Tuesday, July 20, 2010

There’s a moon in the sky (It’s called “the Moon”)

Apollo 11: Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin
41 years ago today, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin made history by landing humans on the moon for the first time. In commemoration, I present this survey of four films which imagine such an event from the perspective of their own times. All were made prior to the 1969 landing, and each presents a unique vision of space travel.

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

A Trip to the Moon is a short film made by French magician Georges Méliès, who pioneered the use of fades, dissolves, and simple visual effects in his approximately 500 films, many of which concerned fantastical subjects. A Trip to the Moon is such a film, and depicts a whimsical voyage made by turn-of-the-century astronomers inside a bullet-shaped space capsule which is shot out of a very long gun barrel into the eye of the literally depicted "man in the moon." Upon landing, the crew of astronomers encounters such oddities as a forest of giant mushrooms and primitive lunar natives before being captured and brought before the natives' leader. The travellers manage to escape after a climactic chase and succeed in tipping their capsule off the edge of a cliff so that it falls clear off the moon and back to Earth.

It would be unfair to compare A Trip to the Moon to real space travel as its intent is purely to entertain. (Even so, the method of return travel is an over-simplified version of that described in 1950's Destination Moon, which explains that once a rocket escapes the gravitational field of the moon, it is simply "falling" through space until it is caught by the gravitational field of Earth.) Along with its entertainment merit, though, is much historical value. Méliès is credited with steering film away from use as mere spectacle and toward the presentation of narrative. The earliest films were exhibitions of the technology itself — Edison's kissing couple, or the Lumières' unlucky gardener being sprayed by a hose. Méliès' work was the start of cinematic storytelling, which would explode into popular film in the following years of the twentieth century.1

Woman in the Moon (1929)

Woman in the Moon is a silent movie directed by Fritz Lang which depicts the first trip to the moon as being motivated not only by the spirit of scientific discovery and adventure, but by the quest for gold. The trip is the brainchild of Professor Manfeldt, an astronomer who posits the moon as a source of vast gold deposits. While he is initially derided and his claims dismissed, his plan is given new life years later by Wolf Helius, and aeronautics entrepreneur who is able to secure funding for the journey on one condition: that the organization known as the Finance Group be given control over all gold discovered on the moon. This provision is to be enforced by their representative Walter Turner, who, much to the dismay of the gold-crazy Manfeldt, is to accompany the crew (think a creepy version of Bud Cort's "bond company stooge" from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, played by a 1920's German equivalent to Crispin Glover). Further complicating matters is that Helius is in love with another crew member, a woman named Friede, who is engaged to Helius' chief engineer, Hans Windegger. Manfeldt, Helius, Turner, Friede, and Windegger set off for the moon unaware that a young boy named Gustav has also stowed away on their rocket. From the start, this film is set up more for soap opera melodrama than scientific realism.

Still, the film addresses certain logistical elements of the voyage in some detail. The investors from the Finance Group review rocket diagrams, photographs from Helius' test launch, and a short film explaining rocket trajectory. There is a depiction of g-forces during the very high-speed launch, and weightlessness is demonstrated as Gustav floats through the cabin and Windegger coaxes wine from a bottle. The ship is equipped with airlocks, and Windegger angrily and sarcastically emphasizes their importance to Helius. Space suits are on-board and ready for use until Manfeldt discovers the moon has a breathable atmosphere.

Yet despite the excitement and novelty of space travel, this film focuses on the tension between the crew, which culminates in a gunfight which ruptures an oxygen tank, releasing oxygen needed for the return trip and therefore dooming one crew member to a solitary life on the moon so the others can return to earth. This drama could have been played out in any context, though it is a treat to see space travel presented by Lang, especially with some nice aerial photography and miniature sets during the construction and launch of the rocket.

Destination Moon (1950)

Destination Moon has been touted as one of the first science fiction movies to focus on the reality of space travel, not merely the fantasy inspired by it. Indeed, it contains much discussion and debate about the role of government vs. that of private industry in America's first trip to the moon (with responsibility for building the necessary rocket being placed on the private sector), about how to deal with unfavorable public opinion, and about the threat of sabotage. The primary motivation for landing on the moon is military supremacy — the first nation able to fire weapons from the moon will dominate the world. We can assume that the Soviet Union is America's primary competition in the film, though as in several other science fiction films of the time, this is never stated explicitly.

There is ample technical exposition, including a lesson in rocketry presented to a roomful of American industrialists by a Woody Woodpecker cartoon. This technique is borrowed decades later when an animated DNA strand explains the process of cloning to theme park visitors in Jurassic Park, and it is perhaps intended to communicate the more technical aspects of the plot to a younger audience more interested in fantasy adventure. It could also be taken as a joke about the inability of business people to understand scientific ideas. (An extra stereotype is provided in the form of a Texas entrepreneur who questions, in a Southern drawl, why he should cooperate in the venture at all, finally acquiescing with a joke about Texas being the only state large enough to contain the project.) Funding is secured, and construction soon begins on a tall, gleaming "classic" 1950's rocket ship.

The film depicts other realities of space travel in its own way, including g-forces (the crew are nearly crushed during the face-altering lift off), zero gravity (magnet boots solve this problem), the consequences of toying with Newton's First Law and a daring rescue exploiting his Third: when one of the crew makes the mistake of letting go of his tether during a spacewalk, another improvises a jet pack out of an oxygen tank in order to retrieve the drifting crew member. (A similar rescue attempt is shown years later in 2000's Mission to Mars, which depicts the first attempt to land humans on the Red Planet.)

Most striking is how Destination Moon presages actual difficulties faced by NASA's Apollo missions, still over a decade away from the film's release. As the rocket comes in for its landing, the pilot needs to adjust course and in doing so uses more than the allotted amount of fuel. Similarly, as Apollo 11's lunar module descended to the moon's surface, Neil Armstrong noticed that the pre-set course was leading the lander into a crater filled with boulders. Taking the controls, Armstrong guided the craft to a more suitable location, though he did so with the knowledge that each second of flight was using fuel. Had he used too much, the landing would have been aborted in order to conserve fuel for the return trip. Armstrong successfully landed the module — with only 20 seconds of fuel to spare.2

The crew in Destination Moon isn't as fortunate, however, for their delay in landing consumes so much fuel that they have too little to return to Earth. Their ground control devises a plan that requires the astronauts to lighten the ship by three thousand pounds. Communicating regularly with Earth, the astronauts are able to make the necessary modifications and return home safely. This is an eerie forerunner to NASA's ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, which suffered its own disastrous mishaps and which required the resources of the crew and the NASA command center to be salvaged.3

Not all parallels between the film and the real moon landing are as foreboding. When the first two astronauts in the movie set foot on the moon, one declares, "For the grace of God, and 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 plaque left on the moon by the Apollo 11 crew reads, "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind." The plaque bears the names of the three astronauts as well as the name of "Richard Nixon, President, United States of America."4 Also, after the astronauts in the film claim the moon, they receive a radio call from a reporter on Earth. Similarly, after Armstrong and Aldrin erected the US flag on the surface of the moon, they received a call from President Nixon, who expressed his pride in the mission.5

True to its reputation, in Destination Moon each of the hardships experienced by the astronauts provides means to explore a technical challenge in a "realistic" way. In Woman in the Moon, the stranding, for example, is merely a set-up for dramatic conflict and the resolution of the Helius-Friede-Windegger love triangle. In Destination Moon, it is the catalyst for technical innovation and the demonstration of how potential problems might be handled on a real space mission.

First Men in the Moon (1964)

First Men in the Moon is based on a story by H.G. Wells, with visual effects by revered stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen. The film opens with dramatic titles and a fairly realistic depiction of a present-day (1960's era) moon landing, as a landing craft separates from an orbiting command module and begins what is believed to be the first-ever descent to the lunar surface. Interestingly for a film made in the midst of the space race, the crew is an international assembly sent not by the USA, but by the UN. The astronauts are soon shocked to discover that a British flag and a claim dated 1899 have been left on the moon by an unknown visitor. Authorities on earth soon find the only survivor of that original mission, who tells his story in a flashback to Victorian England where the tone shifts so jarringly to that of a 1960's Disney film that I expected Dick van Dyke and his infamous Cockney accent to make an appearance.

In a way, this film is like a longer telling of A Trip to the Moon. There is some exposition about a new chemical compound called Cavorite, which can be painted onto objects to prevent gravity from working on them. Driven by scientific curiosity and (once again) the belief that the moon is rich in minerals like gold, the travellers apply Cavorite to a bathysphere-like vessel, free the sphere from Earth's pull, and guide it to the moon. There they encounter very rough, mountainous terrain (similar to that depicted in the other movies mentioned here), and a fantastical race of insect-like creatures (which are quickly dubbed "Selenites") who attempt to hold them captive. A chase and escape follow.

During their voyage, the makeshift astronauts encounter zero gravity, need to cope with the difference in air pressure between the lunar surface and their space capsule, and don homemade spacesuits, fashioned from pre-SCUBA diving suits. (Once they descend into the underground tunnels of the Selenites, though, they are able to shed these suits and breathe an artificially generated atmosphere.) These concessions to science are minor, however (their spacesuits are supposedly airtight, yet their hands are bare), and very much like A Trip to the Moon, this film focuses on the fantasy of space travel, other worlds, and bizarre creatures. It is also worth noting that in First Men in the Moon, as in all of the films mentioned here, more technical emphasis is given to the propulsion and operation of the spacecraft than to life support systems and the day-to-day living necessities of the astronauts, as if the latter is the least problematic aspect of each voyage.

See also: Shoot the moon . . . somehow

1. See Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film, Third Edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996), 13-19.
2. See "For Neil Armstrong, the First Moon Walker, It Was All about Landing the Eagle" by Andrew Chaikin. ScientificAmerican.com, July 17, 2009.
3. For more about the Apollo 13 dificulties, see Wikipedia's Apollo 13 page.
4. A picture of the plaque can be seen on Wikipedia's Apollo 11 page.
5. Audio from Nixon's call can be heard on Wikipedia's Apollo 11 page.

1 comment:

  1. "...Taking the controls, Armstrong guided the craft to a more suitable location, though he did so with the knowledge that each second of flight was using fuel. Had he used too much, the landing would have been aborted in order to conserve fuel for the return trip."

    For the record, I'll note that the Apollo Lunar Module had separate fuel supplies (and separate rocket engines) for landing and ascent.

    If they had indeed used up their budgeted landing fuel there would have been no way to make use of the ascent fuel and engine to complete a landing since that system is blocked by the lower section of the Lunar Module.