New Series: The Science of Science Fiction
Think of your all-time favorite science fiction film. Now, think of all the scientific components of that movie. Are they all accurate? Of course not, it’s science fiction. But I bet when you were younger you thought some of it was true, and maybe you still think some of it has the potential to come true. That is one of the reasons science fiction is so appealing as a genre. However, some might argue that the portrayal of science in science fiction can be misleading to the general public. In our new series, the Science of Science Fiction, we’ll break down some of the science in our favorite examples of a beloved genre.
A Trip to the Moon
The 1902 French film “A Trip to the Moon” is considered by many to be the first science fiction movie. In the film, a group of scientists travel to the Moon, where they are quickly captured by aliens. Luckily, they manage to escape, and eventually find their way home. It is crazy to think that back then, going to the moon was only science fiction. “A Trip to the Moon” takes you on an adventure, but a highly inaccurate one. In order to look at the (faulty) science of this thirteen-minute film, we will look at the launch of the rocket and the depiction of the Moon itself.
Launching the Rocket
Launching the rocket in the movie looks simple enough. Six scientists pile into a bullet-shaped rocket, which is then pushed into a giant cannon. The fuse is lit, and the rocket is launched in a direct line to the Moon. Although it is understandable that in the past this would sound like a valid method to get to the Moon, we now know that this is not the case.
For one, the spacecraft is too small to hold the crew and all the systems you would need to travel to the Moon. With a navigation system, equipment, and a life-support system, you would need something a little bigger than a car-sized container.
Also, firing a bullet that size from a cannon would not give you enough force to escape Earth’s atmosphere and gravitational pull. To escape the pull of Earth’s gravity, we need to be traveling at least 11.2 km/s, which is approximately 33 times the speed of sound. Earth’s gravity is therefore very difficult to escape, which is why back in the early age of the space race, it took a number of trials to figure out the best way to get to space. This dream was realized by Soviet Scientist Dr. Sergei Korolev, who designed Sputnik 1, the first satellite to orbit the Earth in 1957. He used a launch vehicle—a giant rocket that didn’t actually enter orbit itself, but pushed the satellite into orbit. Rocketry was furthered by Dr. Robert Goddard, who to this day is considered the American father of modern rocketry. It was the work of Dr. Goddard that helped the US seriously enter the space race, and ultimately land on the Moon in 1969. But the Moon that the astronauts landed on was very different from the one pictured in A Trip to the Moon.
The portrayal of the Moon in the movie shows a rocky surface, with big spiky landmarks and craters. The Moon appears to have a breathable atmosphere and the same gravity as Earth. The scientists don’t seem to need any kind of spacesuit, and walk around normally on the surface.
Nowadays we know that the Moon does have a rocky surface, with several craters. In fact, we can even see this from Earth. It was not until we went to the moon that we really discovered the many complexities of the Moon’s surface. The Apollo missions provided samples of the Moon which are still studied today in order to further our understanding of the surface geology.
We also discovered that there are caves on the Moon, like the movie. This was found several years later, using satellite imagery from the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) spacecraft. The Moon’s gravity is about 83% less of Earth’s, meaning the best way to get around the Moon is to bounce! Although your mass does not change on the Moon, you end up weighing less because you are not being pulled down by as much gravity. It is because of this gravity change that astronauts need to wear spacesuits—they provide breathable air, which is not found at such low gravity. The suits also protect astronauts from harmful radiation.
It is clear to see that “A Trip to the Moon” was not scientifically sound, but that did not affect its popularity when it was released. Even with the knowledge we have now, movie makers still continue to “break the rules” of science in order to bend the imagination. Science fiction is fascinating because we can test our understanding and wonder of science. Maybe one day, these amazing things will come true.
By Willow Reed
For more, see:
A Trip to the Moon; or Le Voyage Dans La Lune. Dir. Georges Melies. Eastin-Phelan Corp, 1975. Netflix.