The First Trip to the Moon, as Envisaged by Robert Heinlein

… in his 1950 story, The Man Who Sold the Moon.  Given the upcoming anniversary of the actual first moon landing, I thought it would be fun to go back and take a look at this fictional version of the first trip.

In Heinlein’s story, the first manned lunar landing is not government-driven. Rather, it is the achievement of entrepreneur/industrialist Delos D Harriman, known to his friends and associates as ‘D.D.”  Having long dreamed of going to the moon, he finally decides that the time is right.

Harriman-known as “our bad boy” to his fellow Directors of the power cartel–finds his colleagues reluctant to invest in a venture whose costs are so high and whose returns are uncertain.  Even his long-time partner, George Strong, fails to see either financial return or emotional appeal in the effort:

George, isn’t there anything in your soul but discounts and dividends? Didn’t you ever sit with a girl on a soft summer night and stare up at the Moon and wonder what was there?

Yeah, I did once.  I caught a cold.

Nevertheless, Strong supports the project out of loyalty, and some tycoons support it because supersalesman Harriman is able to convince them that there is money for them in the project–or loss, if they decline to participate.  Much of the story is devoted to Harriman’s strategies for fund-raising, some of which skirt–or go over–the lines of legality and ethics. He implies to the Moka-Coka company, for example, that another soft drink maker plans to turn the Moon into a massive billboard (using a rocket to scatter black dust on the surface in patterns), and suggests that the public-spirited Moka company might like to invest in the project to preclude such use of the moon by their rival.

As an old real-estate operator, Harriman is very focused on the question:  who owns the moon?…he argues that the question is indeed meaningful, based on real-estate doctrine that a property owner owns a wedge going down to the center of the earth and extending up to infinity. He doesn’t want lunar ownership vested in any country, even the US, because he thinks it would result in world war (given the moon’s value as a rocket-bomb base), and he does want it vested in his operation, for reasons of profitability as well as protection from bad uses.  His legal maneuvering, involving the UN as well as all countries over which the path of the moon passes–and a mix of non-profit, for-profit, and anonymous corporations–is intricately described.

For the technology of the moon trip, Harriman had hoped to use a nuclear fuel which has been applied to power generation, but it proves too unstable for use in a rocket–so well-known chemical rocket technology must be employed instead (rockets are commonly used for long-distance transportation in the era where this story is set).  On the advice of Harriman’s chief engineer, Andrew Ferguson, the most technically-qualified man in rocketry, Bob Coster, is hired to run the project…but he evidently lacks sufficient management experience and is soon overwhelmed.  Harriman tries to help him out:

“Top administration ain’t engineering, and maybe I can show you a few tricks there, if you’ll let me….Top bossing is like sex; until you’ve had it, you don’t know about it.”  Harriman had the mental reservation that if the boy would not take advice, he would suddenly be out of a job, whether Ferguson liked it or not.

Although the story does deal with the technical aspects of the moon trip, that is not its primary focus…it is really a “business romance”, as Colby Cosh called it. “The Man Who Sold The Moon” emphasizes the financial difficulties, deals, the marketing, and the interpersonal stresses involved in the project–even Harriman’s wife is strongly opposed to his pursuit of his dream.   There are endless angles for the raising of money developed by Harriman and his friends, even soliciting contributions from children.

The “man who sold the moon” tag becomes literal when, inspired by stories of the Florida land boom–“sometimes a parcel would change hands a dozen time before anyone got around to finding out that the stuff was ten-foot deep in water”–Harriman suggests selling lots on the moon itself:

“We can offer bargains better than that–an acre, a guaranteed dry acre, for maybe ten dollars–or a thousand acres at a dollar an acre.  Who’s going to turn down a bargain like that?  Particularly after the rumor gets around that the Moon is believed to be loaded with uranium?”

“Is it?”

“How should I know?  When the boom sags a little we will announce the selected location of Luna City–and it will just happen to work out that the land around the site is still available for sale.  Don’t worry, Saul, if it’s real estate, George and I can sell it.  Why, down in the Ozarks, wheter the land stands on edge, we used to sell both sides of the same acre.”

Comparisons between Harriman and Elon Musk come readily to mind–see the Colby Cosh article–though I don’t think Musk has been credibly accused of anything as far over the line as several of Harriman’s maneuvers.  It has also been suggested that Harriman’s name, and some aspects of his character, are owed to the railroad builder Edward Henry Harriman.

I don’t think the date of the first lunar landing is mentioned in the story itself, but it has been placed–based on Heinlein’s future history timeline and on other stories–in 1978.  So real life beat out science fiction, at least from a date standpoint, by nine years.

Could it have really happened that way–the first moon trip not via a gigantic government/corporate program piggybacking off of military missile technology, but rather by a private/corporate venture?  Given the vast amounts of money spent on the Apollo program and its predecessors–certainly much more than the fictional Harriman and his tycoon friends could have raised–it may seem impossible.  But would it really have been?

30 thoughts on “The First Trip to the Moon, as Envisaged by Robert Heinlein”

  1. “(rockets are commonly used for long-distance transportation in the era where this story is set)”
    We use them now. The terminology is different, however, they are now called ‘jets’, from ‘ramjet’ as they do not carry the oxidizer with them.

  2. I believe these were actual high-trajectory rockets, carrying their own oxidizer because they fly above the stratosphere and used for routes such as Australia-to-US.

    A ‘ramjet’ is a jet that needs no compressor stage because it get its airflow from the forward motion. Obviously can’t work from a standing start.

  3. G. Harry Stein worked out a few routes (north south, mostly, to avoid “jet” lag) highly suited to rocket passenger traffic. The problem was that there were just a lot more people wanting to go from NYC to London than either NYC to Buenos Aries or Lesotho to London. Too few customers, and so no rockets.

  4. There is a whole thick anthology called, I think, methusalas children”

    It contains the man who sold the moon and a lot of other great stories that make up a coherant saga.

    Now I have read it again

    There is a follow up story too. The reason dd wanted to go to the moon was because he wanted to go personally. His partners would not let him even when routine passenger service was initiated. The govt won’t let him because he can’t pass the physical.

    He finds a couple of barnstormers with a clapped out rocket to take him to the moon.

    They know who he is and think he got a rotten deal. So agree to take him more for that than money.

    He makes it to the lunar surface and expires.

    A very moving story. As good as the man who sold the moon. Maybe even better in some ways.

    I love Heinlien but it’s been some years since I read him

    I need to fix that.

    John Henry

  5. It was one of my favorites.

    He was very involved in the 1950 movie, Destination Moon.

    They spent a great deal of effort making it right using the technology of the time, especially weightlessness. I’ve never seen it, I’ll have to change that.

    Heinlein was an Annapolis graduate and was invalided out of the Navy in 1939 for tuberculosis.

    I don’t think it matters anymore what NASA plans as far as the Moon is concerned. Musk has the best chance to get there and stay. He’s the only one with his own rockets. Whatever NASA calls their latest plan, the hardware doesn’t exist and never will if they have to make it. It looks like the lesson that NASA learned from Apollo was that actually reaching the Moon ended the gravy train so the answer is to always be planing to build, never building. Musk will do it because he thinks he will make money.

  6. “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” has been in pre-production since the 60’s. All it needs is a couple of hundred million dollars.

  7. (given the moon’s value as a rocket-bomb base)

    That’s why the Russians stopped competing with the US over the moon, even now when they have more launch shuttles than NASA.

    It’s because it has no strategic value whatsoever, due to orbits and space being what it is, not what they told you.

  8. China has something on the moon even now, supposedly. It’s fake of course. But even if it was real, national defense would at least have to consider it a potential threat, which they do not because they know that the moon has no strategic value.

  9. There’s no reason to believe that the Chinese rover on the far side is fake, and good reasons to believe it is as stated.

    It’s something that NASA could have done if they were actually interested in the place rather than being the biggest jobs program since CCC.

  10. I think Moon is a Harsh Mistress is the very best of all his books. I’ve probably read it a couple dozen times.

    On of the best economics textbooks ever written too.

    They used to let me lose among the undergrads from time to time to teach econ 101. It was always the first book on my reading list.

    I don’t think a movie could be be any good. I’d love to see Amazon do it as a 6-8 part miniseries.

    John Henry

  11. It might be my favorite too. It’s hard to see anyone in “woke” Hollywood doing anything good with it. A series would be the way to go, trying to fit it into even a long movie would be a disaster. Amazon is as woke as they come, so I’d watch it to see what sort of a hash they made of it.

    I was flabbergasted when I saw how close “Starship Troopers” was to the book. I’m afraid it couldn’t happen twice.

    It’s a lot harder than it looks to make a movie out of a book. The first problem is that 8 hour movies don’t seem to be in fashion. Then to use a very popular book just invites criticism from all sides.

  12. Actually the Verhoeven film, was travesty of Heinlein’s vision, oc 2070, even thought it aired almost a decade before that series, the second sequel, put a little thought into world building that dystopia, set some years later, how a ‘forever war’ would erode morale,

  13. Thanks, Tommy

    It used to be linked to my home page but a couple months ago I realized that it was getting a bit cluttered and delinked a number of pages until I redo the site. I’m keeping busy Making America Great Again and have not gotten to it. I had the page name wrong.

    Just reread Man Who Sold the Moon last night and will reread Requiem tonight. If I had known I had forgotten that Heinlein actually wrote Requiem, about Harriman finally getting to the moon himself, first. It was written about 10 years before Man Who Sold the Moon

    Both in a nice anthology for about $5 on Kindle.

    Re Amazon: I think they could do a great job on a 6-8 part mini-series of Mistress. No idea how Bezos would feel about the politics but he used to be pretty libertarian/classical liberal. They certainly have the technical capability when adapting books to multi-part mini-series.

    Two that come to mind that are really outstanding are Trollope’s Dr Thorne and LeCarre’s The Night Manager. Both really captured the flavor of the books really well.

    (And re LeCarre if you have not seen the Alec Guinness 6 hour BBC versions of Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People, both are on YouTube and perhaps the best TV ever. )

    But I would worry about the politics. Hard to see how they could make Moon any more Woke than it was when Heinlein wrote it though. The only part I would worry about would be the politics of the Moon revolting against earthbound masters.

    I would definitely watch it.

    I watched about half of Starship Troopers but couldn’t finish it. I like the book but the movie did nothing for me.

    John Henry

  14. I posted this over at Althouse but then though it really belonged here:

    When I ran across this quote from man who sold the moon:

    “You [Harriman’s business partner] ask me to show figures on a brand-new type of enterprise, knowing I can’t. It’s like asking the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk to estimate how much money Curtiss-Wright Corporation would someday make out of building airplanes.”

    I thought of this one from Warren Buffett:

    “Think airlines. Here a durable competitive advantage has proven elusive ever since the days of the Wright Brothers. Indeed, if a farsighted capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk, he would have done his successors a huge favor by shooting Orville down.”

    John Henry

  15. JH…and that’s the key thing: *where* in the value chain is the money to be made? It’s not easy to make money *building *airplanes, but apparently easier than making money *flying* airplanes, at least for passsenger travel.

    Christensen & Raynor, in their book ‘The Innovator’s Solution’, remarked that when attractive profits disappear in a market as a result of commoditization, the opportunity to earn attractive profits will usually emerge at an adjacent stage of the value chain. They call this “the law of conservation of attractive profits. ”

    For example: As the PC industry commoditized, value migrated from the PC manufacturers (assemblers, basically) to lower levels in the value chain: the makers of the microprocessor (Intel) and the operating system (Microsoft). “Money also flowed to the makers of dynamic random access memory (DRAM), such as Sansung and Micron, but not much of it stopped at those stages in the value chain in the form of profit. it flowed through and accumulated instead at firms like Applied Materials, which supplied the manufacturing equipment that the DRAM makers used.”

  16. Re TV mini-series, our blogfriend Robert Avrech, a successful and experienced screenwriter, says that screenwriters typically have much more creative control in a TV series than in a movie intended for theater distribution.

  17. I didn’t say “Starship Troopers was a great movie or even a good one, just that it stayed pretty close to the plot of the novel. Heinlein, when he got wound up about something, had a habit of pounding it home with a sledge hammer only to leave off long enough to get a bigger hammer. The book was not his best and the art of making a movie out of a book is as much what you leave out as in.

    I have been so consistently disappointed by favorite books made into movies that I have trouble working up any enthusiasm. Some of the best movies have been pretty far from the books that they were supposed to be based on. As I said, movies and novels look like they are related but are at best distant cousins.

    A lot of the profit from personal computers lodged with the users. Think of how many secretaries and typists are no longer employed. Even relatively small companies had a whole room full of, mostly women, that typed or operated adding and posting machines. Pretty much gone. The question of whether or not organizations are best served by having their managers time used by typing their own correspondence is something else. A high school friend’s father was medium big in the Dictaphone Corp., another casualty.

  18. MCS…years ago, a technology executive remarked that ‘the main thing we have done with the computer revolution so far is to convert highly-paid executives into incompetent clerk-typists.’ To which, with PowerPoint, we can add ‘incompetent graphics artists.’

    Secretaries did, and those who still exist still do, a lot more than typing: they help with the flow of information, help to keep chaos at bay, and act as intelligence amplifiers for the people they are supporting.

  19. Mcs,

    I tend to agree with you about movies made out of books. They kinda tend to suck in most cases. There are some exceptions. The Big Short was pretty good in both movie and book. Sometimes a Great Notion is a great book and Paul Newman made it a great movie.

    But in most cases the 90-120 minutes of a movie is just not enough time to develop characters or sub-plots or even plots in many cases. I mentioned Tinker Tailor above. I had never read any of LeCarre’s novels though I’d been familiar with them since the 60’s. It just never seemed my style. 6-7 years ago I saw the then recent movie on DVD at Costco and bought to watch on the plane. Excellent movie and it caused me to read almost all of LeCarre’s books, most multiple times. I am now a huge fan.

    But the movie is a pale shadow of the book. Then I found that BBC had made it into a mini-series with Alec Guiness in the 80s. 6 1 hour episodes and it really captures the book. I can’t imagine anyone other than Guiness as Smiley anymore.

    They also did Smiley’s people in 6 episodes again with Guiness.

    You can watch or download all eps of both from YouTube.

    I’ve seen a couple of movies of War and Peace going back to the 50s and 60’s. they were pretty epic, 2-3 hours long. A russian version in 2 parts each 2-3 hours long. Never had the slightest idea what it was about.

    2-3 years ago I discovered a 20 part version starring Anthony Hopkins by the BBC from the 70s. Download it from YouTube. Great great series, I’ve watched the whole thing 3 times so far. Will probably rewatch in the future.

    It is not that you can’t get books on film, I don’t think. There are lots of examples I could name in addition to the above 3 and the 2 that I mentioned earlier. The problem is that you can’t get it onto 2 hours (or less) of film.

    Masterpiece Theatre used to be a good example of dramatizing books. Got me hooked on Trollope among other things. I don’t know if they do it any more.

    John Henry

  20. Friday, I made the remark that our supervisors were working too hard and supervising too little. Thirty years ago; management time is the most critical resource.

    While we’re at it; a forty hour week is like a five gallon bucket, it will hold a lot of different things but never six gallons.

  21. There is no reason any manager should not be able to type, in a word processor, at least as fast as they can write. It may take a bit of practice and experience but it can’t be that hard, can it?

    Before WP, when I was employed and had 2 secretaries plus a couple clerks in my maintenance department here was the process to generate a memo or report.

    1) Ask my secretary to gather the required information.

    2) Ask my secretary to go back and get the right info since I didn’t explain it clearly and/or she didn’t understand it

    3) Handwrite my report. Slowly because even when writing slowly I am pretty illegible even to myself.

    4) Give her the handwritten report to type. Typing on a typewriter is always slow even with a good typist.

    5) Get the typed draft, go through it with red pen, send it back for retyping.

    6) repeat (sometimes multiple times)

    7) approve the final version, she makes copies, files some and schleps the others to the mail room to put in trays for distribution.

    And so on.

    No, managers need to be able to type, and format and edit their own reports. Secretaries, even really good ones, are horrible at this.

    They are extremely useful as administrative assistants, though doing some of the other tasks mentioned.

    John Henry

  22. I can type, format, and edit just fine. But various secretaries I have had (sometimes under the title of ‘executive assistant’) have increased my productivity considerably. I think that if this kind of help were available to a higher proportion of people in an organization, it would help. Obviously, you need to right kind of person for the task, much more than purely a typist.

  23. An awful lot of time and mental energy in the modern office us consumed by creating power point presentations, as well as the ever proliferating number of specialized software/apps/etc, for specific communication/management tasks–jira, confluence, slack, etc.
    I believe that secretaries and managers definitely fall under the 10x rubric that is used for software engineers–a very small minority are extremely productive and can transform a company, most are useless at best and malign at worst. It is very strange how we treat office job requirements as basic competencies that anything can do, equally well, and then provide zero in the way of actual training for doing them, given that office jobs are the norm and have been for generations now.

  24. There’s no reason to believe that the Chinese rover on the far side is fake, and good reasons to believe it is as stated.

    Is there a Pentagon plan to destroy the Chinese rover, any moon bases it could be building, or any other Chinese moon weapon or kinetic drop WMD that could be payloaded off on the moon?

    There’s plenty of “good reasons”, but not for what you believe stated.

    That should have been the first thing that comes to mind. I notice nobody here even realizes it. If the moon has strategic value, then China being on the moon is far more a strategic threat than any trade issue.

  25. Because the moon has no strategic value, it does not matter what the Chinese are doing on the far side or what they find there, because the moon has no strategic value. If space is a vacuum and you can drop WMDs from the moon, then it would have strategic value.

    Is this logic difficult to grasp?

    If the moon has strategic value, Russia would have tried to compete with Apollo for moon bases. Apollo would have a moon base. Somebody would have a moon base, even if it is just a set of automatic drones that kill on sight to prevent militarization of space. Sorta like North Korean vs South Korean DMZ. It’s too important to let people on. Or the Antarctic Treaty, longest lasting treaty in the UN that has been 100% enforced with no violations whatsoever.

  26. Secretary means more than assistant, more like deputy, acting in the place of. A good secretary is a force multiplier. Someone who can allow a supposedly crucial person to concentrate on what’s important.

    Whenever I see a discussion on cost per page for a printer or copier I wonder why they never talk about the cost per page to have someone read it.

Comments are closed.