“The Woman in the Moon”
(“Frau im Mond”)
A movie by Fritz Lang, 1929
is a remarkable and prescient movie!
plot is fairly straightforward: A
German industrialist has constructed a rocket ship, in which he and his chief
engineer (who bears an uncanny resemblance to ex-Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine),
along with an elderly professor, plan to fly to the Moon. They are accompanied by the engineer’s
fiancé, a blackmailing spy, and a stow-away lad. There is deceit (mostly by the spy), unrequited love (the
industrialist and the engineer’s fiancé), selfless sacrifice (the
industrialist), plucky courage (the stowaway boy), and in the end true love
wins out (the industrialist and the fiancée). This is one of the very first cinematic space operas – black
and white, and silent – but with a wonderful soundtrack and remarkably
well-done visual effects.
real treat for me was the way that this long-ago vision of space equipment presaged
some modern approaches. I noted
that, even before the starring players are identified, the opening credits give
a list of the film’s scientific consultants, including Hermann Oberth. The story may be a bit corny in parts,
but the filmmaker clearly wanted to get the technology correct. For example: In one scene, the spies study a chart on the industrialist’s
wall that shows the relative gravitational fields of Earth and Moon, and the
planned trajectory to put the rocket into orbit around the Moon. That chart would have been quite at
home in any 1960’s-era high school science classroom. The trajectory is also a pretty good match to the path that
the Apollo missions actually took.
There is also a long scene in which we are told that this manned mission
has been preceded by at least two unmanned lunar explorers. One, carrying “automated cameras”,
orbited the Moon, taking high-resolution imagery (a Lunar Reconnaissance
Orbiter?). The other was an
impactor “filled with magnesium so that the flash of its impact could be
observed from Earth”. There’s even
a photo of the magnesium-enhanced impact flash, with a credit to “Mt Wilson
Observatory” printed in the margin.
The manned rocket was assembled
standing on its tail, in a huge hangar (they don’t call it the “vertical
assembly building”, but they might as well have), and it was mounted on a huge
crawler to make the journey from the hangar to the launch pad. Watching that scene and comparing it to
the Space Shuttle Crawler sequence was downright eerie!
The rocket is a three-stage design
(again, remarkably far-sighted for 1929).
There is a mostly-correct description of the need to achieve escape
velocity while not exceeding the human capacity to survive high accelerations
(“above 4g’s is fatal...” according to one of the characters). In order to help deal with this, the crew
are prone during take-off, as is still standard. Unlike today, however, they aren’t in pressure suits –
instead, high-collars and tweed jackets are the uniform of the day. But once they get to the Moon, their
first concern is to locate water.
That’s another parallel with modern lunar exploration ( a‘ la LCROSS).
were a few technical problems that these rocket-movie pioneers recognized, but
solved in ways that don’t match modern methods. As the rocket is being prepared for launch, a news commentator
points out that the structure is so light that it can’t support its own weight,
so it is launched while partially immersed in water – not exactly the Sea
Launch concept, but still it’s remarkable to see that they recognized the
conflicting demands of lightness and strength in a launch vehicle. Thermal control during trans-lunar
cruise is also a problem. They
solved that one by painting the rocket half white and half black: since it’s cold in space, the black
half is turned to face the Sun, in order to absorb more heat during trans-lunar
cruise. A naive, but clever idea.
knowledgeable modern viewer will see myriad details that the film gets horribly
wrong, but still it’s a wonderful piece of cinematic and technological history,
and a grand ride to boot. I don’t
think we have it in the OCA Library, but you can get it from NetFlix.
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