The Bizarre Moon Conspiracy Theories

Earlier this week, my attention was drawn by a colleague to the poll in Twitter below, started last summer by a prominent Spanish footballer (ex-Captain of the national team, so you suppose that he must be fairly level-headed). The player in question recounted how he was arguing over dinner the previous night about whether or not the Moon landings ever occurred and stated his conviction that they had not. In his poll, 42% of more than three hundred thousand respondents supported his view that the Apollo programme was a fake.

Screenshot 2019-03-20 at 10.24.23

The news of this vote came out of our collective attempts to find out whether or not the documentary Apollo 11 would be released in Spain. Despite enthusiastic reviews and the fact that the 50th Anniversary of the first Moon landing is less than four months away, it seems that the documentary, with its newly discovered, unseen footage of the Apollo 11 mission, is far from certain to be shown in Spain.

Documentary releases are always special cases. In the majority of cases, documentaries are only released if the makers have designs on presenting them for the Oscars. Oscar rules state that, to be eligible for the prize for the best documentary, it must have been put on general release for at least a week. In practice, what that means is that a small number of cinemas will show a limited number of passes for a week, before the documentary disappears. This is usually disguised by the words “on release in selected cinemas” in publicity. Apollo 11 has the additional disadvantage that it is designed for IMax release, thus limiting its opportunities still further. The small number of Spain’s IMax screens in cinema complexes are generally reserved for the new blockbuster box office releases that fill the theatres with premium cost clients, not for documentaries with their limited box office appeal.

The limited information that we can find is that the documentary went on general release in IMax theatres around the world on March 1st. Ominously, there seems to be no announcement of a release date in Spain. The greatest adventure of the 20th Century is not worth a week on cinema screens? Why not?

While we are on the subject, did you notice that figure of 42% agreeing that the Moon landings had been faked? It is frightening. How must the men who went to the Moon feel about such a large fraction of the population thinking that they are a fraud?

Unless you believe that part of the community who think that the Moon landings were all a sham, there are still no fewer than five men alive today who walked on the surface of the Moon and eight more who orbited it without ever landing and who will testify that the missions were not faked.

  • The walkers:

Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11), Pete Conrad (Apollo 12), Dave Scott (Apollo 15), Charlie Duke (Apollo 16) and Gene Cernan (Apollo 17).

  • The orbiters:

Frank Borman (Apollo 8), Jim Lovell (Apollo 8 & Apollo 13), Bill Anders (Apollo 8), Tom Stafford (Apollo 10), Mike Collins (Apollo 11), Fred Haise (Apollo 13), Al Worden (Apollo 15) and Ken Mattingly (Apollo 16).

Of those thirteen men who have been to the Moon, the youngest is Ken Mattingly: who reached a sprightly 83 on March 17th 2019. The oldest, Frank Borman (who reached his 91st birthday on March 14th 2019), is eleven days younger than Jim Lovell (who will be 91 on March 25th 2019).

With the news that NASA’s new, giant rocket to return men to the Moon is increasingly badly behind schedule, the probability that NASA can carry out its planned manned circumlunar flight in 2022 becomes increasingly small. With each new delay, with each new difficulty in returning to the Moon, the fraction of the public who believe that it was all faked, increases spectacularly. After all, how are we to believe that, in the 1960s, in just 8 years, NASA went from President Kennedy’s speech to Congress[1], announcing the intention to put a man on the Moon, to the first man walking on the lunar surface yet, now, eight years after the last Space Shuttle flight[2], NASA cannot even launch an astronaut into low Earth orbit and a flight that would do little more than duplicate Apollo 8 is at least four years away?

The Boeing Space Launch System should have been ready by now for its first test flight. It was intended to launch an unmanned circumlunar flight in June 2020, but NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine has admitted recently to a Senate committee that the project is more than three years behind schedule and that the difficulties with the launcher had been underestimated badly.

The importance of the Space Launch System is that it plans to recover the heavy lift capability of more than 100 metric tonnes to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) that was lost, long ago.

  • Saturn V – Last launch, Skylab, May 14th 1973 – 140 metric tonnes to LEO.
  • Energia – Last launch, Buran[1], November 15th 1988 – 100 metric tonnes to LEO.

To put this in context, the initial, Block 1 model of the Space Launch System will be able to deliver 93 metric tonnes into LEO, with the final, upgraded, Block 2 model planned to have a lift capability of 130 metric tonnes into LEO. The current target date for this Block 2 vehicle to fly is 2029 although, with the delays in the programme, this may be very optimistic.

In other words, more than fifty-five years after the Saturn V was retired, even if the Space Launch System has reached its final capability, it will still be inferior to the Saturn V in lift capability, although it will be the same height on the launchpad.

The plan, as of September 2018, was for the Space Launch System to carry a 4-man crew around the Moon in an Orion capsule in June 2022. This mission will not be an exact duplicate of Apollo 8 because it will differ in two fundamental aspects. First, it will not enter lunar orbit. The plan is to use a free-return trajectory, with the capsule swinging around the lunar far-side and, by using lunar gravity, returning without the need for a burn. In other words, it is the simplest kind of Moon flight. And second, Orion will carry four crew members and not the three of Apollo, although the Orion capsule looks remarkably like the Apollo.

With the difficulties that the programme is having, NASA has left open the possibility that the June 2022 manned Moon flight may go ahead, but on a commercial launcher, although this too will depend on one becoming available. The largest commercial launcher at present, the Falcon Heavy, has a capability to low Earth orbit of just 64 metric tonnes, far inferior even to the Block 1 Space Launch System.

The joker in the pack is the planned SpaceX Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), with its planned 100 metric tonnes to LEO, which has a potential for a future upgrade to 150 metric tonnes to LEO. That upgraded system, named Starship, would surpass even the Saturn V and outstrip the NASA capability with the Block 2 Space Launch System.

Similarly, the Chinese have a planned Long March 9 rocket, with a payload to LEO of 140 metric tonnes, equalling the Saturn V, but it is not due to fly until 2030.

So, back to the question that we have been asking ourselves is this: why do so many people believe that the Moon landings were faked?

The trivial and simplistic answer is that if we cannot land a man on the Moon in 2019 – and nobody believes that a manned lunar landing will happen before 2025 and possibly not before 2030 – and if we cannot build a rocket as powerful as the Saturn V now, how are we to believe that a Saturn V could be built successfully in 1967 and land a man on the Moon?

However, is that the problem? Millions of people watched the Saturn V launches live. Just the Apollo 11 launch was seen by an estimated one million people who flooded any available viewing point in Florida. The television audience for the launch was in the hundreds of millions. Literally thousands of members of the press were present and the grainy television images are some of the most famous in history, repeated again and again. As far as I am aware, no one is doubting that the Saturn V rockets were launched. What they *are* doubting is that they carried two astronauts to the lunar surface.

If you ask a sceptic why he or she believes that the landings were faked, you are likely to get a range of answers from a reasoned “it just seems so difficult that I can’t believe that it could be done”, to a more conspiratorial “everyone knows that it has been proved that it was all done in Hollywood”. The strange thing is that if it was all faked to bankrupt the Soviet Union, or just to make them believe that they had lost the race to the Moon, how is it that no one in the Soviet Union called “foul” and accused the USA of fakery?

The truth is that there is a massive and increasing breakdown of public trust, but not just in the United States of America. The number of conspiracy theories that are widely believed by the public, which range from the death of Elvis or President Kennedy, to the idea that the Twin Towers were brought down in a controlled demolition and not by the impact of the aircraft that flew into them, or that the US Government is in contact with aliens, is huge. All around the world people simply take as a matter of fact that their, and other, governments are lying to them systematically.

When I was a teenager, I enjoyed very much the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind and, eighteen months ago, was able finally to visit the Devil’s Tower that featured so prominently in the film. How many people though remember that, at the time, there was the widespread belief among the “conspiracists” that the film was promoted by the US Government to prepare the public for imminent contact with aliens? How many people watched the film Capricorn One portraying in a very believable way how, and why, a space mission could be faked and started to wonder? Or watched the way that the film Interstellar talked about a relatively near future in which textbooks are corrected to state that the Moon landings were a clever fraud perpetrated to bankrupt the Soviet Union? We are so used to seeing these subjects being treated as plain truth in the cinema that our critical ability to distinguish between fact and fantasy is seriously impaired.

Modern CGI is so good that we can believe that the BBC’s Doctor Who really is sat in the doorway of his TARDIS parked in deep space, looking at the colours of the Orion Nebula. We can believe that a flying saucer the size of a city is floating over Washington, or Los Angeles. We can even believe, however much that our logic tells us otherwise, that Harry Potter really is flying out of Gringott’s Bank on the back of a dragon. Now, there are none of the give-away signs of (not very) special effects like the all-too-visible wires holding an astronaut who is supposedly floating in space, or a fuzzy, slightly out of focus ant that we are led to believe is as tall as a house, or the wobbly halo around actors that revealed that they were standing in front of a blue screen onto which images would later be projected.

Combine the mistrust of government with the fact that we are so used to seeing things faked in a plausible way in our everyday lives and the difficulty that we have in getting back to the Moon now and we start to realise why an increasing number of people are, whatever the evidence, in denial about the Moon landings.

Curiously, no one seems to think that the images of Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken by ESA’s Rosetta mission, or of the Martian landscape taken by the Mars rovers, or the high-resolution shots of the lunar surface are fakes. No one seriously doubts, it seems, that we have landed probes on Mars, or that the Chinese have landed a rover on the far side of the Moon. Mind you, the same people will explain to you passionately how the signs of alien technology are carefully eliminated from the images before they are released to the public. Yes, it seems that my Boss, Larry, in the office in front of mine, must have spent a lot of his time airbrushing those alien domes out of the images of Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko [Just a random thought: would it not solve ESA’s budget problems for all time if an ESA mission genuinely did find unmistakeable proof of alien technology somewhere in the solar system?]

However, whatever the proofs that are offered that man did walk on the Moon, they are refuted. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has photographed all of the Apollo landing sites. Have a look at this amazing image of the Apollo 11’s Tranquillity Base.

Image-of-Apollo11-fromLROThree of the four landing pads of the Lunar Module are clearly visible and the blasted area around it. You can see the scuffed path that the astronauts took to set up the camera, the sets of footprints leading south to the ALSEP site where the experiments were set up and, movingly, the track of Neil Armstrong’s solitary and unscripted walk to the rim of Little West crater to the right, which was depicted in the film “First Man”.

If you want more details, you can find a listing of all the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter photographs of the Apollo 11 landing site at: https://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a11/images11.html and a wonderful animation of how the shadows at the landing site change during the lunar day at: https://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a11/AP11_sunrise_sunset_ALSJ.wmv.

The image of the Apollo 15 landing site is even more astounding. Apollo 15 landed in the shadow of Mount Hadley, alongside the Hadley Rille. For television viewers like myself though, the best part of the moon walks was the fact that not only could the astronauts move further using the Lunar Rover, but it had a camera mounted that sent much better quality images that were processed and cleaned in Hollywood before transmission, allowing the viewer to imagine that he or she really was there.

M175252641LR_ap15

You can distinguish the wheel tracks of the Lunar Rover – a double track – from the darker, single track of the footprints of the astronauts. When they parked the Lunar Rover about 100 metres away so it could transmit the launch from the lunar surface, you can see the double track of the Lunar Rover and the single track of the astronauts returning from it to Falcon, the Lunar Module. The wheel tracks are marked with arrows showing how Dave Scott and Jim Irwin put the rover through its paces around the craters at a breakneck 9km/h.

Even though few people would doubt that the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is in lunar orbit and taking amazing photographs of the lunar surface, the images of the lunar landing sites would be explained-away as being Photoshopped, or airbrushed (delete to taste).

What about the moon rocks? There are 382kg of samples of the lunar surface that were brought back to Earth. The first reaction is likely to be: “have you ever seen one?” Well, as a matter of fact, I have. Apart from being one of the people who queued for two hours to see the sample of Moon dust received by Bristol University in 1969, I have two, small, actually, they are more like “tiny” pieces of Moon rock in my possession. Before the Secret Service raid my flat (private possession of and trading in lunar samples is illegal), I stress to add that they are small pieces of lunar meteorite. That leads to the second question: how do you know that they are from the Moon? This is actually a very good question; you can find some answers here: http://meteorites.wustl.edu/lunar/howdoweknow.htm (this piece also explains how we know that the Apollo Moon rocks are not fakes). I did buy my meteorites from a reputable seller and would be very disappointed if they were not genuine[4].

What about the photographs from the lunar surface? People see – and do not see – all manner of things in them. Why are there no stars in them? If we look at the famous image of Armstrong reflected in Aldrin’s visor (AS-11-40-5903), we see black sky… no stars. There are two reasons for that. First, although it is not easy to find out the exposure times as they are not recorded [we know when it was taken – see https://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a11/a11.mobility.html, the image was taken just after the entry for 110:42:14) – and we have all manner of details about the image and its processing (see:   https://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a11/images11.html#5903), knowing the film sensitivity (ASA 160) and that Aldrin was face-on to the Sun, you can guess that the exposure was shorter than 1/100th second.

as11_40_5903

You would need an exposure of several seconds to start to see stars with a film of this sensitivity so, the exposure is probably about a thousand times too short to register stars. There is also another reason and that is that this is one of the images that NASA openly admits to manipulating, although in a totally innocent way that improved its artistic presentation. As taken originally, Buzz Aldrin’s helmet was right at the top of the frame – this you can see because only the stub of his radio antenna is visible on his backpack – so, for artistic reasons, NASA cropped the image slightly and added a strip of black to the top so that the helmet would appear better-centred in the frame. In other words, the top of the image is not lunar sky, it is an add-on! If you do not believe me, there is a frame from the movie camera on the Lunar Module that captured Neil Armstrong as he took this most famous photograph:

a11ArmstrongTakes5903

You see his antenna clearly, sticking up over his helmet, which is most evidently missing from the image of Aldrin.

Then, of course, there are people who claim to see all kinds of odd things in the images: letters, strangely shaped rocks, impossible shadows, etc. If the images are fakes, NASA must be strangely incompetent to let so many slips through. Of course, the alternative explanation, that these things are tricks of light and shadow, hairs that have contaminated prints (most of the most suspicious “artefacts” are only present on prints, not on the original negatives), etc., are not believed.

However, years later, one detail that had been overlooked in that famous image of Neil Armstrong reflected in Buzz Aldrin’s visor, was pointed out. Have a look at this blow-up of the visor. It turns out that, either by accident, or by design – if it was deliberate, Armstrong never said so – Buzz Aldrin was looking more or less towards the Earth in the sky. In fact, it was over Neil Armstrong’s right shoulder.

Above the reflection of the flag we see a small spot of light: it seems that this was Planet Earth, reflected in Aldrin’s visor.

AS11-40-5903_-_The Earth

This tiny image of Earth was not noticed until 2004 and, when its position was calculated, it was found to correspond to our planet (https://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a11/images11.html#5903). How could that have been faked, 35 years before?

If you are going to believe that it was all a hoax, probably no evidence will ever persuade you otherwise. If you are a space buff though, who lived these landings, these stunning images will provoke so many memories. Fifty years may have passed but, with the sensitive eyes of a Lunar Orbiter, we can follow the steps of Armstrong and Aldrin around Tranquillity base and remember.

 

[Post-data: As I said in a previous post, on claims that Haroldswick Rock on Mars shows evidence of fossils, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof“. Where is the extraordinary proof that a project that involved TWO MILLION Americans, was actually a fake?]

 


[1] This was the second and final flight of Energia and the first and only flight of the Soviet Space Shuttle, Buran

[2] The initial speech to Congress, with the line that the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”, was given on May 25th 1961, three weeks after Alan Shepherd became the first American into space on May 5th 1961. What is less well remembered is that the American public were distinctly lukewarm about the idea at the time, with polls showing nearly 60% opposed. You can see the speech here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhgVZLrxiu0.

The speech that is generally remembered is one that was delivered in the stadium at Rice University (Houston, Texas) on September 12th 1962. At this point, NASA had launched Alan Shepherd and Gus Grissom on sub-orbital Mercury-Redstone flights and John Glenn and Scott Carpenter had each made three orbits of Earth in the first two Mercury Atlas launches. By the time of the Rice University speech, the public was warming rapidly to the space programme. You can see this speech here: https://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm.

[3] The final Space Shuttle flight – STS-135, Atlantis – launched on July 8th 2011 and landed on July 21st 2011, the 42nd anniversary of the lift-off of Apollo 11 from the lunar surface.

[4] Time to confess. Almost all of my collection of meteorites is from reputable vendors, including a Mars meteorite and a Moon meteorite. One small piece, sold as a fragment of lunar meteorite, did not come from so reputable a vendor and some basic checks on it have led me to have serious doubts about its authenticity. Caveat Emptor!

 

4 thoughts on “The Bizarre Moon Conspiracy Theories

  1. Thanks Mark! I guess it is actually quite difficult to prove that they were not faked. In any case, I was never one of these disbelievers on the subject of the moon landings. However on the topic of the twin towers going down, I thought that most informed people actually knew that it had been demonstrated impossible a feat without controlled demolition. You should read this article in the journal European Physics News entitled On the Physics of High-Rise Building Collapses: https://www.europhysicsnews.org/articles/epn/pdf/2016/04/epn2016474p21.pdf

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    1. Your reply has made me smile because it proves my point. You believe that the Twin Towers did not come down “naturally” (there are other engineering studies that show the failure modes and demonstrate that they were different for the two towers). I have my suspicions that there is more to know about the Kennedy assassination. Almost everyone believes in at least one conspiracy theory: that is healthy scepticism. To believe in many of them is not so healthy.

      You can never “prove” that the Moon landings happened. A similar case that we discussed over lunch at the same time is “proving” that the gas chambers existed: there is a wealth of documentary evidence, but PHYSICAL evidence? Nobody thought that it would be necessary because it was so evident to everyone. If someone really goes out to say “prove it” in so many cases of events in the past, it is impossible to do because proofs will always be refuted as insufficient by someone.

      Of course, we are inverting the real problem. It is not for me to prove that the Moon landings happened. It is for people to provide proof that they did not and so reverse the paradigm. With more than two million people involved in the programme, if they did not happen, thousands of people would know it and would be able to provide documentary evidence far more convincing than a hair-contaminated print!

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  2. OK. So it is official. In Madrid, the Apollo 11 documentary will get 4 IMAX showings at my local cinema. One each on July 16th (50th anniversary of launch), 18th, 19th and 20th (the 50th Anniversary of the landing)

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