Jacque Marshall

The Moon Program: A Baseline Achieved

If you're in a mood for an interesting excercise in shifting perspectives, try this one out. Matt Ryan and I tried it pretty much unintentionally a few days ago:

Monday afternoon, went out to the video store and rented, among other things, Destination Moon. Reasonably good study for its time, although it fails dramatically because it's SO bloody plodding. It's obvious that it's primarily a farely blatant propaganda pitch, designed to convey the imperative to space exploration and impart some of the urgency and sense of wonder associated with the idea.

But it does carefully and systematically (in true Heinlein fashion) go through and educates about the physics and technologies, and some of the assumptions that would be involved in a moon shot. And on the whole does pretty well -- at least on a macro scale. (They slip up on details like having a drawer in the cockpit of the spacecraft, which does not disgorge its contents when opened in zero-G.)

Then we turned around, and the following evening went to see Apollo 13.

Heh. Well I obviously don't need to rhapsodize about that here. But having the two movies to compare made for a very interesting set of historical comparisons and perspective checks.

Things I noticed particularly:

DM was geared towards -- and needed to -- educate the audience in the basics of space-flight physics. Hell, even the scientists had only a theoretical understanding of what zero-G would "look" like.

A13, however, was made in an era when a large chunk of the audience grew up knowing what zero-G looks like! (That still vaguely blows me away...) Additionally, A13 was able to use actual zero-g in making it (although I expect they salted it liberally with carefully designed special effects -- I don't even want to think what their bill for jet-fuel must have been...). It occurs to me that, strictly speaking, the necessary technology did exist in DM's day. However, they were someone hamstrung from an infrastructure standpoint; A13 was able to make use of existing provisions and talent needed to achieve the effects they were after. DM would have had to rent the plane, talk the owner into letting their vehicle be heavily modified, catch him when he ran screaming upon being told what they intended to do....

I found the sociological diffences especially interesting. If I'm not mistaken DM was made before NASA existed -- hell I think it was made even before Sputnik. (Unfortunately, I didn't catch the release date when we picked it up at the video store.) So, it was very interesting to see the pitch it made encouraging industry to take the lead in developing space technology, on the grounds that the government didn't have the resources. So, you've got a bunch of cowboys out on the desert hammering away on this space ship -- and then making a mad dash for it when the revenooers come over the hill with restraining orders.

A13 had copious (and crucial, it turns out) ground support -- could basically draw on an effectively unlimited supply of brain-power to solve the problems they were faced with. In DM the guys were pretty much on their own.

The similarities (i.e., the things DM got right) were interesting, too.

Both were pre-pocket-calculator. I particularly shivered when Ground Control is scrambling to back up the astronauts' gyro-conversion calculations -- everybody's scribbling frantically away with pencils, with a dash of the slip-stick here and there...oy! Can you imagine having to do hand math under that kind of pressure? Course, they had not basis for comparison, I suppose.... On thing that intrigued us both, though was that slide-rules were conspicuously absent in DM. We speculated that the film makers decided against showing them as being one more thing to potentially confuse the audience with...

A related difference, of course, that A13 had at least the large-scale computers to work with, where as DM had their pilots working out all of the orbital mechanics by hand.

The wives left behind to worry -- although their perspective was expressed (dare we say, acknowledged?) much more directly in the later piece. (So, like, when are we going to get to see a husband who's left behind to worry? HMMM?)

Magnetic boots in DM, Velcro in A13.

Space-suits -- Matt was especially gratified when in DM the suits expand visibly as the air-lock is cycled.

Guys getting dropsick -- although DM was mercifully vague about the full implications of that condition. The A13 treatment leads me to think that NASA should require the new fish to strap on barf-bags before cutting the acceleration, and macho(a) pride be damned....

A third level of contrast can be contemplated when you consider the differences in the movie making technologies. DM was surprisingly good; there was only one or two shots that were conspicuously models. Additionally, the Earth-from- space images were uncharacteristically accurate, being truer to the actual image-quality than stuff done even ten and twenty years later (the Star Treks come particularly to mind).

With A13, you have not only the '60s-level technology jump, but then you have the subsequent 20 years quantum leap on top of that, what with digital image processing, camera technology improvement, and actual, realy-and-for-truely space photography archives to draw on.

Plus the general evolution of movie-making conventions -- I expect that the MTV influence is one reason why DM seems especially pondorous.

All in all, both films are worth-while efforts -- the serendipity of their conjunction being merely icing on the cake, as it were.

--11 August 1995

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