Early American Cinema | Cinema Links | Online Articles | David Levy Contact

Georges Méliès NASA letter

From: A Trip To The Movies Georges Méliès, Filmmaker and Magician (1861 -1938)
Edited by Paola Cherchi Usai, George Eastman House, 1991.

Correspondence between David Levy and The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) On Georges Méliès Le Voyage Dans la Lune

January 5, 1985
James M Beggs
Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. Beggs,

As a student of the early history of the cinema I have for some time been intrigued by the possibility that the "splashdown" method of recovery of space capsules in the pre-shuttle phase of NASA program was in some way inspired by a 1902 film subject, Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), created by Georges Méliès: in the concluding sequence, the rocket returning from he moon plunges into the water and is then towed into shore. Is there anything to this, or is my hypothesis "all wet"?

David Levy

February 25, 1985
Mr. David Levy
Montreal, Quebec

Dear Mr. Levy:

Your recent letter to Mr. James Beggs ask whether the Apollo (and previous era spacecraft) "splashdown" recovery technique owes anything to George Méliès film Le Voyage dans la lune. Although the similarities are striking, the recovery technique used for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules was dictated more by the then-current engineering capabilities than any imaginative interplay between the engineers and Monsieur Méliès.

The capabilities of using small, retro firing rockets fro "braking" a spacecraft descent were very limited in the late 1950s through the mid-1970s when we used this technique to very good advantage on the Viking spacecraft, which landed on Mars in 1976.

The reentry technique developed for the Mercury and subsequent generation "capsule" spacecraft was predicated on using parachutes to slow the craft's velocity to a speed [that] would be tolerable for a "soft" landing in a large "shock absorber" system such as the oceans or a lake. The seats used in these capsules were designed to provide additional "shock" absorption for the occupant. Even still, the reentry force of gravity (G) experienced by Mercury, Gemini and Apollo era astronauts was often in excess of five Gs. One G is the equivalent of jumping off a a 12-foot-high fence or building and landing on the ground. You can imagine the type of shock absorption systems [that] were required for our astronauts during these flights.

But, this system was still easier, more reliable and safer (given the various shock absorption systems used) than landing on a land surface. The Soviet space program has developed the necessary capabilities to land on the hard surface of their eastern homeland. Additional consideration was given at the time of the Mercury and Gemini programs to the vast expanses of ocean which were available for our use as well as the extensive capabilities of the U.S. Navy in assisting the recovery of these spacecraft. Our next generation design -the Space Shuttle- was conceived and planned from the start for a "wheels down" approach to reentry and landing and as you know has performed admirably in this regard.

Your suggestion isn't as "all wet" as you might believe. The capabilities of the engineering at the time of Méliès film had not been totally eclipsed half-a-century later when the Mercury and Gemini systems were being designed and built. Another example of science being more interesting than science fiction.

Charles R. Redmond
Public Affairs Officer
Office of Space Flight

Click on images below to view enlarged scans of published letters in a new window.

Georges Méliès Nasa 1     Georges Méliès Nasa 2

This website is designed and maintained by Joshua & David Levy