Czech docu-film ‘Ticket to the Moon’ sheds light on universal aspirations across Cold War divides

‘Ticket to the Moon’, photo: pandistan s.r.o.​

In the early days of space travel, years before the Apollo 11 mission, an Austrian journalist walked into a travel office in Vienna asking to reserve a flight to the Moon. Pan American Airways took his reservation, launching what would years later become the carrier’s ‘First Moon Flights Club’. Among the nearly 100,000 people who joined it was the grandfather of Czech documentary film producer Veronika Janatková. Her directorial debut, ‘Ticket to the Moon’, offers a unique perspective on universal longings across the divide of the Iron Curtain, against the backdrop of the Space Race, and in the aftermath of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia.

In first months of ‘Normalisation’ – the ironic term for the return of hardline Communism after the crushing of the Prague Spring reforms in 1968 – hundreds of Czechoslovaks reserved tickets to the Moon through Pan Am. In fact, in no other nation apart from the United States were sales so brisk.

While it may seem like a flight of pure fancy even now, at the time of the Apollo 11 mission, fifty years ago, many holding reservations thought commercial travel to the Moon in their lifetimes was a real possibility. Though, as Pan Am cautioned, eventual fares may be “out of this world”. I began an interview with ‘Ticket to the Moon’ director Veronika Janatková by asking her how the idea for her new documentary came about.

I understand it was from a casual conversation with your grandfather, who’s a physicist, specializing in thermodynamics, and he mentioned he had ‘a ticket to the Moon’?

“Yes. It was maybe now six years ago when my grandpa just mentioned it out of the blue, and then just went on with the conversation. He said it like it was an everyday thing – to own a ticket to the Moon.

“Of course, for me it was shocking and intriguing, and I’m a curious being, so I started doing research. It was not easy, because Pan Am is not around anymore, and there are no real digital archives about Pan Am.

“And the Czech archives of the security services from the time of Communism didn’t have much. So it was for me a journey of many years to find out what this ‘Ticket to the Moon’ was, actually.”

As you mention, Pan American Airlines went bankrupt, in 1991, and its ‘First Moon Flights Club’ actually closed in 1971, so how did you go about finding the protagonists? Pretty much everyone you interview had a ticket – or a reservation for a ticket.

“Right. At the beginning, I started with national archives. I was thinking that there has to be something, some evidence of this, in Czech archives. So, I was in touch with the Ministry of Transport and others, the archives of the American Embassy, and it was really hard to find anything.”

I’m imagining that initial call, when you first ask –

“I have the feeling that having ‘a ticket to the moon’ was kind of a national sport back then… For people in Czechoslovakia, everything that had to do with America and its political successes provided a certain satisfaction after the [Soviet] occupation.” – Czech journalist Karel Pacner, who covered the Apollo 11 launch at Cape Canaveral.

“It was exactly like that! I was calling and saying, ‘Hi. My grandpa has a ticket to the Moon from Pan Am. Do you have any information about it?’ (laughs) So, a lot of people were having doubts about my sanity, obviously. And I slowly realized I was not going to get far that way.

“Online, I found a few articles about ticket owners. Some of them were sad that they were not flying there. Some were complaining that they never got any news from Pan Am after. Then I found out it was the University of Miami, the Richter Library, which has the Pan Am materials in their archives, so I decided to go to Miami.”

You made two versions of the film – a shorter cut for ARTE television, the German station, focusing on the international aspects, and a longer one for the festival circuit, where your grandfather, Zlatěk Maršák, features prominently. What creative challenges were involved in making the two versions, or difficult decisions were there in what to cut?

“It was all very challenging because of the deadline and time I had to spend on it. ARTE came on board – and I’m extremely grateful for it, because without their support I would not have been able to make the movie; so it was vital, crucial for me. But they also imposed a deadline because they needed to stream the movie.

Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission…

“Exactly. And they decided to broadcast it already in January! So, I had literally only 10 months to make the (50 minute) TV version. And this made it difficult for me to have festival distribution because the TV version, the shorter one, was finished before the festival version, and was already shown to quite a wide public – and not many festivals would be ready to screen it because it had been on television previously.

“But as for the content and challenges of the choices I had to make – Yes, I had to think about the relevance questions or information from history. For a Czech, Slovak or central European audience, I don’t have to talk much about ’68, for example. I don’t have to explain what the Prague Spring is. But a spectator from France, let’s say, might not be exactly familiar with what ’68 means, what was the Prague Spring, the invasion. So, it’s important to think about the audience.”

Veronika Janatková,  photo: archive of Veronika Janatková
Quite unique to the Czech or Czechoslovak ticket holders is exactly what you’ve mentioned – the aftermath of the Soviet-led invasion, coupled with the ‘Space Race’ in the midst of the Cold War. How was it was Czech ticket holders, do you think? Was it different for them – the symbolism or meaning that these tickets held?

“It’s my assumption – because I did not find many ticket holders who were still alive, or their contacts. But maybe I will start with a little statistic that I found in the Pan Am archives: in 1969, Czechoslovaks were second on the list of people having tickets – first were Americans, who had thousands, and second were Czechoslovaks who had this ticket to the Moon.

“And for me, it’s exactly what you are saying – it means that people were seeing it as a kind of escape, at least a mental escape, from occupied Czechoslovakia. So, I do think it had a great resonance or relevance, just because of the political situation.”

You interviewed ticket holders from America, Poland, Germany – including, I think, the very first one to buy one?

“An Austrian – it was his idea, actually.”

Okay – so, he’s the one who went in 1964 to Pan Am and said he wanted a ticket to the Moon?

“He went to a travel office, and there were representatives of different travel agencies, and he was speaking with a Pan Am representative but also an Aeroflot [Soviet] one. Because he wanted to be sure that he would get to the Moon eventually.

“So, he booked it through Pan Am and Aeroflot, but Aeroflot [jokingly] replied that they were sorry, but the first Moon flight was fully booked – but they could help him with a reservation at a hotel on the Moon – at the Hotel Crater. He was very happy with this proposal. (laughs)”

“Aeroflot [jokingly] replied that they were sorry, the first Moon flight was fully booked – but they could help him with a reservation at a hotel on the Moon, at the Hotel Crater. He was very happy with this proposal.”

Okay, that’s a detail I wasn’t aware of! Now, this film marks your debut as a director, but you’ve been a producer for a long time, lived abroad for some 15 years, and done films on socio-political narratives, one set in Rwanda, and so on. How big a departure was it for you? What was it like to be on the other side of the camera, so to speak? How big a change was it?

“Huge – it was super challenging. Not so much in terms of responsibilities or creativities, but this film especially because my grandfather is in it. So, there is my dearest family is involved. And it’s hard to have the role of director and granddaughter at the same time. That was challenging.

“And, yes, it was challenging to be the director. But I have to say I feel very lucky with the people around me and my colleagues and friends have been supporting me – it’s been very much with the same people who I worked with previously on their films. So, I made this movie in a different role, but I have my crew.”

I don’t know what happened off-camera with your grandfather, but on-camera, he was a very good sport. I mean, he gets into a space suit, goes around the city…

“Well, there was a bit of negotiation with my grandpa to get him into the space suit on him! As a professor who was used to standing in the front of class in all his glory to walk around Prague in a space suit was not always so easy. But, I have to say some of those shots were of me in the suit. The astronaut or cosmonaut climbing on roofs – that was not grandpa anymore. I’d be too afraid for him.”

And how old was he during that shoot?

“It was two years ago, or a year ago in some cases. He’s 85.”

‘Ticket to the Moon’,  photo: pandistan s.r.o.​
About the timing – there was the invasion of August 1968, the moon launch the next year, but actually before it was Stanley Kubrik’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which has a scene with a fictional Pan Am ‘Space Clipper” [that docks inside a gigantic space station miles above Earth]. I imagine you’d have loved to have gotten the rights, but the cost would have been astronomical, if you’ll pardon the pun. Did you try?

“I got information about the archives and prices – and it was out of this world, for me. It was out of the question and didn’t consider it, actually.

“What I found out from stewardesses in Kubrik’s movie, they were wearing these extremely refined costumes [uniforms], and they were real – Pan Am had actually exactly these costumes; they had planned them. And back in that time – this in information I got from one of the Pan Am stewardesses – when the ladies were hired, they were asked if they would be okay to fly to the Moon!

“And they were also asked to try these kind of costumes, just to see how it fits. It had a kind of moon shape and everything. I was trying to find one but couldn’t. It was on my mind. I also wanted to have the floating pen in the after effects.”

We’re talking today ahead of a screening and discussion of your film at Světozor cinema in Prague. What’s on the agenda?

“There will be Karel Pacner, who is also one of the protagonists in the film – in the Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia, he is the specialist, historian about space discoveries. Already back then, he was at the Apollo 11 launch. So, I’m looking forward to having him there.

“And Ivan Adamovič, who is also in the movie – he’s a writer and science fiction specialist. He’s one of the curators of Planet Eden, an exhibition here in Prague, talking about utopian visions of the future.

‘Ticket to the Moon’,  photo: pandistan s.r.o.
“During the Soviet times, people had these positive and utopian visions of the future, and that for me was really important to include in the movie. Apart from the motivation of my grandfather, this is second most important element, actually, because I feel it’s troubling me that there is no positive vision of tomorrow. It’s very dystopic. It’s very dark.

“And I’ve been looking at the period of the ‘60s a bit romantically, maybe a bit naively, but I was looking at it as a time when people had a tomorrow – as a time when people were imagining something better was to come. That’s very inspiring for me, and Ivan Adamovič is one of the people talking about this topic.”

And are there still festival circuits to go to?

“I hope it will start! Yeah, there are –I have five festivals coming up, and I’m really looking for an American premiere. The film has never been screened in America, and for me it’s so relevant and so important to screen it there. And I hope it’s going to travel—it’s also thanks to the Institute of Documentary Film, who have included this film in their selection ‘East Silver Caravan’. So, I hope through them it’s going to be seen a bit.”