Tribalism in a Starkly Capitalist Atomic Age

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

James Lafond reviews Heinlein’s classic Destination Moon:

A scientist, a retired admiral, a test pilot turned entrepreneur, and a second string radio technician decide to defy U.S. environmental edicts, and blast off in their atomic space ship from the Mohave Desert instead of waiting to apply for new unaffordable permits in Fiji. These men judged that the privatized space mission would be scrapped if it was delayed any longer, and acted out of a patriotic impulse to beat the Soviets to the moon.

In 1950 the Moon was envisioned as a ballistic platform, and the Cold War was only a few years old. Heinlein was writing before the Korean Conflict took off, and envisioned atomic space travel in a Cold War future that might be placed in the 1980s.

The technology imagined was fascinating — and horrifically dirty. The ethics of the men involved were anchored by patriotism and the desire not to permit the one man among them who had children to perish. The masculine ethos of the story is nearly timeless — excepting our own neutered age. The men declare, one after the other, in various discussions, that their first duty is to the group — the tribe. This is a book on tribalism set in a starkly capitalist atomic age in which nations walk the knife edge of nuclear Armageddon. The most interesting and workable aspect of the story is the quote leading into each chapter from a book on the history of transportation by an Arabic author of a more distant future than that imagined by the author for the first lunar landing.

Destination Moon was simply a great, thought-provoking read that holds up after 65 years for the pointedly simple reason that it is about men testing the boundaries of humanity, which has the purpose envisioned for men across all cultures and ages except, curiously, for our present one.

I haven’t read the original story, but I vaguely recall the movie.


  1. I don’t think you can really call the output of a solid-core nuclear thermal rocket “horrifically dirty,” at least not outside the context of that queer modern terror which so greatly over-weights radiation in comparison to chemical or other dangers. This is especially true of a small number of launches (like 1 in the story) or practically any number from an area far from population centers. Say, the American Southwest or the East coast of Florida.

  2. Isegoria says:

    Isn’t the output of a nuclear thermal rocket simply super-hot hydrogen? (Or whatever reaction mass it’s using?)

    Now, if things don’t go well…

  3. R. says:

    Isn’t the output of a nuclear thermal rocket simply super-hot hydrogen?

    Depends on what type. Most don't spew fuel everywhere. A nuclear salt-water rocket, using uranium salts that go critical in the nozzle..

    I don't see the point of all this. A serious access to space requires infrastructure, not just vehicles. Skyhooks, maglev launchers, whatever — all alien to the mentality of speed and expediency that gave us the abominable Saturn V and the dead-end of Apollo.

  4. R. says:

    Why is he using the word ‘tribe’, when the author presumably meant nation?

  5. Candide III says:

    Even an Orion-type nuclear pulse rocket — the one that rides on atomic blasts — is not that bad, because in contrast to spent nuclear fuel, almost all fission products in a blast are short-lived. Pick a remote uninhabited spot and it can be done. Yes, nuclear tests have left traces of radioactivity all around the world, and the collective dose from them is not zero, but (a) even assuming linear no-threshold dose-response hypothesis holds, any health effects from it are not distinguishable against background and (b) we still use X-ray scans and CT, to say nothing of automobiles.

  6. Isegoria, a solid core will see some neutron activation of the propellant. Hydrogen needs a double-capture to become unstable, so it’s not common. The problem gets somewhat worse if you’re using denser propellants that are more practical for surface launch, like methane. Note that it’s not because of the greater density but because the chemicals in the propellant are easier to activate.

    Most of the contamination in the exhaust is due to the abrasion of fuel elements by the propellant flow, but even that’s nothing too crazy. No reason you couldn’t launch such a vehicle from the Mohave or a oil-rig type platform a bit off the Florida coast.

    Candide III is correct that even Orion doesn’t produce a terrifying amount of contamination. Fallout’s only really produced by the initial ground-burst that gets the ship into the air and I believe the calculation stands that each launch will cause one additional worldwide death by cancer. I’d be interested to see how that compares with the (chemical) health effects of an equivalent LEO payload of shuttle or Proton launches.

    Even that’s gone a bit past the board as they recently figured out that if you launch the Orion from a big metal plate covered in graphite there’s practically no fallout produced.

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