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Frau im Mond
Written July 2019


Forty years before earthlings set foot on another heavenly body, a movie showed us how it could be done. 

I speak of the motion picture Frau im Mond, or Woman in the Moon.  This lengthy silent film by German director Fritz Lang premiered in Berlin on October 15, 1929.

An audience of 2,000 saw it in this theater, UFA's “Palace at the Zoo.”

Physicist Hermann Oberth had figured out by 1922 how to travel to the moon.  He detailed the requirements in a proposed doctoral dissertation.  All that was necessary (which would require another 47 years, as it turned out) was a little engineering by the rocket scientists.  By 1929, Oberth was static-firing a liquid-fueled rocket engine with the help of 18-year-old student Wernher von Braun.

Oberth had written that to reach the moon, an escape velocity of 11,200 kilometers per second would be needed, and therefore a three-stage rocket would be required.  The occupants would experience an acceleration of 4 G's, the most they could withstand.  To survive it, they would have to lie down during launch. These details were included in the motion picture — and in the subsequent Apollo program!

The film begins with a mad scientist who speculates that there's gold in them there lunar craters.

Criminals like this guy want to get it.  They rob safes and tap phones to find out how.  One financial backer says, “If the moon's riches of gold really exist, I want them to fall into the hands of business people — and not into the hands of dreamers and idealists!”

Rocket scientists have already built this “H. 32 Unmanned Survey Rocket.”  Now the crooks coerce them to construct a much more powerful vehicle.  They return to their Vertical Assembly Building and complete a moon rocket.

The moon will be in the proper position for a launch at 9:30 pm.  This is announced to everyone by a plane that skywrites “START 2130.”

Illuminated by floodlights, the rocket is rolled out on a mobile transporter that takes it to the water-cooled launch pad, just like Apollo.

A throng of excited spectators is on hand.  So is a crowd of reporters, including this on-the-scene broadcaster whom I'd like to think of as Walther Krankheit.

Our suspense builds as the crew watches the clock, waiting until precisely 9:30. 

Their second-by-second final countdown, inspiring the procedure that's used in real life today, goes something like this:

Then they blast off!

After several minutes of acceleration to reach escape velocity, the passengers become weightless.

Five adventurers, including one woman for further drama, are aboard.  There's also a stowaway kid and a pet mouse.

These gizmos are reaction wheels, used to control the craft's attitude in airless space.  If an electric motor spins the wheel to the right, the craft reacts in the opposite direction, turning slowly to the left.  (Apollo would use small rocket thrusters instead.)

The spacecraft arrives at the Moon.  Then, after a rocket-assisted landing, it's down the ladder for one small step and one giant leap!

More stuff happens.  Spoiler alert:  gold is found, two people die, two return to Earth, and the woman and her man are left behind. 

The film was not a great box-office success.  It was silent, and audiences were beginning to prefer talkies.

Wernher von Braun, however, was a fan.  He continued building rockets, including a ballistic missile that somewhat resembled the movie's H. 32.  This was after Hitler came to power in Germany.

The Nazis banned the movie because it gave away too many secrets, but a Frau im Mond logo appeared on von Braun's first successful V2.  After World War II, of course, he came to America and headed the team that constructed our actual moon rocket, the Saturn V.



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