In The Event Of A Moon Disaster
Screenplay by Mike Jones
May 2, 2011
One of the greatest human endeavors was the Apollo moonshot program. Hurtling through the void of space to our nearest celestial neighbor, the three-man crews of each mission where just a hair’s breadth away from disaster and almost certain death. Mike Jones’ 2011 Black List screenplay In The Event Of A Moon Disaster takes the very real, but fortunately never used, contingency plans for some accident on the lunar service drawn up by NASA as the starting point for an alternative history story of survival and Cold War politics.
The Apollo mission to the moon contained millions of moving parts that needed to move in concert. Just one small thing failing and falling out of sync could have led to potentially disastrous consequences, as was shown with the near catastrophe of the Apollo 13 mission. But imagine if something seemingly so inconsequential as a brief amount of air escaping when the Apollo 11 lunar module separates from the command module happens. That brief amount of pressure against the lunar module could impart just enough extra force against the lunar module that the calculations made to slow its descent to the lunar surface don’t dictate the proper amount of thrust needed to bring it to a soft and safe touchdown. Instead, it crashes damaging its landing gear and its ability to take off while leaving its occupants Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wounded and unable to communicate their status back to Earth. At the National Air and Space Administration, contingency plans are put into place that are designed more to protect the nations’ honor than it is to find some way to help the pair of shipwrecked astronauts survive and find a way home.
As you can imagine, there are numerous similarities between In The Event Of A Moon Disaster to Andy Weir’s 2011 novel The Martian, which served as the basis for Ridley Scott’s 2015 film of the same name. A planet mourns space explorers mistakenly thought dead. Said explorers are unable to communicate their non-dead status back to Earth. Once discovered that the astronauts are alive, their actual survival is kept secret by authorities who do not see a chance for rescue and who wish not to raise the public’s hopes for one. We have friends and fellow crewmates of those struggling to survive defying orders to render what assistance they can. But given that both projects were probably being written concurrently, it is highly doubtful that one influenced the other. More so, it is just a case of progressing logically from their similar premises, with the periodic new obstacles that story mechanics demand be thrown into the path of the protagonists being dictated by the stories’ similar environments and technology.
But where Jones’s screenplay differs from The Martian is with its infusion of 1960s real world politics. Despite President John F. Kennedy’s optimistic and inspiring words about the difficulties of a lunar program and overcoming these obstacles as a nation for the betterment of mankind, the Cold War was definitely a factor driving the United States’s desire to land on the moon first. The fact that the Soviets beat the US into orbit with the first man-made satellite Sputnik and the first manned craft into orbit, piloted by Yuri Gregarin, had the country lagging behind in the Space Race. The launchpad fire of Apollo 1 that had claimed the lives Of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee was a further set back to the nation’s hopes to land first on the moon. Armstrong’s “one small step for a man” was really more a great propaganda statement that delivered a tremendous morale boost for the nation than it was “one giant leap for mankind.”
But those stumbling blocks put the US and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in a rather sticky situation – The astronauts heading to the moon had to either succeed or appear to die heroically in the attempt. It would be a public relations and a political disaster if the world had to watch stranded astronauts slow die as their life-giving oxygen, water and food supplies slowly deplete. Right after the struggle for the astronauts’ survival, this is the biggest source of the drama in the screenplay. We have often seen stories of people who have been confronted by the decision to let a small number of people die in the service of a greater good. Here, it forms the spine of the screenplay’s second act. The script further explores its Cold War setting through the Russian space agency scientists who defy orders from the Kremlin and reach out to the NASA technicians with some unexpected help.
Unfortunately, the form that help takes turns out to be the script’s one real false note. While the Soviets were indeed trying to beat the US to the moon, internal political struggles made sure that they never actually came close to having a manned craft that could have made trip. Having the Soviets making it to the moon first but suffering a similar, though more fatal, disaster which their government promptly covered up helps to emphasize the danger that Armstrong and Aldrin are in. But it also feels like it is bending the film’s alternate history premise a bit too far, leaving us with a third act deus ex machina rather than a solution that springs organically from the films’ setup.
Despite the reality-stretching nature of the crashed Soyuz capsule, the journey there to retrieve the oxidizer allows the screenplay to work out the relationship between Armstrong and Aldrin. Neither man is prone to much conversation, so the reconciliation of their conflict comes not through confessional discussion but through their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the other’s survival and their willingness to not accept that sacrifice from the other.
Jones’ screenplay was optioned a few months before its December 2011 appearance on the Black List. The Girl On The Train director Tate Taylor was attached to direct back in 2014, but since then there has been no news on the project. It would be a shame if the script can’t make escape velocity out of development hell.