Three Scifi Pioneers Talk About Making the First Great Space MovieS

A rare kinescope recording from 1950 preserves a live TV interview with three giants in science fiction—George Pal, Robert A. Heinlein and Chesley Bonestell—on the set of the pioneering space movie, Destination Moon.

Despite seeming a little creaky now, Destination Moon was a sensation when it was originally released. At a time when movies about space travel had been limited pretty much to serials such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers or insane fantasies like Just Imagine, the realistic, semi-documentary approach taken by the producers of Destination Moon was a revelation. Made when Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, was still seven years in the future, Destination Moon was the vanguard of what was to become a nation-wide fanaticism regarding anything astronautical that was to last until the midst of the Apollo program.

Three Scifi Pioneers Talk About Making the First Great Space MovieS

Destination Moon was the first motion picture to deal realistically with the subject of spaceflight since the silent Frau im Mond (1929) and not until 2001, Moon and Europa Report was such attention to scientific accuracy again accorded a sci fi space film. The screenplay was written by Alford (Rip) van Ronkel and Robert A. Heinlein—almost unrecognizably based upon the latter’s young adult novel, Rocketship Galileo.

Three Scifi Pioneers Talk About Making the First Great Space MovieS

Heinlein also acted as the film’s technical adviser. It is to the credit of producer Pal and director Irving Pichel that the intention was from the very beginning to make a motion picture about spaceflight that was as accurate as possible—against all Hollywood science fiction tradition. The decision also created innumerable problems. The state of the art of special effects at the time was stretched to its limit to recreate free fall, extravehicular maneuvers, moonwalks and so forth. At no time did the producers take the easy way out by saying “no one will know the difference.” The film is filled with accurate and often prescient details easily overlooked or taken for granted today, with the 20/20 hindsight of viewers who have witnessed manned moon landings, space shuttles and rovers on Mars.

Three Scifi Pioneers Talk About Making the First Great Space Movie

The spaceship Luna, designed by art director Ernst Fegté and based loosely on the cover art for the Heinlein novel, was 150 feet tall with a loaded weight of 250 tons. Of this, 200 tons is “fuel”: ordinary water to provide reaction mass for the atomic motor (a detail only briefly alluded to in the film), 40 tons is the spaceship itself, and 10 tons for the four passengers, their accommodations, equipment, supplies, etc.

Three Scifi Pioneers Talk About Making the First Great Space MovieS

Additional details about the rocket are revealed in a novelette Heinlein wrote, based on the film (Short Stories magazine, September 1950), such as that 13/15 of the spaceship’s mass was water and that the nose of the craft was unpressurized cargo space followed by the cabin and air lock. Below these was a radiation shield.

Three Scifi Pioneers Talk About Making the First Great Space Movie

Space artist Chesley Bonestell, already legendary for his work for Life magazine, was responsible for all of the film’s astronomical art: views of the earth and moon from space, and the breathtaking panoramas of the lunar surface surrounding the spaceship Luna, which were set in the crater Harpalus. Bonestell, who, along with Heinlein, acted as technical adviser, did not at all approve of the cracks added to the floor of the crater set, since he thought they implied that the crater was filled with dried mud. They had been included by the art director to help enhance the depth of the forced perspective (which was further enhanced by using midgets to portray astronauts walking in the distance).

A special showing of the film on June 20 at the Hayden Planetarium in New York was presented to select audience of 200. An original print of the motion picture that had been specially treated was to be preserved at the planetarium to “Let future generations see what a pre-space travel age had predicted.” (It’s presumed that this print is now, sadly, lost.)