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Destination Moon (film): Wikis


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Destination Moon

Destination Moon DVD cover
Directed by Irving Pichel
Produced by George Pál
Written by Robert A. Heinlein
James O'Hanlon
Rip Van Ronkel
Starring John Archer
Warner Robinson
Tom Powers
Dick Wesson
Music by Leith Stevens
Cinematography Lionel Lindon
Editing by Duke Goldstone
Distributed by Eagle-Lion Classics Inc.
Release date(s) June 27, 1950 (New York City)[1]
August 1950 (Nation wide)
Running time 91 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Destination Moon is a 1950 American science fiction feature film produced by George Pál, who later produced When Worlds Collide, The War of the Worlds, and The Time Machine. Pál commissioned the script by James O'Hanlon and Rip Van Ronkel. The film was directed by Irving Pichel, was shot in Technicolor and was distributed in the USA by Eagle-Lion Classics.

It was the first major science-fiction film produced in the United States dealing seriously with the prospect, problems and technology of space travel. This movie was not the first such to hit the screens, however; Rocketship X-M stole its thunder.

The eminent science-fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein contributed significantly to the script and served as a technical adviser. Heinlein also published a novella of the same name based on the screenplay about the same time as the release of the film.



Four American astronauts blast off from the New Mexico desert and fly to the Moon. They land after difficulties that cause more fuel to be used than anticipated. Consequently, the crew must race against time to lighten the ship for a successful return to Earth.

The film features the premise that US private industry will finance and manufacture the first spacecraft to reach the moon, given the Soviet threat at the time, and then the US government will bring itself to buy or lease the technology. Visionary industrialists are shown cooperating to support the venture.


The film was promoted through an unprecedented onslaught of publicity in the print media. Seven years before Sputnik, 19 years before the actual moon landing, the movie clearly spells out a rationale for the space race: unnamed enemies (clearly understood at the time to be the Soviets) are sabotaging the American space program, and unless the West beats them to the moon, they will establish a strategic advantage to conquer the world.

Destination Moon includes an animated segment of Woody Woodpecker illustrating the basics of space flight. The segment serves to educate not only certain characters in the story, but the audience as well. As a narrative device, this technique has been employed in subsequent films, such as Jurassic Park.

The film shows the rocket being constructed in situ in the desert, and Lockheed aircraft plant in Southern California is shown with workers examining a model of the nuclear spacecraft. Transitional sequences show Lockheed Constellations being assembled. The fictional rocket uses nuclear thermal propulsion, a method that has not been employed in actual rocket launches to date.

The sets and costumes were re-used in films subsequently, and even appear in the second episode of The Time Tunnel. Both Destination Moon and Rocketship X-M contain a polemical element, but with almost diametrically opposed messages: where Rocketship X-M contains a seriously intended anti-nuclear message, Destination Moon has a nuclear-powered spacecraft taking off in defiance of a court order, and depicts the court order as inspired by irrational fear. Once on the moon, the crew find evidence that the moon is a source of uranium.

A relationship between the film and Heinlein's novel Rocket Ship Galileo exists. In the novel, the astronauts are high school boys led by an older scientist, the enemies are the Nazis rather than the Soviets, and the emphasis is on conflict with them. In the movie, sabotage is only vaguely hinted at, the concept of a space race is introduced, the voyage is a massive industrial undertaking, and the plot revolves around the dangers of the voyage. A common element in both stories is that the rocket takes off in defiance of a court order. The movie is in fact more similar to Heinlein's novella The Man Who Sold the Moon, which according to its copyright date was written by 1949, although it was not published until 1951, the year after Destination Moon premiered.

The matte and scene paintings for Destination Moon were created by the famous astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell. Pál also employed Bonestell for work on When Worlds Collide from the novel by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer; Conquest of Space, which in turn was based on the book by Willy Ley and Bonestell; and The War of the Worlds, notably the opening sequence featuring cleverly animated astronomical paintings of the planets by Bonestell.


Episode 12 of the Dimension X radio series was called Destination Moon and was based on Heinlein's input to the script of the movie. During the broadcast, the program was interrupted for a news bulletin announcing that North Korea had declared war on South Korea, marking the start of the Korean War.[2]

A highly condensed version of the story was released on a 78 rpm disk by Capitol Records in 1950 as part of the "Bozo Approved" series, under the title of Destination Moon (Adapted From The George Pal Production by Charles Palmer)[3]. The narrator was Tom Reddy; Billy May composed incidental and background music. The story took considerable liberties with the film's plot and characters, though the general shape of the story remains.

Foreshadowing of Apollo and other space milestones

Much of the technology depicted (such as nuclear propulsion and single-stage rockets) and other aspects like industry-driven project development vs. government driven, contrast with the eventual Apollo and Soviet Luna programs. However, in many aspects, the movie predicted elements of the Apollo Lunar missions and other first space flights:

  • The ship's propulsion system wasn't constantly firing on its trip to the moon as many other space ships were depicted in most science fiction movies at the time. It correctly depicted the ship's engines firing on lifting off but then shutting down its engine for the "Free Orbit" as it was called when propulsion wasn't required any longer to maintain flight. Then the ship orbited once before firing again for the Trans Lunar Injection (TLI) burn and shutting down once again to "coast" to the moon. Then the craft turns 180 degrees and using its engine to break its momentum and land on the lunar surface. This is basically the same procedure the real life lunar missions would use 18 years later beginning in 1968 with Apollo 8 (and in unmanned lunar probes before hand).[4]
  • While there were none during the actual moon missions (except for the actual walks on the moon), in the movie the astronauts "space walked" performing an Extra-vehicular activity (EVA) when they tried to free the radio antenna so it could deploy and contact Earth. The Flight Engineer Joe Sweeney (played by Dick Wesson) mistakenly used grease to lubricate the antenna not realizing it would freeze solid in the near absolute zero cold of space. They correctly showed the use of tether life lines to secure themselves to the ship. This foreshadowed the first spacewalk by Soviet cosmonaut Alexey Leonov on March 18, 1965 from his Voskhod 2 capsule.[5] One still fictional but plausible element in the movie was the use of magnetic boots both inside and outside the ship to simulate the effect of gravity.
  • When one of the crew members became untethered while examing the rocket engines, he floated away from the ship. The mission commander had to improvise a rescue using a large oxygen tank as a reaction jet to retrieve the stray astronaut. This foreshadowed the first untethered spacewalk and the use of Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) in some Space Shuttle flights beginning on February 7, 1984 when American astronaut Bruce McCandless II first used one during Challenger mission STS-41-B.[6]
  • Like in real life 19 years later in 1969 the ship had to miss its original designated landing sight. In real life Neil Armstrong had to manually scout for an alternative landing spot after it had to miss its landing site the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) Eagle's computer was sending it to. The original site was a boulder field and Armstrong had to take control from the automatic pilot and fly the ship, looking for a safer landing spot, flying the LEM over boulders, craters and low hills on the moon's surface. Armstrong eventually landed with just 30 seconds of fuel left.[7] In the movie Luna 1 had to avoid craters and mountain ranges looking for its landing spot after it over shot its original landing area, burning up precious fuel all the way. The concern for the use of fuel in finding a landing site also was a dramatic point in the film. After landing there was concern that they didn't have enough fuel to lift off again.
  • Stepping foot on the surface of the moon, Dr. Charles Cargraves (played by Warner Anderson) claims the Moon for the United States in a brief speech ending (like Neil Armstrong's first statement) with the "...for the benefit of all mankind". They don't plant a flag however.
  • Nearly immediately thereafter, Dr. Cargraves's remarks on the Moon's barren vista, his quote ending with, "desolation". Nineteen years later, Edwin Aldrin's first statement standing on the surface was, "Magnificent desolation".[7]
  • The view out of the main cabin window, as the astronauts prepare to leave the moon is nearly identical to the mission patch drawn/traced by Michael Collins, missing only the eagle and the words "Apollo 11". The lunar horizon, position and phase of the Earth, and those elements' sizes relative to the circular portal match Collins' design.
  • The film also depicted the two second delay in radio communications between the Earth and the moon.
  • The film depicted the desperate efforts to lighten the craft after it used too much fuel on the landing phase of the journey to successfully take off again and its consultation with ground control tor resolve the issue. In this way it is in common with the real life near disastrous Apollo 13 mission with mission control in Houston, Texas desperately collaborating with the astronauts to stretch the very limited resources of oxygen and power-called consumables-to get the astronauts home including shutting down all power consuming instruments except those absolutely necessary for life and navigation of the ship.[8] In the movie the astronauts had to strip down the craft for weight to be able to lift off the lunar surface and return to Earth, removing absolutely all non-essential equipment up to and including leaving the space suits and the radio on the moon.
  • In both the departure to and from the moon, the flight crew and ground control were concerned with launch windows, in which if they missed them they would not be able to go to the moon for a month or far more deadly, lift off from the moon to return to earth for a month which would be far more time than their food and oxygen supply would allow for.


It won the Academy Award for Visual Effects in the name of the effects director, (Lee Zavitz). The film was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Art Direction (Ernst Fegte, George Sawley)[9]. At the 1st Berlin International Film Festival it won the Bronze Berlin Bear (Thrillers and Adventure Films) award.[10]

See also


External links



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