Destination Moon - Dale Carter

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This extract comes from The Final Frontier: the Rise and Fall of the American Rocket State by Dale Carter (Verso 1988).

In this book, Carter draws on Thomas Pynchon's novel 'Gravity's Rainbow' to define the post-World War Two period as the 'Rocket State', a social form salvaging elements of the defeated Nazi 'Oven State' to create a totalitarian capitalist order. The rocket, based on Nazi miltary technology, is a central element of this as the launch vehicle for both nuclear weapons of mass destruction and the Apollo programme, highest point of the propagandist spectacle or, as Carter calls it 'the Orpheus Theater' where at the conclusion of Gravity's Rainbow the spectators watch the screen as the rocket heads towards their destruction.

The Rocket State is also characterised by a Keynesian economic policy, notably the mass state investment in the aerospace industry through the Apollo programme. In this respect the Rocket State is seen to come to an end with the New Right/Reaganite offensive against the post-war consensus in the 1980s.

Destination Moon - Dale Carter (1988)

Released in 1950, 'Destination Moon' was - with the exception of Fritz Lang's pioneering 'Die Frau im Mond' (1928) - the first science fiction film to portray space travel as a practical option. After its profitability had encouraged Paramount to hire Pal [George Pal, maker of 'Destination Moon'] as the producer of 'When Worlds Collide', its critical reception prompted them to rush their latest product onto the market in order to cash in on their investment in rocketry. Both decisions proved successful. But the field of their success extended well beyond the studio, for the very existence of these films was made possible by the popularity of Robert Heinlein's 'Rocketship Galileo' (1947), the text which provided the basic formula for 'Destination Moon' and thereby familiarized a much wider public with the concept of space travel. The success of both Heinlein's novel and its screen translation depended in turn on expedient dramatizations of their social and historical contexts.

Written in the shadow of World War II, 'Rocketship Galileo' rehearsed the successful thwarting of a Nazi plot to establish a military base on the moon in the form of a myth of youthful American innovation warding off established imperial design. Three years later, in the context of a deepening Cold War, Heinlein's script for 'Destination Moon' replaced the Nazi menace with one from 'an unfriendly foreign power' and converted the three adventurous teenagers of the novel into a 'dominant group' consisting of an inventor, a general, and an industrialist (in Heinlein's words, 'the just past young, energetic, far-sighted and dynamic men who are the backbone of American industry'): Vannevar Bush's guardians of national security. As H. Bruce Franklin puts it in his study of Heinlein, their flight to the moon represented 'the triumph of the military-industrial complex.' (H. Bruce Franklin, Robert Heinlein: America as Science Fiction, New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).

That triumph was real enough: 'Destination Moon' was released only a month after President Truman had requested an $11.6-billion increase in the military budget in order to implement the terms of NSC-68 within the context of the Korean war. Yet in its celluloid form it was portrayed, not as the product of state-financed monopoly capitalism's exploitation of the spoils of war, but as the achievement of 'an all-star, cast of heroes who [were] the only possible saviors of American society' (Franklin).

Such a form was, of course, what Hollywood and its audience required: even a film like Fiedler Cook's 'Patterns' (1956) assumed the business system to be routinely buoyant and marketed its drama of boardroom warfare as an air-conditioned version of 'King Kong'. Equally, as Heinlein's script demonstrates, the means of production of the saviors' rocket were not completely ignored: the race to the moon was in fact specifically presented as 'the greatest challenge ever hurled at American industry.' Nevertheless, the film's presentation of American energy as explicit heroism enabling tacit organization was also what Heinlein himself required in order to resolve - or at least contain - the deepening contradiction of incipient totalitarian society: that unacknowledged tension between the American ethic of self- reliant individualism - which he advocated - and the American experience of disabling anonymity, restricted opportunity, and precarious security, which his advocacy claimed to resist.

For if Heinlein's earlier stories dramatized his own nostalgic dream of a nineteenth-century laissez-faire order in the form of lone, superior individuals fighting the erosive encroachments of mass society, monopoly capitalism, and bureaucracy, his post-war script for 'Destination Moon' retrieved and updated that hallucination by placing the resources of modern America at the disposal of an heroic self-enforcing crew deployed against the potential encroachments of an 'unfriendly foreign power' - the criminal of Spillane's fictions raised to the planetary scale. In that transposition the hero becomes not only the permitted agent of organized society but also the necessary justification for its experienced constraints: the sanctioned star within an uncertain community. It was an evasive action, but its plot of quick technological victories offered vicarious and thrilling compensation for Americans long impregnated with the heroic vitalist faith which Heinlein's continuing space epic expressed.

Characteristically, the action could be repeated. Between 'Rocketship Galileo' and 'Starship Troopers' (1959), each of Heinlein's works was characterized by what Franklin calls 'a fever to escape the urbanized, complex, supposedly routinized and imprisoning experience of earth' and by a 'missionary zeal for a colossal human endeavor.' These fictions all went into mass market reprints, spawned other films ('Project Moonbase' in 1953), television series ('Tom Corbett: Space Cadet' in 1950) and comic strips, and appeared in papers like the 'Saturday Evening Post'.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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