Posted by: kshayes513 | July 21, 2009

Moon Landings Real and Imagined

Buzz Aldrin on the moon. Photo by Neil Armstrong, reflected in Aldrin's visor

Buzz Aldrin on the moon. NASA Photo by Neil Armstrong, reflected in Aldrin's visor

40 years ago last night, I and millions of other Earthlings watched a blurry television image of Neil Armstrong stepping onto another world. Then I went outside and looked up at the moon in a crystal black sky and thought, “If I had a big enough telescope, I could see them up there right now!” I was 14 and a huge Star Trek fan, and to me, the Apollo 11 moon landing was the beginning of the future.

The anniversary is worthy of note for its own sake. Still, I have a worldbuilding tie-in to offer as well. It’s the difference between making up the details, and doing the research.

Like many space  enthusiasts, I’ve spent some time the past few days watching old NASA and news footage as well as rebroadcasts of classic SF movies about travel to the moon. Among others, the documentary For All Mankind and the classic movie based on Heinlein’s novel, Destination Moon.

Destination Moon coverHeinlein was one of the greats of hard science fiction; when he wanted to be scientifically accurate, he could be. And Destination Moon seems a serious attempt to present a realistic version of how we might reach the moon, filmed nearly a decade before a human being even achieved orbit.

There’s a lot of accurate science in it: the way rockets work to move both large and small objects through space, the G-forces on take-off, the initial space sickness of the astronauts, and the look of the Earth’s limb from orbit, a sight that, in 1950, no one had ever seen even via satellite.

But the filmmakers also missed a lot, stuff that perhaps they couldn’t even imagine.

Rising Earth, taken by Apollo 8 crew, 1968. Photo: NASA

Rising Earth, taken by Apollo 8 crew, 1968. Photo: NASA

They never dreamed of the spectacular flame, smoke and noise created by an orbital rocket ignition; the color of the Earth from space (blue and white, not green-brown); the dust that clung to  the moonwalker’s white EVA suits until they were grimy with it; and the pure brilliance of sunlight unfiltered by atmosphere, that makes real travel to the moon the opposite of the dim, twilight experience shown in the movie.

The most preposterous deviation from reality is one that 1950’s viewers probably accepted without question. In the movie, the private corporations in charge of the newly finished moon rocket, face a government attempt to stop their launch. So they  scramble the mission and launch the untested prototype in just 17 hours with an untrained crew, on a mission not just to gain orbit, but to go to the moon. In 1950, who knew any different? Scrambling a moon mission in 17 hours was just as likely as being able to put a man in space at all.

Yet the dramatically hasty launch of the movie is not nearly as fascinating as the reality shown in For All Mankind and many other documentaries and news accounts: hundreds of hours to train an astronaut; months and years to design and plan a specific mission; hundreds of technicians checking and rechecking scores of different systems over and over prior to launch, during a countdown that lasts for days.

Space travel is a complicated business that demands an extraordinary amount of human effort and brainpower. This is true of most human achievements, when you look closely enough. When some aspect of your world is central to the story, whether it’s a trip to the moon, or the making of a sword, or the way telepathy works, its worth taking the time to do more than just make it up. It’s worth doing some research, firsthand if possible, to give a foundation of realism for your imaginary construction.

Update: a month later, this has become by far the most popular post in a long time.  People love moon landings! If you have a favorite account of a real or imaginary moon landing, please share it.



  1. Another great fiction writer Arthur C Clark was also well ahead of his time, well ahead of all the encyclopaedic store of knowledge of his time.

  2. For Dean W.: I’m sorry to tell you I have rejected your comment. This is a literary blog about creating imaginary worlds, not a forum for debating controversial conspiracy theories. You’re welcome to post any on-topic comment about the art of worldbuilding, though I suspect the only thing that interested you here was a chance to promote your views on the moon landings. Sorry, no.

  3. Hi Worldbuildingrules,
    Thanks you for your post, The plot is intricate, the science just around the corner, and the characters work well in their environment – not to mention it gets ‘hold your breath’ exciting.
    Keep up the posts!

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