While pulp science fiction of the 1930s and ’40s was sending Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon off to distant solar systems, the filmmakers behind Destination Moon suggested a more prosaic but ultimately more accurate vision of space travel. In fact, the movie’s rocketeers seemed to anticipate the actual rigors and challenges of lunar travel as the Apollo astronauts would experience them less than two decades later. (Like the crash course in genetics from the “Mr. DNA” cartoon in Jurassic Park 43 years later, the Woody Woodpecker cartoon that explains the physics of space flight to a group of industrialists is actually a pretty good rocket-science-for-dummies primer.)
Made for a then-costly $500,000, the movie’s production design and special effects look rinky-dink by today’s standards, but then, so did the actual Apollo vehicles. (In fact, Destination Moon, produced by future War of the Worlds mastermind George Pal and written largely by sci-fi master Robert Heinlein, won an Oscar for its visual effects.)
It’s worth noting that the movie’s lunar project is the work of private scientists and aviation moguls; the federal government is not a partner but an obstacle, worried about silly old atomic radiation. None of that pro-capitalist attitude prevented director Irving Pichel from being blacklisted for alleged Communist ties. Not even the celestial aspirations of Destination Moon could escape the gravity of earthbound politics.