NASA’s first space shuttle was the Enterprise, but the first modern space shuttle audiences actually saw lift off on screen was named Moonraker — and piloted by none other than the world’s most famous secret agent.
Confused? Three years after Enterprise served as NASA’s first test shuttle in 1976, and two years before Space Shuttle Columbia became the first NASA shuttle to actually reach space in 1981, several fictional space shuttles resembling the U.S. space agency’s history-making spacecraft graced the screen in 1979’s over-the-top James Bond entry Moonraker.
Perhaps graced is the wrong word. Moonraker is rarely cited as anyone’s favorite James Bond film, but that’s because it’s been assessed the wrong way for years. If you jettison preconceived notions of Moonraker as a great Bond movie, you’ll find it’s much more fun to think of it as a zany 1970s outer space heist movie: a more irreverent, less philosophically minded Ad Astra.
Here’s why Moonraker is a great tongue-in-cheek sci-fi adventure, how it predicted Elon Musk, and where you can watch it for free right now. Mild spoilers ahead for Moonraker (both the film and Ian Fleming’s novel).
Why are there “real” space shuttles in Moonraker?
Although we tend to associate NASA’s space shuttle program with the 1980s, the truth is that the Enterprise was first rolled out by NASA in 1976. When it came time for director Lewis Gilbert to tell his design team how to visualize the space shuttles of Moonraker, there were already very realistic models to study, close at hand.
The plot of Moonraker revolves around Bond trying to track down space shuttles that have been hijacked by some unknown spaceship thief. Superficially, this plot resembles You Only Live Twice, in which evil organization Spectre plucked Gemini and Soyuz capsules out of orbit. As in that film, Moonraker sought to showcase some modicum of spaceflight realism, which explains why the Moonraker shuttle was made to look like a real shuttle set to launch a few years later.
How Moonraker predicted Elon Musk
Although the designs for the space shuttles in Moonraker matched what NASA was doing at the time, the Moonraker shuttles weren’t actually built by the government in the film’s storyline. Instead, they were designed by private firm Drax Industries. This plotline echoes the original Ian Fleming novel, in which the UK government enlisted tech mogul Hugo Drax to help build a super-missile, named Moonraker, that could be a game-changer in the Cold War.
These days, the idea that government-run space agencies would use spacecraft built by private firms is a fact of life. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is the most prominent example, but don’t forget Boeing’s Starliner. In real life, Musk is (probably) not a Bond villain, but you can see why inventing someone like him — a super-rich dude who builds spaceships — would seem over-the-top in 1979.
Why Moonraker is a good sci-fi movie disguised as a corny one
Although the vast majority of Moonraker takes place on Earth and is filled with all the groan-worthy (or borderline offensive) humor audiences at the time had come to expect from 007, the basic storyline is compelling. Turns out, Drax’s plan to repopulate the Earth involves destroying it first. (It calls to mind Robert Redford’s scheme involving HYDRA in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.) From space, the Moonraker shuttles will unleash a disease that will wipe out most people on Earth, after which point the planet will be repopulated by a hand-selected group of Drax’s “ideal” humans.
It’s not exactly sold with the level of seriousness such a premise demands, but those planetary stakes ensure that it will be doomsday on Earth if Bond fails. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, popular culture was still grappling with widespread paranoia about Russia launching nukes against “the West,” but even that international tension paled in comparison to a supervillain taking out all life on Earth.
Key to all this is the detail that Moonraker tried to tackle the notion of a contemporary version of battles in space. Sure, there are lasers involved, but the fact the movie isn’t set in the future makes its anachronisms more interesting than embarrassing. In more recent years, the Apple TV+ series For All Mankind has explored this period of space exploration history more realistically, but Moonraker is the rare retro science fiction movie that floated a surprisingly grounded premise inside its requisite spy-movie cheese.