My local moldy goldy TV station played an old classic film today, 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 fucked. 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.