Conspiracy Theory: Did We Go to the Moon?

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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This page is based on a television special,  Conspiracy Theory: Did We Go to the Moon? produced by Bruce Nash and aired on the Fox Network in March, 2001.

The Cast

Arguing for various aspects of the conspiracy theory were Bill Kaysing, described as an engineer and analyst for Rocketdyne, Brian O'Leary, a "NASA astronaut in the 1960's", Paul Lazarus, a producer, Ralph Rene, "Author/Scientist", Bart Sibrel, "Investigative Journalist", Jan Lundberg, described as a technician for Hasselblad, Donald Percey of the "Royal Photographic Society" and Howard McCurdy, "space historian at American University." Counterarguments were supplied by former NASA spokesman Julian Scheer and Paul Field, NASA LEM specialist. Some of the claims made in the program are discussed below, followed by a few topics not addressed in the program.

Up to 20% of the American Public Believes We Did Not Go To The Moon

Is this the same American public that regularly wrote angry letters to Dave Barry when he said stuff like the Leaning Tower of Pisa was in Paris, or that the Czech Republic and Slovakia used to go by the name "The Netherlands?" That wrote in saying they were afraid to stuff turkeys because he once wrote a column saying that giblet snakes lived inside? That American public?

There is no idea on God's green earth so dumb that you can't get a big chunk of the American public to buy it. These are the same people who believe you can cut taxes but expand services, and who believe you can extract oil from the ground indefinitely without running out of it.

And if 20% believe we didn't go to the moon, that means 80% do, right? Why are the 20% more worthy of being taken seriously than the 80%?

No Stars Are Visible

The Apollo astronauts all landed on the day side of the moon, and all the videos they shot from orbit were over the day side, so the exposure settings were all for daylight. Set your camera to 1/125 at f/8 (a setting typical of the slower films in use in 1969). Aim it at the night sky and shoot pictures. Tell me how many stars you see. Aim your camcorder at the sky and see how many stars you can film.

Even with the eye you'd have difficulty seeing stars from the daytime lunar surface unless you stood in a shadow and shielded yourself from any light reflected from the ground, for the same reason you can't see stars from a brightly lit parking lot at night. 

The Flag Waves

Sure it does. The flag had a stiffening rod on the upper side so it would stand out from the staff. When the astronauts moved the pole, the free corner lagged behind by simple inertia. The flag actually flops unnaturally quickly because there is no air resistance to impede it.

No Dust on the Lander Footpads

Dust on the airless moon won't behave like dust on the earth. It won't hang in suspension. Even the tiniest dust particle will travel a ballistic path like a thrown baseball. So any dust kicked up by the landing will fly away from the lander and fall to the surface some distance away.

When the astronauts walk, the dust they kick up doesn't hang in a cloud but plummets like a stone - literally. There's no air to keep it suspended.

No Engine Noise is Audible

None is audible on transcripts of Space Shuttle launches, either. Nor do you hear engine noise when an airline pilot speaks over the loudspeaker, even though it's plainly audible in the passenger compartment. The blast noise goes mostly out and back. The proximity of the microphone to the speaker's mouth means that voice will drown out whatever engine noise there is.

Temperature Contrasts

One criticism of the Apollo landings was that no provision was made for the huge temperature contrasts between the sunlit and shaded areas on the Moon.

I could scarcely believe that anybody who claimed to have an engineering background would confuse temperature and heat, but that's what happened in the program. Temperature is how fast atoms are moving in a material. Heat is how much total energy those atoms have. You can stick your hand in a 500-degree oven without injury, but touch any solid object in the oven and you'll burn. Everything has the same temperature, but the amount of heat in the air isn't enough to burn you quickly, whereas the amount in the grill or pan will be. Also the solid conducts heat a lot faster than the air, but a vacuum is the poorest conductor of all.

So it may be plus 200 degrees in the lunar sunlight and minus 200 in the shade, but in a vacuum there is no heat. The only way to cool off in a vacuum is by radiating away heat - there's no surrounding material to conduct heat away.  It doesn't take much insulation to protect an astronaut in a vacuum. So an astronaut on Pluto would not freeze to death instantly, indeed, with a little insulation to retain the 80-100 watts of heat the human body radiates, he wouldn't freeze at all. It would be much easier to protect an astronaut on Pluto from freezing than someone in a blizzard in the Antarctic. (My car stalled once in -80 wind chills. I was well prepared for the cold, and decided to walk to a gas station a mile or so away. I got about 100 yards when I realized the wind was sucking heat out of me at a horrifying rate. I decided to wait in my car where I only had to cope with still air at -25. Fortunately someone came by at that moment and gave me a lift.)

And by the way, it won't be 200 degrees in the sunlight. The sun would strike an astronaut no more fiercely than on earth. The only reason the lunar surface gets that hot is that it gets continuous daylight for two weeks at a time and there's no atmosphere to carry heat away. (There's also no atmosphere to store heat - without an atmosphere, earth would be below freezing.) Just after lunar sunrise, the lunar surface will still be pretty cold. It will take a while to warm up. By lunar midday the surface will be hot but not blisteringly so, and it doesn't take very thick gloves to handle rocks even at 200 degrees. Geologists on earth work all the time handling rocks in deserts where surface temperatures approach 200 degrees. And things in shadows will take a while to cool down. In the shadow of the lunar lander it was not 200 degrees below zero. It would have taken a long time for the surface to radiate away its stored heat and get that cold.

Lighting and Shadow Discrepancies

There's a slight difference between being in a shadow and in front of one. Some of the Apollo photographs were criticized for showing brightly-illuminated astronauts in the shadow of the spacecraft, but it's clear the sun was shining obliquely in the scene, and the astronauts were above or in front of the shadow.

One celebrated picture shows an astronaut with the sun behind him, and the lunar lander and American flag reflected in his visor. According to critics, the astronaut should have been merely a silhouette. And so he should, if he weren't surrounded by brightly-lit ground. If the full moon can brightly illuminate the earth from 250,000 miles away, just imagine what it can do to an astronaut standing on it.

A number of photos show what are claimed to be shadows pointing in different directions. But the comparison is between well-defined shadows in the foreground and very oblique shadows in the background. Shadows lie on parallel lines pointing away from the sun. Because of perspective, they will appear to radiate away from the point on the horizon directly under the sun. It's simply incredible that people who claimed to have backgrounds in photography and engineering would not know this. Close examination shows that the apparently mismatched shadows are also being cast on uneven surfaces. For example, one rock is clearly higher than the surface where its shadow falls. Between perspective, uneven surfaces, and no attempt whatever to find the real explanation, there's no mystery whatever about the "mismatched" shadows.

A brief look around outdoors on a sunny day will show that shadows of nearby objects do not line up with more distant ones, or even point directly away from the sun. The reason is that you don't line up the base of the object with its shadow, as was done in the program. You draw a line from a point on the edge of the shadow through the object that casts that part of the shadow. So it's simply ridiculous to draw lines from the base of the Lunar Module through its shadow. To see if the shadows were consistent, you'd have to draw lines from objects on the Lunar Module to their corresponding shadows. These lines should converge on the Sun.

The most preposterous argument involves photos taken on Apollo 17 at the base of the lunar Apennines. The background, it is claimed, is faked because one photo of the mountains shows the Lunar Module in the picture and another showing the same mountains does not. Here's a simple exercise. Drive to Mount Rushmore, Yosemite, or some other scenic spot. Park at a scenic overlook. Take a picture with your car in the foreground. Now walk around your car and take another picture. Compare the distant backdrop in the two pictures. 

Doctored Photos?

One sequence in the program quite convincingly shows that two scenes supposedly filmed on different days at different locations were actually filmed at the same spot. Maybe this proves the missions were filmed on earth on a set. Or maybe it merely shows that whoever edited the film mixed up the footage.

Another couple of photos shows that crosshairs etched on the camera lens appear to be behind objects in the foreground. There's no question about it - the crosshairs disappear abruptly at the edge of the objects. One in particular appears to be in front of the American flag but behind an astronaut's arm.

Now this makes absolutely no sense at all from a conspiracy viewpoint. If you're going to stage the landings on earth, why put crosshairs on the camera at all? If we assume the photos were shot with the calibrated cameras that would have gone to the moon, and NASA went to the time and trouble to build stage sets and have people in spacesuits act out the landings, why not just shoot the scenes you need? Cutting and pasting makes no sense at all - nobody would have missed the apparently doctored shots if they weren't made.

On the other hand, somebody editing out distracting crosshairs for press release makes perfect sense and is just as consistent with all the data. The question is, what's on the original film? And none of the conspiracy theorists have apparently bothered to find out.

And there's another possible and far simpler explanation. Above is a scene of an Apollo landing, with the crosshairs in red for visibility. They would be invisible at that picture scale without the emphasis. Now let's examine a couple in detail.

Here's the crosshair in front of the flag. Note that the crosshair fades to near invisibility in front of the white stripes.
The crosshair in front of the lander disappears against the bright reflection from the lander leg.

So there's no editing and no fakery at all, merely the well known photographic effect that thin dark lines disappear when photographed against very bright backgrounds.

 

There's No Blast Crater

If you visit the Web pages for the Apollo missions, it's easy to find photographs specifically showing the LEM engine nozzle and the ground beneath. Now why would NASA deliberately take pictures that failed to show a blast crater?

Because there is no fluffy, easily mobilized dust on the Moon. There never was, except in the imaginations of a few fiction science writers. Certainly since the Surveyor missions of the late 1960's, it was known for certain that the Moon's surface was fairly firm, well-packed material. Pictures of the blast effects would be useful from both an engineering and scientific standpoint, but nobody was surprised by the absence of a blast crater.

The film shows an artist's (Norman Rockwell's) conception with a blast crater visible under the LEM, but a public relations artist is not a scientist.

Dust on the Moon

A lot of the confusion about lunar dust seems to arise from people thinking of household dust. Household dust is mostly organic (a lot of it is you - hair and dead skin). It has a low density and floats easily in the air. Lunar dust is powdered rock, much higher in density and with no air to support it. There are no dust bunnies on the moon.

Kick any dry, bare ground surface on earth and you will kick up rock dust. Kick the moon and you will kick up lunar dust. Both kinds of dust are powdered rock, different origins but with somewhat similar properties. Rock dust is pretty cohesive once it packs down. One reader sent in a picture of the Lunar Rover churning up dust and asked how this could happen if there is no dust on the moon. Same way an ATV in a gravel pit kicks up dust. Nobody ever said there is "no dust" on the moon, just no fluffy, easily mobilized dust.

Once the lunar lander rockets blew away the near-surface dust, what's left? Larger particles too big to move easily.

The Radiation Belts

Supposedly, travel to the moon is impossible because of the Van Allen radiation belts. So who better than Van Allen himself to describe the hazards (of course, he's part of the plot too!)

The Van Allen Belts are zones where particles from the sun are trapped by the earth's magnetic field. In a 1960 paper, On the Radiation Hazards of Space Flight, Van Allen describes the belts and their hazards. The belts vary greatly in extent and radiation depending on solar activity, but generally there is an inner, energetic belt mostly at low latitudes between about 2000 and 4000 kilometers and an outer, less energetic belt between about 13,000 and 20,000 kilometers above the earth. The belts carry a radiation dose of about 20 roentgens (grays in modern units) per hour and the gap in between about one. These figures are for spacecraft shielded by about 4 mm of aluminum (one gram per square centimeter).

(Note: dosimetry is a complex issue and there are several types of units - roentgens, rems, rads, and SI units like grays and sieverts - that measure different things, but roentgens, rems and rads turn out to be roughly equivalent when applied to human exposure. On the other hand, if you know enough about dosimetry to care, then you should know enough to refute the Van Allen Belt argument. If you still believe the conspiracy theory, shame on you.)

Assuming, then, that we shoot the Apollo capsule straight through the belts at escape velocity (40,000 km/hour), we're talking 0.05 hours in the inner belt, 0.225 hours in the gap and 0.175 hours in the outer belt. That means a total dose of (20 x 0.05) + (.225 x 1) + (20 x 0.175) = 4.7 roentgens, or about 1% of the fatal radiation dose. Double this figure for the round trip. Once beyond the belts the radiation hazard becomes small.

Although ten roentgens is far below the lethal dose, it poses significant long-term health hazards and nowadays is considered a wholly unacceptable dosage. There are two ways to reduce the risk. First, since the inner belt is largely confined to within 30 degrees of the equator, launch into an orbit inclined at least 30 degrees to the equator and then launch into a lunar trajectory above or below the inner belt.

Second, the energy distribution of the particles in the inner and outer belt is quite different. Changing our 4 mm of aluminum to lead would have only marginal effects in reducing dosage in the inner belt, but it cuts the dosage in the outer belt by a factor of 500. Also, the outer belt is still most intense at low latitudes and the spacecraft trajectory can be aimed to minimize radiation exposure in the outer belt.

According to NASA, none of the Apollo missions exceeded one roentgen of total dosage.

Area 51 and Craters

What would a conspiracy theory be without Area 51? The film shows photos of the base with runways and hangars visible. Imagine! Runways and hangars on an Air Force base! The mind just reels! Not far away are numerous craters, the result of nuclear testing.

Guess what? Even if you are an American taxpayer, you do not have a right to know what is going on at Area 51. Even if you have a clearance you do not have an automatic right to view classified material. It's called "need to know." The military needs an outdoor space big enough to do large-scale secret work, and Area 51 is it. And what exactly do you think you'll get at Areas 1 through 50 - a guided tour and a wine-tasting party?

I took a field trip to that part of Nevada in April, 2001, only a month or so after the program aired. We visited localities just outside of Area 51, in some cases overlooking one of the entrance roads. There is absolutely no way to make the Nevada desert look even remotely like the Moon, even with craters. It is just too heavily vegetated and covered with obvious signs of water erosion. Only somebody whose entire life was spent in a forest could liken the Nevada desert to the Moon. That includes the Apollo astronaut who was quoted as saying the Moon reminded him of the high deserts of the West - it's a spectacularly stupid and unobservant remark. (Of course, as the Lisa Nowak episode shows, becoming an astronaut doesn't automatically confer fine judgment.)

This is a view from about as close as you can get legally to Area 51. The road in the distance leads into the restricted area. The vegetation, blue sky, atmospheric haze, signs of water erosion and layered sedimentary rocks are totally unlike the moon. To make this photo look like the Moon would require such massive doctoring that there would be no point in using this scenery for a backdrop at all.

Vanished Witnesses

The program hints darkly that a number of astronauts and other witnesses were done away with to protect the secret. For example, ten astronaut trainees, 15% of the total, died in accidents between 1964 and 1967. Well, being a jet pilot is risky business. Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff cites a figure of 25% chance of being killed over the career of a military jet pilot.

Then there's the mysterious fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in 1967. Was it due to Grissom's being a thorn in the side of NASA? Well, if so, there was a much neater and less messy solution to the problem. Ground him. There was more than enough reason - Grissom lost his capsule on his first flight! When Scott Carpenter overshot his landing site by 300 miles on the second Mercury orbital flight, he vanished from the space program (he's still alive and well, by the way). Somehow Grissom redeemed himself well enough to get a second chance aboard a Gemini mission, and he was set to become America's first three-time space traveler when he was killed. This is a very strange way to treat a threat.

Okay, let's say for some reason Gus had to be terminated. The astronauts were constantly involved in dangerous survival training, not to mention getting their flying hours in. There were any number of low-key ways to do him in without killing two other astronauts and destroying a perfectly good Apollo capsule. An ejection seat malfunction during a routine training flight would have done it nicely. Destroying the Apollo capsule in 1967(!) put the goal of reaching the moon by 1970 in grave jeopardy. If anyone involved in the re-engineering failed to make schedule, the deadline would be missed. If NASA tried to rush things by approving a patently unready capsule, it would have raised an impossible number of red flags. So the conspiracy had to trust that thousands of independent agencies and contractors would get it all together in time, because all of these people still had to be kept ignorant of the conspiracy. A conspiracy that trusts - now there's a novel concept.

Interestingly enough, all of the Apollo astronauts themselves stayed hale and hearty for many years after their flights. Not a single one, apparently, was tempted to get rich and famous by blowing the whistle, and none even strayed enough from the party line to be a threat to NASA.

"The Experts Agree, the Answer is 250,000 miles Away"

The program ends by restating the pros and cons of the conspiracy theory, then finishes with the quote above.

No, the experts agree we landed on the moon. Some other folks disagree, but none of them can remotely be called experts. This is the well-known "experts don't agree, so pick whatever idea you like" scam of the pseudoscientist.

What about the Hubble Space Telescope? Could it see the Apollo landers on the moon? No. The best the Hubble Telescope can do is see things on the moon 20-30 meters across, about ten times too large to see the Apollo equipment. Of course, even if we could see the landers, conspiracy buffs would say that merely proved we had put landers on the moon. Even a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich inside the lander could be explained away. And of course the photos could always be doctored.

Telemetry

The program seems blissfully unaware that any data other than photographs came out of the Apollo flights. But the Apollo craft would have been continuously transmitting telemetry. If Apollo had merely gone into earth orbit as claimed, how was telemetry faked?

For example, amateur radio enthusiasts were perfectly capable of listening in on Apollo transmissions - and did. If the Apollo spacecraft had merely been in earth orbit, as some conspiracy theorists claim, it would have been below the horizon and its transmissions blocked from any given location most of the time. 

As the spacecraft neared the moon, its transmission frequency would have changed due to the Doppler Effect. It would have varied as the Command module orbited the moon, becoming higher as the Command Module approached earth and dropping as it moved away. Then the frequency would have changed again after the ship left lunar orbit - the frequency would have increased because the Command Module was headed toward earth, and would have kept on increasing as the Command Module accelerated in the earth's gravity. Any nation with radio telescope capability would have detected these changes. In particular, the Russians would certainly have monitored Apollo. Are we to believe the Russians would have kept silent about a faked mission? It wouldn't have been an issue of us discounting Soviet propaganda. If the Russians detected fakery they could simply have invited journalists and scientists to listen in on the next mission. It would have been their biggest propaganda strike ever. And then there are the British, the French, the Japanese, the Chinese ....

It's not just frequency shifts. A radio telescope is a precise pointing device. At all times the source of the signal would have to have mimicked the position of a spacecraft en route to, orbiting, or returning from the moon, and it would have to be consistent for radio telescopes anywhere on earth. If we can pull that off, why not send astronauts along for the ride?

The only way this could have worked is for the Russians to be in on it. Wouldn't you love to have eavesdropped on the Soviet end of the hot line when the deal went down?

Zdravstvuyte.
Yo, Tricky Dick! What up, ma man?
You're not going to the moon either? Bummer!
But you're going to fake it? And even though space is our big propaganda thing, and even though it's the only thing we ever beat you at, and even though it will look like capitalist science triumphs over socialist science, you want us to play along?
Hey, we're cool with that. Anything else?
Dismantle the Soviet Union? It'll take a while. How about we pencil it in for, say, 1991?
Da svedaniye.

Mike Dinn, of Canberra, Australia, wrote in to say:

Yours is the first I've seen which mentions that telemetry would have to have been faked in some complicated way, or alternatively radio telescopes would have picked up no signal, or one coming from earth orbit (somehow).

But there is an even stronger and more pertinent argument involving "telemetry". There was a world-wide tracking network providing communications to and from the various Apollo mission elements and although the people involved in doing this were indirectly paid by the project, they were not all US government employees or even citizens. So they would have had to have been part of the conspiracy or taken in by it.

And as I was the Australian citizen employed by the Australian government responsible for running the operations at the prime Australian tracking site here near Canberra I can vouch for the scientific/engineering fact that we pointed our antenna at the trajectory to, at and from the moon and transmitted and received radio signals containing commands, telemetry, television together with navigation info from antenna angles, Doppler frequencies and two way range delays. Impossible to fake. (quoted with permission)

The Mission Profiles

The program concentrates on the Apollo landings, but what about Apollo 8, 9, and 10? Was Apollo 8 faked? If not, then there's no technical reason we couldn't have gone to the moon. Compared to the landings, it was a simple mission - fire the main engine, coast around the moon, and come back home.

What about Apollo 9? That one never left earth orbit. It practiced deploying the Lunar Module and docking with it. If this mission was real, then why couldn't NASA have done it on the moon as well?

The reason Apollo 8 went around the moon first was that planning for this mission was going smoothly whereas Apollo 9 was running into problems. So Apollo 8, originally the second mission, flew first. Why do the missions out of sequence if everything was faked? Oh, I get it, they want to make it look more real, right?

Apollo 10 practiced everything but the landing itself - lunar orbit, deployment and docking with the lunar module. If this mission was real, why not the landings?

The Rocks

Below is a photo of a terrestrial rock called olivine gabbro. The bland, mostly featureless areas are made mostly of plagioclase feldspar, a calcium-aluminum silicate. The fractured grains that appear to stand out in relief are olivine, a magnesium-iron silicate. The greenish material along the cracks and the brownish material on the edges of the olivine are water-bearing minerals derived from the alteration of the olivine. The feldspar looks slightly dusty, peppered with tiny inclusions, also the result of alteration.

Below is a very similar lunar rock - at least that's what NASA claimed it was. I personally took both of these pictures. The clear areas are plagioclase feldspar and the very light yellow areas are olivine. The dark brown material is a titanium silicate mineral called titanite.

What leaps out in comparing the two pictures is the complete absence of water-bearing minerals, and the total absence of alteration in the lunar rock. Water is ubiquitous on earth - it's present in magma, rocks deep in the crust are changed by hot fluids, and rocks near the surface are altered by surface water. Olivine in particular is easily altered. In the second picture, the olivine is fractured but the fractures are absolutely clean. You simply do not see unaltered olivine on earth.

This could not have been faked. These rocks have grains easily visible to the unaided eye, which means they cooled slowly. To have made these materials synthetically would have required keeping the rocks at 1100 C for years, cooling them slowly at thousands of pounds per square inch pressure. It would have taken years to create the apparatus, years more to get the hang of making the materials, and then years more to create the final result. Starting from Sputnik I in 1957, there would not have been enough time to do it. And, you'd have to synthesize several different types of rock in hundred-pound lots.

And, the results would have to be convincing. All I did to get the moon rock specimens (on loan) was write in and sign an agreement to keep the materials secure when not in use. NASA had no control over any non-destructive tests I might do when I had the specimens. I could have, for example,  zapped the rock with X-rays to get its chemical composition. So the faked specimens would have to stand up to any kind of scrutiny that researchers might give them. Whoever came up with the faked specimens would have to have devised a story of lunar evolution to fit the samples. The story would have to have checked out in every detail, for example rare-earth element abundances and evidence of meteor impact. Why create absolutely water-free rocks? Nobody was expecting that - it would have been much easier to fake rocks with water in them (for one thing, you could use terrestrial rocks) and nobody would have been suspicious. And you'd have to put in exactly the right amounts of radioactive elements and daughter products to get the rocks to date radiometrically at 4 billion years old - older than any terrestrial rocks. And you'd have to anticipate the development of new dating methods not in use in 1969 and make sure those elements are present in the correct abundance. And it's not like adding carrots to a stew, either. To mimic the results of potassium-argon dating, you'd have to add inert argon gas and trap it just in the potassium-bearing minerals, and in exact proportion to the amount of potassium.

Then the story has to stand up to scrutiny for decades, even in the face of new research methods not in existence in 1969. For example, when lunar meteorites are discovered in Antarctica, they have to match the Apollo samples.

If you believe NASA has the technical ability to pull all this off, going to the Moon is a piece of cake in comparison.

References

Van Allen, James A., Origins of magnetospheric physics,  Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983. 

Van Allen, James A., On the Radiation Hazards of Space Flight, in Benson, O. O. and Strughold, H., eds., Physics and medicine of the atmosphere and space; the proceedings of the Second International Symposium on the Physics and Medicine of the Atmosphere and Space, New York, Wiley, 1960, 645 p.


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Created 18 September 1998, Last Update 02 June 2010

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