Movie Review: The Woman in the Moon

Posted On August 21, 2009

"The Woman in the Moon"
("Frau im Mond")

A movie by Fritz Lang, 1929

This is a remarkable and prescient movie! 

The 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 fiancee, a blackmailing spy, and a stow-away lad. There is deceit (mostly by the spy), unrequited love (the industrialist and the engineer's fiancee), selfless sacrifice (the industrialist), plucky courage (the stowaway boy), and in the end true love wins out (the industrialist and the fiancee). 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.

The 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).

There 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.

The 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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