A sci-fi historian’s guide to movie spacesuits, from wacky to realistic.
- By Diane Tedeschi
- AirSpaceMag.com, September 13, 2012
Courtesy Gary Westfahl
(Page 2 of 4)
To me, the film that essentially defined the subgenre was Destination Moon (1950); two earlier films, the German Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon) (1929) and the Russian Kosmicheskiy Reys (The Space Voyage) (1935), did endeavor to portray space travel in a realistic manner, but Destination Moon was really the first film to fully achieve this goal, and perhaps most importantly, it also inspired a series of other films, including Project Moonbase (1953), Riders to the Stars (1954), Conquest of Space (1955), and the television series Men into Space (1959-1960), with similar priorities. Perhaps the most striking scene in Destination Moon shows three spacesuited astronauts emerging from their spaceship to stand on its surface, upside down from the perspective of viewers, to contemplate the dark immensity of space; to me, this epitomizes the value of such films in showing just how strange and disorienting life in space will really be.
Are there any film spacesuits that are notably realistic?
Since the co-author of Destination Moon, Robert A. Heinlein, had also worked on the development of high-altitude pressure suits during World War II, the spacesuits in that film were particularly impressive, which is why they were reused in several later films. But all of the other films listed above also featured reasonably realistic spacesuits. After the launch of the actual American space program, most films merely imitated NASA’s designs, although the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) did envision a more advanced model for its future space travelers. (Director Stanley Kubrick, however, deliberately had all of his spacesuits destroyed, since he was aware of the fate of the spacesuits from Destination Moon and did not want his own creations to resurface in any lesser films.) One feature of the spacesuits in both of those films – the use of bright colors to identify individual astronauts and make them conspicuous against the monochromatic background of space – has oddly not been employed in constructing actual spacesuits, though it seems to represent an idea worth considering.
Are there any movie spacesuits that depart from reality? Have you seen anything delightfully wackadoodle?
One of the strangest spacesuit designs, oddly enough, was developed by rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and was displayed in an interesting documentary, “Man and the Moon,” which aired as an episode of “Disneyland” in 1955. Von Braun imagined that future astronauts would essentially have to be entombed in a large structure, resembling a top, with a transparent dome to provide a view of one’s surroundings and mechanical arms on all sides to manipulate objects in space. There may have been a certain logic behind his idea, but these contraptions look very bizarre indeed. The semi-pornographic Nude on the Moon (1961) featured some memorably laughable spacesuits, made of a thin skintight fabric that seemed insufficient protection against a cold night in Florida, let alone conditions on the moon; still, they did have leather breastplates and codpieces to provide a semblance of protection. Also, while the astronauts are wearing space helmets and gloves, their bare necks and bare wrists are visible, demonstrating that the spacesuits are spectacularly less than airtight. It was fortunate indeed that the moon these astronauts happened to land on implausibly had a climate resembling Earth’s, because they would have instantly died on the actual moon.
What is your opinion of the Apollo 11 spacesuit film starring Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin? After the long build-up of imagining men walking on the moon, was the reality in this case a bit of a letdown?
Knowing that this landing on the moon was actually occurring, no viewer could reasonably say that the televised images of Armstrong and Aldrin were disappointing, particularly when they were walking about in unusual ways that persuasively conveyed the moon’s lower gravity. Like billions of others, I sat enthralled in front of the television set during their entire sojourn on the moon. It is also interesting to compare their carefully choreographed activities with scenes from fictional space films, which the administrators of NASA were surely familiar with, particularly the lunar landing sequence of Destination Moon, which in some respects eerily anticipated the actual event. Still, it is amusing to note that when the astronauts planted the American flag on the moon, CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite complained that there “ought to be some music” to accompany this event, indicating that the experience, for him, was falling short of the drama of earlier films.
Do you think 2001: A Space Odyssey is a masterpiece?