Landing by Hand on the Moon

A Less-Than-Magic Moment in Movie Special Effects

by John Walker


Project Moonbase theatre poster Robert Heinlein's 1950 movie collaboration with George Pal, Destination Moon, is rightly considered one of the timeless classics of film science fiction, winning an Oscar for Best Special Effects. On the other hand, his 1953 effort with Richard Talmadge, Project Moonbase, is largely forgotten, and deservedly so. Set in 1970, it features some of the Heinlein view of the future which would come to characterise his later work: the president of the United States is a woman, as is the first person to orbit the Earth and commander of this Moon mission, Colonel Briteis (don't pronounce it “bright-eyes” in her presence, unless you outrank her!), who owes her selection for the mission in part to public relations motivated reverse-discrimination against men.

Project Moonbase title Unlike Destination Moon, the special effects here are—how shall I put it?—cheesy. There are delightful cordless telephones which look just like fifties Ma Bell gear with little loop antennas coming out of the desk set and receiver, the obligatory V2 camera footage from White Sands, spinning tape reels and blinking lights, a page-flipping “digital calendar” which gets it right for 1970, intrepid spacemen and -women sweating and straining against G forces which don't seem to deform the cots they're lying on, and Earth to Moon communication without the delay due to the finite speed of light. The scientist on the Moon flight who is impersonated by a Commie double bent on sabotage is named “Dr. Wernher”.

The apogee of tackiness in the special effects is when a supply ship comes in to land at the newly-established Moon base. Col. Briteis and her fellow crewmember and soon to be betrothed Maj. Moore sit in front of a screen and twiddle knobs to guide the ship as it, for some inexplicable reason, flies back and forth with a rocket plume which looks remarkably like the flame from a welding torch. Then they steer it in for a landing, “by hand” via remote control, and things get downright hilarious. Below are two video clips of this scene: the first is a longer clip including sound; the second is silent and shows only the funny part. Take a look and see if you can spot the delightful means by which the Moon landing was effected.

(Show Special Effects Gotcha)