We see the initial liftoff but not even a portion of the ascent. That could have been due to budget constraints. Almost all the ascent is depicted inside the ‘cockpit’.

Image: Cockpit during ascent. Couches and control panels to the right in the rotating cockpit set.

Once they are in transit to the Moon, the men don magnetic boots, which allow them to walk around in the zero g environment. Zero g had been accounted for in Frau im Mond (though in that film it never appears on screen). Destination Moon seems to be the first ‘full up’ portrayal of freefall. Those magnetic boots were a bit clunky but served their purpose.

Image: Zero g in Destination Moon.

There is a failure of the radar antenna, forcing the crew to put on spacesuits and go outside the ship to repair it. The suits are derived from pressure suits Heinlein had seen at the labs at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard where he worked in WWII. Science fiction writer L. Sprague de Camp, also there, had been involved with this. The suits have a remarkable resemblance to some from 1943 (2a). I also think this is a better airlock in a film about space flight because the one in Frau im Mond is kind of confusing. This airlock is nicely functional.

Cargraves, of all people, loses magnetic contact with the ship and goes adrift in space (it would have been hard to train for this zero-g extravehicular activity on the ground!). He has to be rescued. The outside point of view shots are very nicely done, with some good stop-motion work with miniatures, one of Pal’s specialties. Heinlein noted that the star background was the best they could do in 1949 [10], but it looks good enough.

The ship eventually approaches the Moon, and having to account for rough terrain, they do some translating (shades of Apollo 11!) before finally touching down, though they have used more propellant than expected. This sequence starts with a beautiful outside shot of Luna rotating to a tail-down attitude with the lunar surface below. Attitude control seems to be by ‘gyro’ alone, as it seems no one thought of attitude jets. An auto-pilot is mentioned several times and seems to be in command many times. I am pretty sure all these technicalities are due to Heinlein (2a).

Cargraves and Barnes emerge from the ship to climb down a long row of retractable ladder rungs; there is some good stop-motion work here. The duo claim the Moon in the name of the United States. “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 for the benefit of…all mankind.” The technicalities of just how one would enforce that claim are left hanging in the vacuum.

Image: On the Lunar surface with the ‘cracks’ Bonestell hated. The full sized bottom of Luna.

The crew members conduct scientific tests, with General Thayer discovering there may be deposits of uranium on the Moon. There is some 1/6th-g action in a traverse. I am not sure but this may have been the only low-g demonstration on the Moon in a movie until recent times. Some of this was done with suited midgets on wires using forced perspective on a small lunar landscape set.

Barnes communicates by radio with Dr. Hastings at ‘mission control’ back home (we never see ‘mission control’, or Hastings, the astrodynamics guy back on Earth). Hastings confirms that their difficulties during landing used up too much of their reaction mass. Not clear why it was Barnes talking with Hastings, since Cargraves would have had more technical knowledge.

The earlier extravehicular activity (EVA), during transit, was just a minor mishap; now have a real problem to solve. Hastings instructs them to lighten the ship, and the men strip off nearly 3,000 pounds by removing metal fixtures and discarding all non-essential equipment. When Hastings tells them they must eliminate another 110 pounds, Thayer, Cargraves and Branes each volunteer to stay behind. They are about to draw lots when Sweeney sneaks out of the ship. He urges the others to leave, but Jim devises a way for them to discard the radio and the last spacesuit, thus reaching their weight goal. The ship takes off successfully, and the four men joyfully begin their journey back to Earth. Those high-g couches must have smarted without their cushions! Unlike the Earth launch more of the ascent is shown, and it is not so ‘sparky’, with better exhaust effect. One supposes they got back without having to do an EVA! Earth recovery required only a very small reaction mass (5). (The shooting script, maybe added by O’Hanlon, had scenes of domestic life with Cargraves and his wife at home. These may have been shot and then cut for the final movie).

Image: Lunar descent and ascent in the film.

Luna and Technology

It is quite striking that the spaceship in Destination Moon is single stage to the Moon and back. Heinlein had used this in his ‘kind of Tom Swiftian’ novel Rocket Ship Galileo, and it was one of the few technologies he brought over to Destination Moon from that novel. If one listens carefully when General Thayer is talking to Barnes, he mentions two numbers: an exhaust velocity of 30,000 ft/sec and a thrust of 3,000,000 pounds [1]. Exhaust velocity of 30,000 ft. per second is 9144 meters per second. Heinlein would have known that to do a single stage to the Moon, the delta V budget is 15 to 16 km/sec. Playing with the rocket equation, if one picks a mass ratio of 5 and calculates the exhaust speed, one gets about 9000 m/sec. It also implies an Isp of about 1000. No ordinary chemical fuel has a specific impulse like that. A number of guys at Los Alamos had realized that Isp was attainable with atomic energy. The first mention of an atomic rocket motor, before 1945, may have been Stan Ulam. Many technical reports came in 1945-1948 [14, 15, 16, and 17].

Heinlein knew Robert Cornog, who was at Los Alamos and would have known the skinny on nuclear rocket propulsion. Cornog had probably seen reports by Theodore von Karman and Hsue-Shen Tsien (1945) [17]), as well as Robert Serber (1946) [14], and Cornog wrote a report of his own (1945) [15]. Shepherd and Cleaver were the first to describe nuclear rockets in the open literature in 1948 [16]. Heinlein knew Cornog well and helped him keep a clearance after the war. The same calculation by Willy Ley (early 1949 [6]) is, in a roundabout way, in Conquest of Space.

The reactor in Destination Moon is never described, but it is not the rather funky Thorium one in Rocket Ship Galileo. The word ‘reactor’ is never used; it is usually ‘pile’, and the reactor seems to be a solid core. The reaction mass in the Destination Moon propulsion system is water, which would be very easy and safe to handle. The problem is that one can’t get an Isp of 1000 using water with a solid core nuclear engine. One can — I doubt Heinlein knew this — do it with a liquid core nuclear reactor (5), attaining an Isp of 1000 seconds.

Piecing together clues from the dialog in the screenplay, Heinlein’s novelette and his article in Astounding [10], some people have figured out the size and mass of Luna (5). The ship is 150 ft tall, with a ‘wet’ mass of about 250 metric tons and a dry mass of about 50 metric tons. Luna is a very good extrapolation fix-up from Rocket Ship Galileo, and not a sort of ‘hobby’ ship as in the novel. It is more planned, and put together by a SpaceX-like company without government money.

One element in the film where the government was right — Heinlein would not have known this — is that a liquid core nuclear rocket (5) has a radioactive plume coming off the reactor system which would be a cloud of death. The system would have been extremely hazardous if used in the atmosphere. The order sent to the launch site, which Barnes ignores, was thus correct. Liquid core atomic rocket engines were not proposed until 1953.

Guidance, navigation and control goes under the heading ‘automatic pilot’ in the movie, since we don’t really know, as far as I can tell, what date the flight is made (it looks like 1950). Heinlein makes the extrapolation that the electronics for doing this exists in the story. Note that Werner von Braun worked up The Mars Project in 1948 with the same kind of vacuum tube GNC systems, with no details given.

There is the use of ‘gyro’ attitude control, common to other writers about space flight at the time. Reaction jet attitude control was known in the engineering community but didn’t seem to get into science fiction. Gyro control was a favorite of von Braun also.

When it came to spacesuits (2a), Heinlein had experience with the issue during WWII at the Aeronautical Materials Lab at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where he was a supervisor. L Sprague de Camp was recruited by Heinlein and was studying high altitude pressure suits. The spacesuits in Destination Moon were based on these [24]. I can only recall one movie before Destination Moon, Frau im Mond, that had spacesuits, and they were not really needed there.

Image: Pressure suits in the film on the left; on the right, a design being tested in Philadelphia in 1945.


Destination Moon is the product mainly of Robert Heinlein (6), facilitated by producer George Pal and film director Irving Pichel. Heinlein, when talking about a possible film with Friz Lang, started a reformulation of Rocket Ship Galileo into a more mature narrative. The Nazis (6) are jettisoned, and his ‘treatment’ seems reflected in the novelette he wrote of the same name [13]. After things did not work out with Lang, he wrote a treatment of his conversations with Lang and incorporated some of ‘The Man who Sold the Moon” within it. The ‘screenplay’ is online. It is all dialog, with no scene headings, action or transitions, which is odd, but probably this is just one of several script forms for the movie.

It is not clear what Pal wanted in the screenplay, but he was committed to a sort of docudrama. That’s what made the film an almost Popular Mechanics movie, so to speak. Pichel seemed to go out of his way to give Pal what he wanted. There was outside interference — the owner and CEO at Eagle-Lion, Peter Rathvon, imposed screenwriter James O’Hanlon, who inserted goofy stuff like musical numbers! (7). Pichel threw away all of O’Hanlon’s ‘script-doctoring’; there seems no record of what Pal thought of this, but he sure did not discipline Pichel. (Nor do we know what Rathvon thought of the final film which he was so nervous about).

Heinlein and Ginny returned to LA for film production in June of 1949 and remained until February of 1950. It is not clear if Heinlein advised on any of the post-production work, which was not completed until April 1, 1950. The finished film, if one could see a pristine version, looks great in Technicolor. The budget of almost $600,000 was not generous but sufficient, with hard work, to produce good special effects and production design. Heinlein was paid for the option of Rocket Ship Galileo and paid a portion for the screenplay; also, he was hired as technical consultant. I could not find what he got paid but it was enough for him and Ginny to get a start on a house in Colorado Springs [3].

Heinlein and Ginny returned to Colorado Springs in February, 1950. Patterson states the advertising and promotion of the film had a budget of $1.2 million, which is twice as much as production cost [3]. (I also found a promotion budget of $500,000 for the film [19].) Heinlein did publicity work in LA before he left, even a TV interview show with Pal and Bonestell [20]. Magazine and radio ads were everywhere and created a buzz for the movie [2, 3].

The film premiered in New York on June 27th, 1950. It seems that John W. Campbell was there, but it is not clear if Willy Ley or any of the New York Futurians attended. Bosley Crowther’s review in the New York Times was favorable, finding the film a visual treat; he was not much taken with the narrative drama. Other film reviews of the time were favorable, seemingly because of its novelty. Destination Moon made $5 million on its first run, which is almost a 3-multiplier (or a 5-multiplier if the advertising budget was 500,000), very good by modern standards.

Alas, much of profit was eaten up by coverage of the losses from The Great Rupert. The film would have made more but Eagle-Lion ran into distribution problems due to distribution control by the major studios [19]. Eagle-Lion entered into litigation for several years. Neither Peter Rathvon nor James O’Hanlon’s reaction to the film seems to be on record anywhere. Patterson’s biography does not make clear when Heinlein saw the film. He had to wait two years to get royalties for the first run, a little over $4000, and four more years before he got a small final payment [3].

Destination Moon is a bit of a quirk in film history. The public interest in science and technology was impacted by World War II, the atomic bomb, ballistic missiles, supersonic flight, radar, and the Cold War. Hollywood in 1948 was still in a mode that considered spaceflight crazy Buck Roger’s stuff. It took an independent studio and maverick producer and a science fiction grand master to get the film made.

In a way, Destination Moon was a sort of culmination of John W Campbell’s ambition to move away from pulp SF to something more sophisticated. The film is about as far away from Brass Bras and Bug Eyed Monsters as one can get. Destination Moon’s success did not usher in a great era of space flight movies. Its competitor in 1950, Rocket Ship X-M, was actually a more interesting story although with silly engineering physics and a pulp-fiction Mars story. Pal followed with a film based on the second rate SF novel When Worlds Collide, and we got the totally goofy, pulpish Flight to Mars in 1951.

There were some weak efforts after 1951. Heinlein had a possible TV series called The World Beyond, but the pilot was released as a poorly financed movie called Project Moon Base. Pal’s 1955 Conquest of Space was the last serious space flight movie of the 1950’s. Alas, even though technically pretty good, James O’Hanlon seemed to get his revenge with a sappy story for the film. Then followed a torrent of schlock SF, awful films most of which were not even up to bad pulp standards! (8)

Destination Moon is a unique film. It took 18 years before there was a film with the same factual rigor, and probably more — that was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Destination Moon was influential; I know it impacted my life. When I was 11, I had no idea who Robert Heinlein (9) was. A year later I was reading his young adult novels. Almost simultaneously, in 1952, the Colliers series on spaceflight came out, then the Disney TV series. I could not imagine, at the time, that I was headed toward participating in Apollo and the first lunar landing. Looking back I am still a bit amazed.


1. At one point Heinlein suggested a backup technical adviser, Jack Parsons. That was odd; Parsons only real knowledge was rocket propellants. At that time, there were three guys from CalTech who Parsons knew and they were young and significant experts in spaceflight: Frank Malina, Martin Summerfeld and Hsue-Shen Tsien. Apparently Heinlein met Tsien but not Malina or Sommerfeld. They were all in LA at the time. Malina was an SF fan and expert in the new field of spaceflight, but apparently Heinlein never met him.

Chesley Bonestell did some technical advising on the film.

It is not clear if Pal agreed with Rathvon’s interference. Pal had wanted a documentary-style film and he had it in hand. Adding O’Hanlon meant some money when to him.

Heinlein wrote Willy Ley asking technical questions. Ley was not happy about this. He wrote back an angry letter asking to be paid for consulting. At the time Ley was strapped for money; I also wonder if he was a bit upset that he had been a facilitator of the whole course of events, since Conquest of Space seemed to be an input to the movie too. Heinlein tried to smooth things over but Ley remained unhappy [5]. In the 1954 edition of Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel, Ley has a footnote about Destination Moon, saying he liked the film and praising its technical information [7].

Heinlein also consulted astrophysicist Fred Zwicky at CalTech and Robert S Richardson, an astronomer at Palomar Observatory and an SF author. Richardson did some detailed astrodynamics for Heinlein for Destination Moon.

2. Luna shows up in at least one or two more films, but Bonestell’s modified Conquest of Space ship is copied an uncountable number of times in movies [8, 9]. It shows up next in the 1951 Flight to Mars, and in modified versions on Tom Corbett Space Cadet and other TV shows.

2a. The spacesuits were suggested by Heinlein [3]. Like Luna, they were copied in other movies and TV shows many times. Color coding on uniforms and other similar clothes was not new, but the film used it to good advantage and it enhanced the Technicolor. It’s interesting that years later Kubrick used the same suit colors in 2001: A Space Odyssey, with the commander in red and the 2nd in command in yellow, with blue suits for the other crew and green for the suit in the emergency entrance [8].

Werner von Braun had, in 1948, vacuum tube guidance, navigation and control technology in the mission design for his Mars Project.

3. Cargraves is the only character carried over from Rocket Ship Galileo. The name seems to be a play on the name of Sir William Congreve, a 19th century military solid rocket pioneer.

4. Pal was looking to keep the budget down. It is not clear why he picked these actors or if Pichel could have gotten better performances. Pichel as veteran actor could have doubled as a character himself. Across town, Lippert Pictures made a film to piggyback on Destination Moon’s publicity campaign, Rocket Ship X-M, (where M is Moon). The screenplay by Dalton Trumbo is full of scientific howlers but the story is not as awful as the 1953 Cat Women of the Moon (or other Z movies of the 50s). On a budget of $94,000, Lippert hired good actors like John Emery and Noah Beery, Jr., as well as Lloyd Bridges and Hugh O’Brian. These guys sure would have been an improvement in Destination Moon even with the same dialog.

Heinlein found out about Rocket Ship X-M through a letter from L. Ron Hubbard. Hubbard claimed to be working on that film, though as far as can be determined, he had nothing to do with it [2,3]. How Pal’s film became known to Lippert is not known, although Heinlein had informed Forest J Ackerman about Destination Moon’s greenlighting in May of 1949. Destination Moon seems to have become known to fans in the LA area in early 1949. It is odd that Lippert even put up $94,000 when all the majors were nervous about a movie Moon-trip story.

5. Winchell Chung at the web site Atomic Rockets has the best summary, with some massaged numbers to make the dynamics of Luna work better. I think he is the first to notice that using water as the reaction mass requires a liquid core nuclear reactor [18].

6. Heinlein in his prose was an accomplished storyteller and good at writing dialog. The novelette Destination Moon has better dialog, though not polished. The basic story feels guided by Heinlein’s hand but in a very strict narrative. He wanted a no-nonsense story line and that is what results.

In the novelette Destination Moon, ‘domes’ are found, supposedly Russian. I doubt this was in any version of the screenplay. Nazis on the Moon became a pop-idea that would not die. This is what the film Iron Sky (2012) was about.

7. Pal must have had a weak spot for this; in the 1955 film Conquest of Space, O’Hanlon inserted a televised musical number by Rosemary Clooney to the space station.

8. Ley finally got some money from Pal by selling him the rights to Conquest of Space, which had no film story in it [4]. Conquest of Space seems to have had no technical adviser, although director Byron Haskin is quoted as saying he talked to Werner von Braun a lot [21]. However, there is a picture of Pal, Bonestell, Ley and director Haskins around a large table with Ley expounding on technical issues.

The movie Conquest of Space, aside from the narrative, is an odd mix of von Braun, Ley and Bonestell’s popularization of space flight by way of the Collier’s series, von Braun’s The Mars Project and the book The Exploration of Mars. An April 1954 issue of Collier’s (the last issue of the spaceflight series) had a full realization of the 1948 von Braun Mars Project. Ley and Bonestell were pressuring von Braun to make a book of this. However, von Braun wanted to redesign the expedition, taking the Mars fleet down from 10 ships to 2. The movie Conquest of Space took it down to 1. Most of the rest of the design was from the Collier’s series: The space station, the spacesuits, the orbital ferries and the Mars ship. Somehow some retrorockets got added to the Mars ship; I doubt that was von Braun’s design.
I could not find a single reference that related what Wernher von Braun thought of Destination Moon.

Except for Destination Moon and Conquest of Space, I don’t think a single spaceflight movie in the 1950s had a technical adviser.

9. Reading several essays about Destination Moon it is strange how Heinlein’s involvement is either not mentioned or touched upon only briefly. The Moon flight film would have never been made if it had not been for Ley’s introduction to Lang, after Heinlein broke with Lang, and if Heinlein had not persisted with the story and screenplay in 1948.

10. Arthur C. Clarke had mentioned atomic propulsion in 1945 [22] and had written a novel, Prelude to Space in 1947 [23], which used a nuclear powered two stage vehicle.


1. Destination Moon, screen play by Rip Van Ronkel, Robert Heinlein and James O’Hanlon, from a novel by Mr. Heinlein; directed by Irving Pichel; produced by George Pal and released by Eagle-Lion. (Premiere: June 29 1950).

2. Patterson, William H., Jr. 2010. Robert A. Heinlein in Dialogue With His Century: 1907–1948 Learning Curve. An Authorized Biography, Volume I.

3. Patterson, William H., Jr. 2014. Robert A. Heinlein in Dialogue With His Century: 1948–1988 The Man Who Learned Better. An Authorized Biography, Volume II.

4. Gail Morgan Hickman, The Films of George Pal, A. S. Barnes and Co., Inc., 1977.

5. Jared S. Buss, Willy Ley: Prophet of the Space Age. University Press of Florida, 2017.

6. Willy Ley and Chesley Bonestell, The Conquest of Space. New York: Viking, 1949.

7. Willy Ley, Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel, Viking Press, 1954.

8. Jack Hagerty and Jon C. Rogers, Spaceship Handbook, ARA Press, October 1, 2001.

9. Ron Miller, The Dream Machines, Krieger Pub Co, July 1, 1993.

10. Robert Heinlein, Shooting Destination Moon, Astounding Science Fiction, July 1950.

11. Robert A. Heinlein, Rocket Ship Galileo, Scribner’s, May 1, 1947.

12. Alford Van Ronkel, Screenplay for Destination Moon,

13. Robert A. Heinlein, “Destination Moon,” Short Stores Magazine, September 1950.

14. Robert Serber, “The Use of Atomic Power for Rockets,” Project Rand, RAD-2, July 5 1946.

15. R. Cornog, “Rocket Computations,” NEPA-508, August 3, 1946.

16. L. R. Shepherd and A.V. Cleaver; “The Atomic Rocket 1 and 2,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, volume 7, no. 5 and 6, 1948.

17. H. S. Tsien; “Rockets and Other Thermal Jets Using Nuclear Energy,” Chapter 11 of The Science and Engineering of Nuclear Power, volume II, edited by Clark Goodman, Addison Wesley Press, Cambridge, MA., 1949.

18. Winchell Chung, Luna from Destination Moon, http://www.projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/

19. Bradley Schauer, “The Greatest Exploitation Special Ever: Destination Moon and Postwar Independent Distribution,” Film History An International Journal 27(1):1-28, 2014.

20. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOZyoJKltKI

21. Thomas Kent Miller, Mars in the Movies: A History, McFarland, 2016.

22. Arthur C. Clarke, “Extraterrestrial Relays,” Wireless World October, 1945.

23. Arthur C. Clarke, Prelude to Space, World Editions, 1951.

24. Dennis Jenkins, ‘Dressing for altitude: U.S. aviation pressure suits – Wiley Post to space shuttle,” NASA SP; 2011-595, 2012.

{ 49 comments… add one }
  • Gregory Benford June 12, 2020, 13:45

    Heinlein told me he wanted Harriman from The Man Who Sold the Moon to be in the crew, as Harriman paid for it…and die there, in the film. That would’ve improved the film with a melancholy touch, methinks.

    • Christian G June 12, 2020, 17:19

      That of course, is what happens to Harriman in the short story, “Requiem”.

      • Alex Tolley June 12, 2020, 20:34

        Isn’t that because Harriman is very old and wants to die on the Moon?

  • anon86 June 12, 2020, 14:47

    SF has been around for quite a while.

  • Alex Tolley June 12, 2020, 14:59

    Is it a coincidence that Elon Musk is following much of the theme of Destination Moon, with himself as both Barnes and Cargraves. The retro Starship design is made of steel, has a large cabin, would land on the Moon on its tail and need a long elevator ride for the astronauts to reach the surface (Better than that ladder on Luna!) I am just waiting for the astronauts on that ship to wear magnetic boots and mimic the Destination Moon astronauts. If Musk was allowed, would he want a nuclear engine and give the bird to any agency that wanted to stop him launching?

    As you mention, there are no scenes of the ascent to orbit from Earth. This is good IMO, because so many movies of that era showed the spaceship, then switched to a real rocket (usually a V-2) launch that looked nothing like the fictional ship. I’m still amazed audiences of that time accepted that It looks so awful anytime after the Apollo era.

    I agree, overall this was a standout Sci-Fi movie of the 1950s. It is also very watchable even if the comic everyman character of Sweeney can get a little annoying at times. (But look how much worse it got in The Conquest of Space.) IMO, Russian space movies of that era were so much better in that regard.

    • Al Jackson June 12, 2020, 16:30

      Alex, zero g in Destination Moon was quite matter of a fact. It did not appear much in space films of the 1950s* , I think Project Moon Base had little , I think some in Riders to the Stars and in the 1955 Conquest of Space. I think Tom Corbett Space Cadet had a little but not Space Patrol.
      It was not done well again until 2001: A Space Odyssey (a lot of nit pickers like to point out Ed Bishop goof leaning on the back of William Sylvester chair in free fall). The grip shoes in 2001 were a new idea to me , I am guessing Fred Ordway knew about that idea.
      When it came to the real space flight astronauts just did the easiest thing, ‘swim’. A common sight with the ISS. Now days films do a impressive representation of zero g… Gravity and The Martian.
      Tho on the TV show The Expanse they have it all, when not using thrust-gravity or spin-gravity they have high tech mag boots, however zero g shows up often and sometimes in clever ways that are logical. The Expanse is advanced about zero g , what we know now is that real extended exposure to free fall may never be possible for health reasons so there are a lot of low g environments.
      *There a not a whole lot of out and out space travel films in the 1950s , some silly ones but as SF they are overshadowed by other kinds of SF (most of bad).

      • Alex Tolley June 12, 2020, 20:56

        Are you familiar with Assignment – Outer Space? This Italian movie was released in 1960. Not exactly a good movie, but there are scenes of 0 g and it looks like they tried, to some extent, for realism.

        Project Moonbase has the silliest scene with 0 g – two groups of astronauts sitting perpendicular to each other in teh same room for no apparent reason, other than effect. This turkey of a movie has just a 3.2 imdb rating.

        If Tom Cruise actually gets to make a movie in space as is being touted, we might actually get longer scenes in micro g. I just hope it isn’t “Mission Impossible: In Spaaaaace!” ;)

      • Alex Tolley June 12, 2020, 21:19

        The movie version of The Quatermass Experiment (1953) has a scene of the astronauts in their ship. At one point one astronaut walks up the curved wall, rather reminiscent of the flight attendant in the Aries 1-B moon ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

  • Gideon Marcus June 12, 2020, 15:21

    Thanks for this, Al! Yes, gyros were all the rage in 50s science fiction.

    I caught some of Destination: Moon on KGJ — it was rebroadcast in 1963. I was impressed with out modern it looked.

  • Geoffrey Hillend June 12, 2020, 17:43

    Destination Moon is one of my favorite vintage science fiction films. It was also innovative for it’s time since the the rocket used a radar for controlled automatic landing and also a limited amount of fuel for landing and return, a prediction of Apollo eleven which used a radar to land on the Moon. The technicolor has a glamour which is filmed in three colors that makes the colors really stand out.

  • enrique cordova rodriguez June 12, 2020, 21:24

    An alternate, but still affectionate look at the old flick…

    My local moldy goldy TV station played the old classic film recently, the George Pal production of the science fiction juvenile by Robert Heinlein, “Destination: Moon”. Classic RAH, except there are no nubile young babes or wisecracking geezers bouncing about.

    Sure, the acting, script and special effects fall far short of modern standards, but at least the science is scrupulously accurate, unlike most modern SF films. Heinlein shares screenplay credits on this, and his influence is clear throughout. The physics and rocket engineering principles are excellent, the movie is a good primer for kids on both basic astronautics and Newtonian mechanics. The standard adventure plot is pretty predictable, but the practical details of spaceflight, plus the realities of spacecraft housekeeping, are realistically and thoroughly (if a little tediously) explained. Watch for a delightful animation starring Woody Woodpecker explaining the basics of rocket propulsion and spacecraft navigation. There is nothing here that wouldn’t be of solid educational value to any modern youngster, or many contemporary adults, for that matter.

    Heinlein’s single stage moon rocket is beautifully streamlined and elegantly fletched, a V-2 with graceful, swept-back wings, and he selects a fission reactor and water reaction mass as a propulsion system-not historically prophetic, but certainly well within the scope of mid-twentieth century science and engineering. And get a load of the steam-powered computer that does the navigational calculations! It looks like the analog mechanical cams and gears of a WWII battleship fire control and gun laying system.

    Heinlein’s engineering is first rate, and his politics are certainly predictable. The rocket is funded, designed, developed, built and operated by a consortium of American industrialists, led by a visionary entrepreneur; a square-jawed, let’s-roll-up-our-sleeves-and-get-to-work Steely Dan type. The rest of the crew is from the same mold, with the exception of the obligatory Brooklyn Dodgers fan (ship’s mechanic and proletarian comic relief).

    The political subtext is perfectly in tune with the new Cold War mentality arising in mid-twentieth century America–if we don’t build it before THEY do, we’re screwed. And Washington will never get it right, so Free Enterprise has to go for it.

    The government, of course, wants nothing to do with the project and actively tries to stop it, no NASA visionaries here, the govvies are cowards, penny-pinchers and fools, and even the obligatory evil environmentalists and clueless protesters make an appearance right on schedule. The rocket is powered by a nuke, after all. Saboteurs are out to stop the fledgling US space program as well. The rocketeers outsmart the opposition, and take off prematurely and unexpectedly, hurling their cargo of Capitalism and Plutonium into the void. Its better to apologize later than ask for permission now, right? Where have we heard that before?

    The film is 70 years old, but its still worth watching today. Catch it the next time its on TV, or track it down on the Internet. And keep in mind, fewer years have elapsed between the film and the first moon landing than have slipped past the last moon mission and our present day.

  • Alex Tolley June 12, 2020, 21:30

    Looking back at space movies of the 1950s, it is striking how all the spaceships look like airplanes with rocket engines, if they were launched from Earth. Clearly the V-2 influenced the designs, as did the Bonestell paintings of teh Von Braun designs. The hulls are shiny, and given the use of magnetic books, made of steel, not aluminum. The interior cabins are spacious, rather like commercial civil airliners or airship cabins. All have fins at the rear, and most have wings. Most are also bilaterally symmetrical, like aircraft, with a definite Up-Down orientation.

    Most of these ships made the interplanetary trips and landings.
    A notable exception was Project Moonbase where the moon ship is a classic true non-aerodynamic ship with an open framework and tanks. I this regard, it is more realistic than the Luna that makes the trip to the Moon and back with just a single stage, just like an aircraft.

    • Al Jackson June 13, 2020, 10:07

      Yeah even before anyone had seen a V2 most space ships and star ship in SF magazines of the 1940s were ‘aerodynamic’ in design. Of course for Destination Moon Luna had to launch from and land on the Earth. I remember how startled I was when I saw the von Braun designed Moon Ship on the cover of Collier’s Magazine when I was 12 years old. It did not look right! When I read the article I thought , right!, it goes in a vacuum from Earth orbit to the Moon back to Earth orbit. Quite a revelation to me at 12!
      It is striking that both Heinlein (Destination Moon) and Ley and Bonestell (Conquest of Space) have nuclear powered single stage to the Lunar surface and back. Not rare in prose science fiction at the time but I don’t know of such ships , on the page, where the engineering physics was worked out in the background. Should note that Heinlein had nuclear propulsion in Rocket Ship Galileo and Clarke had written a novel Prelude to Space , both in 1947 (tho Clarke’s novel was not published till later).
      An interesting trivia contest would be, look at the Conquest of Space moon ship above and the Bonestell redesign (not used in the film)… and find how many times that ship or close variations of it occurred in film. It occurs first in Flight to Mars 1951, how that happened I could not find out. Variations are in Tom Corbett Space Cadet , Rod Brown Rocket Ranger, Rocky Jone Space … I never found them all.

      • Alex Tolley June 13, 2020, 16:51

        While the tangible V-2 had so much influence, I would note that the BIS had designed a multistage moon ship where the crew capsule landed on legs much like the LM. The first design was in 1938. So the concept was already there. By the time Clarke wrote his 2nd non-fiction book: “The Exploration of Space” (1951), it was already established that there would be reusable launchers to orbit, dedicated moon ships with legs, and interplanetary ships. All 3 were clearly shown in upgraded fashion in the movie: 2001: A Space Odyssey over 15 years later. (Orion III, Aries 1B, Discovery).

        For reference, I use Spaceship Handbook. It notes that the Bonestell design that was used in “Flight to Mars” was also used in “It! The Terror from Space” and “Missile to the Moon”.

        • ljk June 15, 2020, 11:21

          While I cannot claim exhaustive research on the subject, I noticed a trend in pre-V-2 rocket pulp covers and interior artwork of spaceships looking more like submarines than the pointy silver arrows post WW2.

          Which makes sense if one in those days were looking for a sealed vessel that could carry many people as crew as inspiration.

    • Al Jackson June 13, 2020, 19:52

      Alex, another thing. It is interesting that the Woody Woodpecker info-toon is the only place Earth recovery is mentioned. Heinlein had to be responsible for this but does not mention it in his novelette Destination Moon. The ‘wings’ on Luna are mentioned for aero-breaking (tho that term is not used exactly). I tried to get documentation out of the Heinlein archives , which is available, but seems under current circumstances nobody is at the collection right now.

  • DCM June 13, 2020, 4:46

    I saw it when it came out. I was 5 but totally enthused — even though I was assured nothing like that would be done till at least some time after the year 2000.

  • Mike Serfas June 13, 2020, 10:50

    The mention of Jack Parsons rapidly leads to many of the very strangest corners of American culture. This rabbit hole may be entered via http://www.instinct.org/texts/bluesky/bs2-6.htm … (Wikipedia has an article on ‘Babalon Working’, but its prose is less endearing)

    • Al Jackson June 13, 2020, 18:55

      As I mentioned in the article Heinlein who knew Parsons (by way of L Ron Hubbard) in LA and had recommended him as technical consultant if Heinlein was not available. The best space flight consultant in LA at the time would have been Frank Malina , who was probably at JPL where he was the first director. Parsons and Malina has worked together on rockets during the war. I don’t know if Heinlein ever met Malina or not. Would like to know what the crew at JPL thought of Destination Moon.

  • Marcel Williams June 13, 2020, 18:48

    In 1950, Destination Moon ushered in the first ‘Golden Age’ of science fiction movies.

    But I’ve always suspected that the film’s overt anti-communist and pro-capitalist message may have catalyzed the USSR into putting a lot more resources into developing space travel and space technology in the former Soviet Union. And, of course, by 1957, the USSR had launched the first satellite into orbit in the form of Sputnik.

    • Alex Tolley June 13, 2020, 22:16

      It was made during the “Red Scare” and McCarthyism in the US. There were other anti-Communist movies made then, including Sci-Fi ones with barely hidden politics, such as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956). I seriously doubt the USSR was paying any attention to this movie.

      • DCM June 14, 2020, 11:41

        The USSR paid enough attention to launch their satellite first.
        As for anti-Communist messages, objectivity isn’t usually possible till history is written. Otherwise it comes across as self-hatred or treason, however ridiculous it looks a half century later. Political and cultural struggles — and often religion — are the vehicle of change, hopefully improvement. Deal with it….

      • Al Jackson June 15, 2020, 6:20

        Yeah there had been about 10 Red Scare movies before 1951 with a lot more to come. The USSR is never mentioned explicitly in Destination Moon. Only once is the military advantage of a ‘base’ on the Moon mention , that’s by General Thayer , his closing remarks at the investors meeting.
        There is vague , very vague, remarks about sabotage in the first sequence in the film, which shows a ‘failed’ V2 launch. The only stock footage in the film , which feels awkward since Cargraves was supposedly working on nuclear propulsion.
        Rocket Ship Galileo had Nazi’s on the Moon , a somewhat awkward story element in 1947. This was removed early on in Heinlein’s treatment , probably in discussions with Fritz Lang.
        In Heinlein’s novelette Destination Moon , right at the tag end, someone see ‘domes’ , in the distance, which are taken to the inhabited , apparently, by Soviets. I would like to see what is in the Heinlein archives , because there seem to be other versions of the screenplay and there are annotated scripts.

        • DCM June 15, 2020, 13:16

          An anthology of such films would prove interesting.
          I remember one in which Martian messages that mention Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are claimed by a Soviet spy as his work till the Martians disprove it and he unintentionally blows the lab, himself, and the communication scientists up.
          But what I’m getting at is that large scale expenditures and social action are most often undertaken when people are afraid or see opportunity for profit, preferably both. Otherwise they go about their ordinary lives.
          At least for now we do have people so wealthy they can undertake such on their own (as long as they pay employees enough). Don’t do anything that endangers this.

      • Marcel Williams June 15, 2020, 21:45

        The difference, of course, is that ‘Destination Moon’ was specifically about space travel and a warning to the US audience that if ‘big business’ doesn’t step up and get us into space, the communist could get there first and dominate space and perhaps the Earth from their vantage point in space.

        Also, Destination Moon became so popular with American audiences that Hollywood started to make science fiction films on a regular basis.

        And the USSR paid close attention– to practically everything– that was going on in the US at that time both culturally and scientifically. The Cold War was serious!

  • Robin Datta June 14, 2020, 7:35

    The attraction to science fiction depicting space travel derives at least in part from a desire that such travel will come to pass in real life.

    Any expectation of journeying (or sojourning) of humans for more than a minimal duration away from the home planet will mandate the availability of apropriate biological ecosystems en route, at the destination, or both, to serve the same function as biological ecosystems here on earth which sustain us and of which we are an extension.

    Although lacking glamour, the field needs study and research as dedicated as that for propulsion systems.

  • charlie June 14, 2020, 20:33

    Although it was an extremely good discussion here in the comments as well as the fine details that made up the article and I have to give my hat off to doctor Al Jackson; I have to be honest and tell you that I’m in no way a fan of Destination Moon. Simply put the fact that the movie has such a dry script plot that it does away with any kind of interest for me in the details surrounding how the movie appears in terms of it visual presentation.

    I much prefer rocket ship XM as my type of meat and potatoes; the reason I say that is because the fact that that particular movie is very much a type of B rated situation – cheesiness of the movie plays to its strength. What I mean is that the fact that they throw in the various twist and turns in rocket ship XM makes me a fan of the show. Imagine the plot characteristic where a rocket ship is headed to the moon and just by happenstance it’s diverted to Mars! Then to put the cherry on top, movie devolves into a 1950s lesson on the bomb! Classic!

    • Al Jackson June 15, 2020, 7:53

      One of the most confounding things about Destination Moon, is why Pal hired a cast of wooden Indians! For X-M ,ith a budget of 94000, Lippert hired Noah Beery, Jr. and Lloyd Bridges , not exactly A-List at the time but seasoned Western actors , Noah had been in a few A-List movies before that… Tho the best actor in the lot was John Emery, Pal had a budget of nearly 600,000. It is kind of a puzzle.
      Dalton Trumbo’s X-M screenplay is pretty straightforward , Trumbo seems familiar post apocalyptic scenarios common on the page in SF then (Astounding had a number of them) which shows up on Mars. The film is marred by only one horrible scientific howler, I am surprised Trumbo got some things right, like the Martian atmosphere not requiring full up pressure suits.
      Of course Pal and Heinlein were trying to avoid the Buck Rogers – Flash Gordon image that prevented all the major studios from backing Pal in 1949, Destination Moon is doggedly stogy. Even with a more entertaining Rocket Ship X-M, Hollywood paid little attention to serious space flight SF… and Destination Moon and X-M made good profits for their investments.
      I mean the next year in 51 we got Flight to Mars a rather adolescent pulpy mess. There was When Worlds Collide (rather 2nd rate SF by my lights) … Pal did do the flawed Conquest of Space in 1955 … couple of others before 1960 ,(and a good few SF non spacesuit movies) .. but mostly it was back to BEMs and silly semi-pulp that was not even as good as the pulp prose!

  • ljk June 15, 2020, 10:42

    Excellent review as expected, Al, thank you! Once again I learned so many new details (to me) regarding your subject matter that I did not know before.

    I can see why some folks may not be enamored with Destination Moon in terms of it being the kind of science fiction film most often expected from Hollywood, even a radical branch of the industry. :^) Then again there were similar reactions to another landmark piece of SF cinema that came out just over 50 years ago now – but that did not stop 2001: A Space Odyssey from becoming the trend-setting and cultural-changing legend that it still is.

    DM has my eternal respect for the main reason that many others give it such high praise: It tried so very hard to be scientifically and technologically plausible in an industry which far more often than not caters first to the lowest common denominator. And did so years before the official Space Age with all other genre films before it being variations on Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon!

    Perhaps my favorite part of DM is when they had to resolve getting rid of that final 110 pounds of equipment from the rocket ship Luna or they would never make it home. No deus ex machinas such as benevolent aliens or a supernatural miracle or just plain blind luck. They had to resolve the problem in reality and without the need to sacrifice a crew member. And they did it!

    And with Apollo now over half a century in the rearview mirror of time, we can only imagine where we might be now if corporations in the 1950s had listened to this film’s message about private industry versus government getting us to our nearest celestial neighbor in person. At least it is finally starting to happen in our lifetimes. And yes, I am one of those who definitely believes humanity will only survive and thrive if we start getting off Earth permanently, no ifs, ands, or buts.

    For those who would like to see Destination Moon on the cheap, here it is in full for free on YouTube:


    Do not expect Star Wars, but do expect to learn a thing or two even from a film now 70 years old. Shocking, huh? You even get a Woody Woodpecker cartoon as a bonus!

    • Alex Tolley June 15, 2020, 15:27

      And with Apollo now over half a century in the rearview mirror of time, we can only imagine where we might be now if corporations in the 1950s had listened to this film’s message about private industry versus government getting us to our nearest celestial neighbor in person.

      In the book: Peacetime Uses of Outer Space (1961), chapter 10 by R. Cordiner, Chmn GE : Competitive Private Enterprise in Space makes a plea to avoid government control of space beyond setting a legal framework and providing the necessary priming pump for economic development. He seems well aware that there is going to be a huge national effort to compete with the USSR but warns that it should involve industry and that industry must be free to develop the technologies its government-funded R&D develops.

      His vision is not that of teh freewheeling Barnes in DM, but does presage the problem that seems to have bedeviled space post-Apollo. Only now do we seem to be finally developing the corporate vision for space. Of course, the immediate post-WWII era was far more competitive than it is now, and the problems of oligopoly/monopoly corporate control were perhaps less apparent than it is now. Outland is just one vision of what could happen when profits drive corporate operations to nefarious ends.

      His vision of private industry satellites was largely achieved and continues to do so. But beyond that, very little. The economic development of teh Moon seems as far off as ever, and the outer planets have only been visited by robotic probes. We can perhaps regard this as the needed pathfinding and mapping function that needs to be a public good at this point, but there seems little to interest businesses, and nothing, so far, that could be profitable with today’s cost of spaceflight. Without an economic driver, I fear that any ideas of building a space-venturing civilization will be largely stillborn.

  • ljk June 15, 2020, 10:57

    Quoting from the article:

    “Heinlein also consulted astrophysicist Fred Zwicky at CalTech and Robert S Richardson, an astronomer at Palomar Observatory and an SF author. Richardson did some detailed astrodynamics for Heinlein for Destination Moon.”

    I would love to know what they consulted Zwicky about and what he replied with, if anything? I am surprised in one sense that von Braun never said anything publicly about the film, but they again he may have preferred to promote his own ideas for placing humans on the Moon and Mars. His story version regarding the Red Planet was rather similar to DM in terms of being rather dry and technical. His Mars also had native Martians who for some reason had adopted Roman clothing and architecture. :^)

    As for Conquest of Space, oy vey! Not only is it a mess, it is oftentimes just plain depressing! It is worth seeing as a historical curiosity and for teaching one gratitude that Destination Moon did not end up in like it!


    There were some interesting ideas in CoS, to be sure. It is just too bad they didn’t gel very well. And like Rocketship XM, apparently one can switch a manned space mission from the Moon to Mars with little effort, who knew?

    • Al Jackson June 16, 2020, 8:47

      I never did find out if Fritz (don’t know why I wrote Fred) Zwicky made a contribution or not. He did meet Heinlein , at least once…. Zwicky , at Cal Tech, was spending a lot time at Aerojet , in those days, and would have known a lot of technical stuff, tho , once again, the idea technical guy would have been Frank Malina.

  • John Cozzoli June 15, 2020, 10:58
  • ljk June 15, 2020, 13:12

    Another excellent review of the film to compliment this one here:


    The whole blog has top-notch reviews of science fiction films from an actual scientist, no less.

    • Paul Gilster June 15, 2020, 20:30

      Great catch, Larry. A very interesting site.

  • Mike Serfas June 16, 2020, 6:55

    I should thank ljk for posting the YouTube link – this was a new one for me.

    * The computer at 20 minutes in does indeed impress – I didn’t actually see steam though it has a Babbage ‘steampunk’ look. It certainly appeared to be a real device … what was it?

    * Since Hollywood was pressured to end every film happily, my habit is to look for stealth tragedy, and this one does not disappoint. My take is that a stray sock escaped their bundle, leaving an extra ounce in the airlock. “THE END” appears as the ship is suspended hopelessly in the midst of space. (Similarly, I take “THE END” of Stargate to be the mirthful squishes of forgetful travellers who did not phone home from their nuclear away mission; hence no doubt the need to set the TV series in a parallel universe)

    * The political aspect of the film seems worthy of a deeper analysis than I can make. The McCarthy-era view of organized foreign interference in the press seems absolutely modern to our sensibilities. Also relevant is the heroic image of corporate risk taking. A company will balance the profit they may gain from successful patents and business against the physical and financial risk assumed by their investors, lenders, suppliers, the employees whose last month of wages is not regarded as a preferred debt, and in this case the inhabitants of a new ten-mile national sacrifice zone in Texas. But normally we don’t see heroic CEOs crewing the Deepwater Horizon; those risks also are assumed by others.

  • ljk June 16, 2020, 10:58

    Before four men went to the Moon in a rocket ship circa 1950, there was…

    Woman in the Moon:


    Here is the full film online for free:


    Very interesting summary information came with the film, which I reproduce next:

    Woman in the Moon (German Frau im Mond) is a science fiction silent film that premiered 15 October 1929 at the UFA-Palast am Zoo cinema in Berlin to an audience of 2,000.

    It is often considered to be one of the first “serious” science fiction films. It was written and directed by Fritz Lang, based on the novel The Rocket to the Moon by his collaborator Thea von Harbou, his wife at the time. It was released in the USA as By Rocket to the Moon and in the UK as Woman in the Moon.

    The basics of rocket travel were presented to a mass audience for the first time by this film, including the use of a multi-stage rocket. The film was shot between October 1928 and June 1929 at the UFA studios in Neubabelsberg near Berlin.

    Lang, who also made Metropolis, had a personal interest in science fiction. Several prescient technical/operational features are presented during the film’s 1920’s launch sequence, which subsqequently came into common operational use during America’s postwar space race:

    -The rocket ship Friede is fully built in a tall building and moved to the launch padas launch approaches, the launch team counts down the seconds from ten to zero (“now” was used for zero), and Woman in the Moon is often cited as the first occurrence of the “countdown to zero” before a rocket launch.

    -The rocket ship blasts off from a pool of water; water is commonly used today on launch pads to absorb and dissipate the extreme heat and to damp the noise generated by the rocket exhaustin space.

    -The rocket ejects its first stage and fires its second stage rocket, predicting the development of modern multistage orbital rockets.

    -The crew recline on horizontal beds to cope with the G-forces experienced during lift-off and pre-orbital acceleration.

    -Floor foot straps are used to restrain the crew during zero gravity (Velcro is used today).

    Rocket scientist Hermann Oberth worked as an advisor on this movie. He had originally intended to build a working rocket for use in the film, but time and technology prevented this from happening.

    The film was popular among the rocket scientists in Wernher von Braun’s circle at the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR).

    The first successfully launched V-2 rocket at the rocket-development facility, in Peenemünde, had the “Frau im Mond” logo painted on its base.

    Noted post-war science writer Willy Ley also served as a consultant on the film. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which deals with the V-2 rockets, refers to the movie, along with several other classic German silent films.

    Could this Film be a blueprint for NASA, and other space agencies, as many other people suggest?

    • Alex Tolley June 16, 2020, 13:59

      Unfortunately for all the rocket design realism of FiM, the astronauts walk on the Moon without spacesuits!

      It wasn’t that they didn’t know that spacesuits were necessary, but I suspect the issue was seeing the actors’ faces. This was particularly important in a silent movie. Identifying the characters in DM was solved by using colored suits, and of course, the voice of the actor. For FiM, the movie was B&W and so the color was useless, and there was no hope of using voices to identify the character. Artistically, it made sense to abandon using spacesuits. At least, that is my guess.

      • ljk June 16, 2020, 17:44

        Astronauts were a LOT tougher back then.

      • Al Jackson June 16, 2020, 22:21

        Actually there is a space suit in Frau im Mond and an airlock!
        Maybe Oberth and Ley talked that much sense into Lang.
        However only one person wears the suit and since they land on the far side of the Moon it turns out there is an atmosphere!
        Yeah, Oberth and Ley could not talk Lang out of some German crackpot’s theory that there was an atmosphere on the far side of the Moon. That made some cinematic technical issues easier for Lang.
        Lang wanted his great actress Brigitte Helm (Metropolis) for the female lead, but since he nearly killed her in Metropolis she refused to ever work for him again! (That is quite a story.)

        • Alex Tolley June 17, 2020, 13:53

          Actually there is a space suit in Frau im Mond and an airlock!

          So there are. The spacesuit is a diving suit with air tanks. I love the simplicity of testing the air – just light matches and if they burn, there is O2. Luckily there were no poisonous gases as well. Perhaps a canary might have been a better approach (and used in Clarke’s short story The Other Side of the Sky: Feathered Friend).

    • Al Jackson June 16, 2020, 15:54

      Twice in modern reviews of Destination Moon I have found Oberth listed as technical adviser! I don’t know why.
      Lang ,for Frau im Mond, maybe at Ley’s suggestion, wanted to get a rocket launch by Oberth as part of advertising for Frau im Mond. Lang lured Oberth to Weimar Berlin with an offer from UFA to build him a lab to build a rocket. I mentioned that Oberth hated Weimar Berlin and had to be ‘baby-sat’ by Ley. It is amazing that Oberth, who had done some experimental work, wanted to build a liquid oxygen – coal rocket engine, may be the first hybrid rocket motor. However, probably due to one of his assistants in Berlin, a lab experiment blew up while they were working. Oberth got injured, up and left town.
      Oberth did technical advising on the film, so did Ley, Ley got no film credit for it tho.
      Lang’s initial involvement in Destination Moon with Heinlein I found in only one source. Patterson’s bio of Heinlein makes it definitive.
      It is not odd but sure is a bit strange that the maker of Frau im Mond is kind of sort of the pump primer of Destination Moon. Lang’s dinners with and brief collaboration with Heinlein seems to have generated the whole film idea. As I mentioned, Heinlein was on a bit of a mission about spaceflight, more than by way of his career in science fiction. Plus , I think, Heinlein was looking at Hollywood money , money he could have used. Heinlein did make money from Destination Moon, but became disenchanted with the difficulty of dealing with Hollywood , as many do.
      I looked by can not find out Lang’s reaction to Destination Moon.

  • Henry Cordova June 16, 2020, 22:59

    “… we can only imagine where we might be now if corporations in the 1950s had listened to this film’s message about private industry versus government getting us to our nearest celestial neighbor in person. ”

    We all seem to be waiting for “private enterprise” to lead the way into space, if only the big bad gummint would get out of the way and let Capitalism ‘git the job done’. Well it certainly hasn’t happened yet. And it ain’t gonna happen. Private enterprise is not going to spend any money developing a horrendously expensive technology unless there is at least some kind of a return on investment in sight. And right now, there is nothing comparable to slaves, tobacco, furs or sugar cane in space. And what good did all that Inca gold and Aztec silver do for Spain anyway?

    Even if pure gold (or plutonium!) ingots are neatly stacked up on the moon ready for us to pick up and bring home, it would still cost too much to retrieve them. Mining them is out of the question.

    Only radical advances in technology (or perhaps new and unforeseen commodities or markets) are going to make space attractive for private investment. For example, if new biologies are discovered in the solar system, organisms with biochemistries which can be adapted to new chemical industries; then private enterprise will be all over space travel like ugly on ape. Even then, I suspect government will be paying the insurance bills and subsidizing the infrastructure. Of course, companies will develop space transportation systems for lease to government agencies (as is happening today) or companies will build hardware for government missions under government supervision and specification (as happened in the past). But government will be the leader, not business. Sorry Mr Heinlein, but the moon is not for sale.

    Government’s motives for space exploration are not particularly noble either; military superiority, national prestige, and ideological propaganda worked in the Cold War, but now it seems science is the primary reason we go to space any more, and fortunately the governments of the world have invested heavily in that. Our robot missions to explore the solar system will be long remembered as one of mankind’s greatest achievements. But not one was designed to make a profit. They are not monuments to the market, they are the revenge of the nerds.

    The few areas of the space business that have proven to be of great practical and financial value (earth resources satellites, environmental monitoring, navigation/geodesy and telecommunications) are now firmly in private hands, but they are still powered by strong government subsidies and support and they were pioneered by government funding. The infrastructure that supports these services came from Congress, not Capitalism. But what is the free market offering now? Asteroid mining? Space tourism? Orbital mortuary services? I don’t think so.

    Space exploitation will be tied to government largesse for the indefinite future. Not that private enterprise won’t participate and profit mightily from it, they will and they will deserve to do so. But as in other fields, such as aviation and nuclear power, the taxpayer will take the initial risks. Only the profits will go to the stockholders.

  • Bob June 19, 2020, 19:06

    Destination Moon is my favorite science fiction movie. The spaceship could be made to work unlike all the other science fiction movies I have seen. Star Trek and Star Wars are pure fantasy. Even 2001 is dangerously close to fantasy. Not only that its optimistic view of the future is refreshing unlike today’s relentlessly dark viewpoint of scifi.

  • Theodore J. Williams June 21, 2020, 22:49

    I’ve been reading this fascinating article while listening to Leith Stevens’ score for DESTINATION MOON (the Citadel CD version, originally performed in 1957 by the Vienna Concert Orchestra under the baton of Heinz Sandauer). It was released as an LP by Omega and later by Varese Sarabande—the latter record was produced by my late friend Scott Holton, whose liner notes accompany the Citadel CD. Odd to be hearing this not quite forty hours after LUNA’s “launch” at 3:50 am PDT on June 20—-seventy years ago yesterday morning, as I write this. I sometimes wonder if there will ever be a plaque at Crater Harpalus of the sort which now takes pride of place at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey!

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