The 1950 motion picture Destination Moon is in several aspects an odd duck. It was an independent production under George Pal’s control. He worked with Robert A Heinlein to adapt his novel Rocket Ship Galileo into a screen play. In point of fact the plot changes involved make the movie and the book completely different stories. For Pal who would go on to make such sci-fi classics as War of the Worlds, The Time Machine and When Worlds Collide this was a chance to make a realistic space flight movie with Heinlein providing the scientific accuracy.
After a government project to build an advanced rocket motor is sabotaged and abandoned a plan is hatched to overcome the loss of government funding in rocket design by recruiting patriotic business leaders to pool their resources to pay for and build a Moon rocket. General Thayer and Dr. Charles Cargraves were the moving force behind the earlier government project and Jim Barnes is the principal industrialist who uses his aircraft design facilities to build the atomic powered rocket. Along with Joe Sweeney who provides radio and communication expertise (along with Brooklyn-accented comic relief) these men will be the crew to travel back and forth to the Moon.
When local bureaucracy threatens to tie up the launch in the courts, the team decides to launch immediately. Just as the sheriffs are arriving to serve the launch injunction the crew is riding the elevator up to the cockpit. The ship takes off and the crew gets to experience the pain of eight gee take off acceleration and the nausea associated with zero gravity conditions. Shortly after taking off they discover the need to do a space walk to repair equipment. One of the astronauts carelessly allows his magnetic boots to become separated from the ship’s hull while not holding onto his tether and begins floating away from the ship. One of his mates has to use an oxygen cylinder as a makeshift rocket to rendezvous with the lost man and bring him back.
As the rocket approaches the Moon, errors in the navigation (or should I say astrogation) force the crew to expend to much reaction mass from the rocket to land in their planned destination. Mission control on Earth begins calculating how much weight must be removed from the ship to balance the reduced capacity of the ship’s fuel load.
Meanwhile the crew investigates the Moon. The first thing they do is claim the Moon for the United States (for the good of all mankind). Using a Geiger counter General Thayer discovers large deposits of uranium. Later on, one of the astronauts takes a picture of Joe Sweeney holding his arm up in such away that it looks like he is holding up Earth in the sky behind him.
The calculations on the fuel are distressing. The ship has to be lightened by over a ton. The crew starts removing everything that isn’t required to get the ship back to Earth. But even after sawing off any metal components of the ship that can be removed, they’re still short by one hundred ten pounds.
Barnes, Cargraves and Thayer realize that someone has to stay behind and each one of them tries to convince the other two that he is the one to stay based on authority, age or responsibility. Meanwhile Sweeney takes it upon himself to take the last space suit and leave the ship. He tells them to leave without him. But Barnes figures out a trick to get them below the weight limit. With a rat-tailed file Sweeney puts a notch in the outer door frame of the air lock. A heavy oxygen cylinder is hung outside the ship from a line that runs through the notch in the door. With the door closed the airlock is pressurized with only a slow leak from the notch. Then Sweeney ties the space suit to the other end of the line. Once Sweeney reenters the ship the outer door is opened and the weight of the cylinder drags the space suit out the door. Then the ship launches back to Earth.
And the movie ends with the words THE END followed by “of the Beginning.”
Destination Moon is a landmark. It is the first reasonably accurate portrayal of actual space flight. Coming nineteen years before Apollo 11 it is remarkably realistic. Now as cinema it definitely isn’t King Lear or even King Kong but it’s excellent propaganda for a space program. And it does contain all the correct tropes of the time. If you are a sci-fi fan this movie is a must see.