At Christmastime, I pointed out “Christmas on the Moon,” a 1959 episode of the nearly-forgotten TV series Men into Space that can be seen on Youtube. I wrote: “I’m always intrigued when filmmakers attempt to put fairly accurate science into a science fiction story.”
Well, even though not only Christmas but also Easter have come and gone, I’ve returned to thinking about the show. I’d like to take a closer look at the episode’s attempts to deal with scientific issues. And since today the world is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope, examining a TV drama revolving around a telescope in space might be relevant for a moment.
In so doing, I will mention plot points in the episode, so heed my SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched it.
In “Christmas on the Moon,” Colonel Edward McCauley (played by William Lundigan) and his wife host a pre-Christmas party, just before spacemen and astronomers depart for the Moon to study a comet. From the main lunar base, they make an arduous eight-hour hike to a lonely observatory. Having arrived, one of the astronomers becomes ill. The others struggle to keep him alive; meanwhile a medical team sets out for the observatory, braving a deadly meteor bombardment that accompanies the comet.
Good: Dr. Farrar (played by Whit Bissell) plans to journey to the Moon because a lunar telescope will give him especially good observations of the passing comet. In the 1950s, advocates of spaceflight always mentioned the advantages of doing astronomy with telescopes beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Today, instruments aboard spacecraft, most famously the Hubble Telescope, routinely contribute to astronomy. Indeed, at this moment, a telescope aboard the Chang’e 3 lander is making ultraviolet observations from the lunar surface.
Not so good: Serving Tom and Jerrys—a holiday drink made from whipped egg whites and rum—Col. McCauley somewhat reluctantly offers one to the pregnant Edith Nichols (Patricia Manning): “…Are you allowed to have one?”
Mrs. Nichols responds, “An expectant mother isn’t sick! She’s just, well—expectant.”
Things have changed. In 2015, expectant mothers on television are unlikely to be portrayed drinking alcohol.
Good: To the mild shock of the other characters, young Dr. Jim Nichols (Keith Larsen) dismisses the Christmas narrative as “a lot of nonsense… just a hangover from the Middle Ages.” Yet he professes great admiration, and affection, for the older astronomer Farrar, who is considerably more sympathetic to Christian belief, and says that he is honored to be collaborating with the older astronomer.
Not only does “Christmas on the Moon” portray scientists of differing religious convictions working together, it subtly underscores the truth that good science can be done by atheists, Christians, or anybody else. Science belongs to everyone who’s willing to play by its rules.
Good: Particles of dust and ice, orbiting the sun in trajectories near, but not quite the same as, the comet’s orbit, increase the frequency of meteor impacts on the Moon. This poses a hazard to space-suited astronauts making the long journey on foot between the main base and the remote observatory.
Loose particles from a comet’s nucleus form the surrounding “coma” giving the comet its fuzzy appearance. Over years of time, under the subtle influence of a variety of forces, the orbits of such particles diverge slightly from the nucleus’s own path. Eventually the comet is trailed by a long, skinny cloud of solid objects. This is the origin of many meteor showers. If the Moon crossed the comet’s orbit, we’d expect a bombardment of the lunar surface, even as the cometary nucleus itself passed well clear of the Moon.
Not so good: The meteor hazard is portrayed as a very dense and rapid bombardment, rather like an artillery barrage. It seems more likely that such meteors would be further apart and less frequent. That would be much less dramatic, though, and less effective at emphasizing urgent danger to astronauts hiking across the lunar surface. Also, nobody seems worried that the meteors might damage the pressurized observatory habitat they’re in.
Good: Early on, the characters discuss theories of comet composition, emphasizing that comets may incorporate ice. Later, desperate to keep the ailing Farrar cool while waiting for the surgeon to arrive, Nichols realizes that the cometary fragments hitting the landscape outside may supply him with a vital slab of ice. He disobeys an order and risks his life to venture outside and retrieve it.
Not so good: Nichols is inspired to do this when the delirious Dr. Farrar starts quoting John Donne’s poetry. Donne’s song begins “Go and catch a falling star…” This is a bit heavy-handed. Nichols is already an expert on comets, and really wouldn’t need a feverish line from a random seventeenth-century poem to remind him that there might be ice falling out there.
Want to know what I think? I think the screenwriters, Lawrence L. Goldman and David Duncan, may have been listening to the radio. On 9 October 1957, singer Perry Como recorded a song by Lee Pockriss and Paul Vance which began:
Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Never let it fade away…
In the spring of 1958, “Catch a Falling Star” became a hit. (Youtube here.) It may still have been on jukeboxes when “Christmas on the Moon” was being written a year or so later.
I have no evidence for this, but I’m willing to bet that Goldman or Duncan had this song (which apparently owes something to John Donne) in mind. Perhaps they thought a reference to a great poet would be classier than a reference to an ephemeral pop song. Or perhaps they preferred to use the song, but couldn’t easily obtain permission to use its lyrics–whereas John Donne’s words were in the public domain, absolutely free. Anyway, that’s what I think.
Not so good: In reality, traveling at typical cometary speeds, the fragments would probably hit the Moon hard enough to vaporize, and large chunks of ice would probably not be left over. Still, the scenario we see is not impossible.
Not so good: After all the trouble they went to to reach the telescope outpost, we don’t see the characters making any observations of the comet! It’s as though Dr. Farrar’s illness made them forget why they were there. Perhaps we can presume that Dr. Nichols has been operating the telescope in gaps between scenes. Or during the commercial breaks.
All in all, I have to give Men into Space high marks, not just for incorporating plausible science into this episode, but for having science provide the motivation for the story (the comet observations), part of the peril (the comet-linked meteor shower), and part of the solution to the crisis (ice from the comet itself). I can forgive them a few lapses. I’m always hoping to see more TV shows and movies that treat science with this level of respect. Nice job.