November 1, 2020

FTV: Apollo – Fact or Fiction?


     Steph Curry is a terrific basketball player, two-time NBA MVP, and one of those wealthy professional athletes who decided to take a stab at becoming a media mogul.  It is a little too soon to pass judgement on his budding media career.  His attempt at TV production (an exploitation of Curry’s interest in golf via a miniature golf mega course themed program called ‘Holy Moley’) was robustly promoted in the spring of 2019 as the Toronto Raptors slowly deflated Golden State’s ‘three-peat’ aspirations.  While we won’t know if this concept will withstand the test of time, we know that it won’t make a dent in Curry’s popularity if it fails.  Curry is one of those high profile types who has a zillion followers on social media and everything he says seems to attract attention.  I was horrified when he mentioned in a December 2018 interview that he had doubts whether or not the Apollo Moon landings had even taken place.  NASA promptly and publicly invited him to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to look over the Lunar Lab’s collection of Moon rocks (at this writing, there has been no report of him accepting).  Why did this shock and horrified me on the eve of NASA’s 2019 celebration activities marking the 50th Anniversary of the first Moon landing?  Curry’s statement was sure to set off another round of ‘the Moon landings were faked by NASA’ blather.  Curry can believe anything he wants, but haven’t we seen enough instances of people using social media to spread lies and half-truths in an attempt to rewrite history?  A few days later Curry said that he had made his comments in jest.  Maybe he did, but opinion polls consistently show about 5 percent of Americans (or some 16 million people) still believe the whole Moon landing program was a hoax.  Yes, this kind of conspiracy stuff does drive me a little crazy, so don’t even get me started on those who claim membership in the Flat Earth Society.

     This isn’t the first time the concept of a faked Moon landing has shocked me.  For over forty years, it was my pleasure to share what I knew about NASA and the program to land men on the Moon with my Geography/Earth Science students.  For them, it all sounded like ancient history. Having lived through the entire manned space program from Yuri Gagarin and Alan B. Shepard up through the International Space Station periodically passing overhead, it was nice to provide my classes with first hand knowledge of these events.  I can’t remember exactly when the ‘fake Moon landing’ question was first broached in my class, but I can remember what triggered it.  A student  mentioned that they had seen, “Something on the internet about all the Moon landings having been filmed on a Hollywood movie set.”  After my initial (and point blank) rebuttal of this idea, it occurred to me that I should look at the web site in question so I could do what very few who make outrageous claims on the internet seem to do:  collect enough facts to present a better counter argument than, “It isn’t true because I said it isn’t true.”

     Let us go back a bit and examine some of the other things people used to think about the Moon. The only difference in how some of these silly things spread in the age before the internet intruded on our daily lives is the speed at which misinformation now fans out.  Many questions humans had about the Moon in days gone by were triggered by superstitions or folk tales.  Some of these faded away quietly while others dug in their heels and became embedded in our collective consciousness.

What we wanted to believe about our closest celestial neighbor has always been something of a free-for-all.  Many of us with European ancestry recognize the pattern called ‘the man in the Moon’.  The darker Maria (or ‘Seas’) on the lunar surface certainly do appear to form a face.  Does this mean that our neighbors to the south are incorrect when they proclaim the same patterns reveal a rabbit?  How about the Chinese fable about the little girl and a jade rabbit that the CapCom at NASA related to the Apollo 11 astronauts as they suited up for the first manned landing?  “We will keep an eye out for the bunny girl,” Armstrong and Aldrin replied to the reference.  No doubt it was mentioned to them in an attempt to diffuse some of the pressure they were feeling as the historic first landing neared (and it no doubt confused TV viewers unfamiliar with the old folk tale).  

     One of the most misunderstood myths is the one about the ‘Moon being made out of green    cheese’.  Countless cartoons and comedy routines have been built around the literal translation of this statement (like suggesting the astronauts should bring crackers along for the ride).  In this case, ‘green cheese’ was meant to suggest a wheel of ‘new’ (not yet aged) cheese.  The full Moon resembled a round wheel of newly made cheese, not that the Moon itself was made of cheese.  I can even remember one of my classmates asking a visiting NASA school presenter this very question back in elementary school which he cleared it up, telling us, “This is one of the most confusing statements that has given everyone the wrong idea – unless, maybe the people in Wisconsin who actually make cheese.”  He beat us to the punch and further explained, “And no, a ‘blue Moon’ isn’t made of bleu cheese, either.  It is just the name given to the second full Moon that can occur in the same month from time to time.  The saying, ‘once in a blue Moon’ comes from the fact that having two full Moons in one month is a rare occurrence.”

     When astronauts started traveling in space, people understandably thought they were floating around ‘weightless’ while orbiting the Earth.  The pictures they saw led people to believe there is no gravity in space.  In reality, orbiting the Earth is more like being in free fall.  Picture the cable and safety breaks of an elevator at the top of a very tall building failing.  As you and the elevator fall, the force of gravity is negated.  Both the elevator and passengers would feel ‘weightless’ as they fell.  The illusion of ‘no gravity’ would, of course, end with the sudden stop at the bottom of the elevator shaft, but while orbiting the Earth, there is no ‘bottom’, just a never ending free fall.  The Earth’s gravity pulls the spacecraft downward while the craft’s forward momentum keeps it from being pulled back to Earth.  This creates the sensation of weightlessness the astronauts feel and we see in the video of them floating about.  For some reason, people assumed that when these free floating astronauts got to the Moon, they would be weightless there as well.

     Gravity is caused by the mass of an object.  Even people have gravity because we have mass.  When one jumps up on the Earth, the Earth pulls them back down because it has the superior mass and therefore generates more pull than one puny human.  The Moon’s mass exerts only one sixth of our planet’s gravitational pull, meaning 360 pounds of combined astronaut and spacesuit would only weigh 60 pounds on the Moon.  While they were held firmly to the lunar surface and never in danger of jumping high enough to leave the Moon, they were able to use this reduced pull of gravity to take some enormously long strides walking in their cumbersome space suits.  On a smaller body like an asteroid, self launching into space may prove to be possible, but let us solve that problem when we actually send humans to an asteroid.

     It has been widely speculated since the dawn of the space program that the Moon’s gravitational pull would not be sufficient to hold an atmosphere.  Measurements have proven that this is actually not true, but it would not be a good idea to try and breathe the lunar ‘air’.  The nebulous lunar atmosphere contains about one million particles per cubic centimeter, including some particles that just are not found in the Earth’s atmosphere (like potassium and sodium).  By contrast, the much larger (and denser) Earth’s gravitational pull holds some 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 (or 1 X 10 to the 19th power in scientific notation) parts per cubic centimeter (yes, the nineteen zeros are not a typo).

     The Moon, like the Earth, is also not a perfect sphere.  The Moon first formed from a cloud of debris ripped from the early Earth by a passing body nearly the size of Mars.  This rogue body grazed our then moonless planet creating a ring of debris around the Earth.  As this debris field coalesced into our Moon, compression of this material heated it to the point of melting (some or perhaps all of the new body).  The Earth’s gravitational pull tugged the Moon ever so gently into a slightly flattened sphere.  Internally, the heavier materials inside the Moon were also pulled toward the Earth.  This imbalance forces the Moon to always keep the same side facing the Earth.  Each time the Moon orbits the Earth, it turns one time on its axis, thus keeping the far side of the Moon hidden from our terrestrial view.  Sorry, Pink Floyd fans, there is a ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ but like Earth, it is the side facing away from the sun.  The side we never see gets the same amount of daylight that the Earth-facing side gets.  Perhaps an album titled ‘Far Side of the Moon’ would have been more scientifically correct, but then again, maybe not as thought provoking for a progressive rock album..  

     When the Soviet robot craft Luna 3 took the first pictures of the lunar far side in 1959, it was quite amazing to see how much more rugged that side of the Moon appeared.  Considering the amount of material that was falling toward the Sun as the solar system formed, it should not have been too big of a surprise.  Perhaps the Earth’s gravitational pull was also responsible for more lava flows being created on the visible side of the Moon, thus obscuring some of the impact sites.  The Earth was also pummelled by space debris (and actually, we are still collecting our fair share of hits even today), but our thick atmosphere protected us from some of these impacts.  Over time, weathering and erosion erased most of the larger impact sites on the Earth but not from the (mostly) atmosphere free (and thus weatherless) Moon..

     What about the concept that a full Moon causes ‘lunacy’?  Growing up with a policeman father and being married over forty years to an E.R. nurse, I could relate enough stories to corroborate this claim.  Whether it is a sociological phenomenon or some innate, primal urge that causes humans to act up when the Moon is at full stage, only some form of scientific study could say.   Statistically, data collected by police and medical facilities show an upward curve in their activity that coincides with the full Moon.  Standing on top of one of the Huron Mountains on a full Moon night back in the early 1970s, I can say that the ‘howling at the Moon’ coming from three different directions around us attested the wolves getting wound up by the bright orb.  Our cat certainly acts crazier on full Moon nights.

     Okay, it is time to get back to the central question we began with:  Where the Apollo manned Moon landings faked?  As I found on several conspiracy theory sites, the two most telling pieces of evidence brought forth were: 1) the lack of stars visible in the photos and videos taken by the men on the Moon, and 2) the ‘flapping of the flag’ seen when the Lunar Module blasted off the surface to return to rendezvous with the Command Module.  

     As one who has taken pictures with a camera utilizing an adjustable lens (not just a point and shoot phone camera), I learned early on that photos taken in bright environments get washed out if the lens is not ‘stopped down’ to let less light enter the camera.  With too little atmosphere to help filter out the bright sunlight, the cameras deployed on the Moon’s surface would have been stopped down to a very small opening or aperture.  Against the bright backdrop of the lunar surface, the only star that would emit enough light to be visible in those cases would be the Sun.  Even so, when I watched some of the video ‘evidence’ provided, I could still make out a few twinkling stars when the camera was pointed in certain directions.

     When the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle approached the final touchdown, either Armstrong or Aldrin can be heard to say, “Kicking up a little dust” as their descent engine lowered them to the surface.  When the top stage of the LM blasted off the lower engine platform to return to orbit, it would have also kicked up some dust.  Combined with the ascent rocket’s exhaust plume, there would naturally be enough material on the move to make the flag appear to ‘flap in the breeze’.  They even found that the aluminum pole used to support the flag kept vibrating for some time after they had pounded it in.  The ‘flapping of the flag’ in some videos was a product of no atmospheric friction to damp down the movements caused by the astronauts themselves.

     A more recent lunar orbiting craft, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, has taken detailed photos of the six Apollo landing sites.  The photos are clear enough that one can see not only the  equipment left behind on the lunar surface, but also the astronaut’s tracks.  There is also an archive of Moonquake data stretching back fifty years from the first sensors deployed by the Apollo Moonwalkers.  Without even getting into the impossibly vast number of people that would need to be involved to fake the whole Apollo program (people are good at keeping secrets, right?), I hope Steph Curry will allow the facts to settle in before he professes such doubts again.  It would be fair to note that he did later walk back his statements saying that he was ‘joking around’.  If you want a different humorous take on the whole ‘fake Moon’ thing, watch Rammstein’s video for their song Amerika – it is just as funny as the ‘fake Moon theories’ that I have encountered.  Watching the video, the band also makes some statements about the treatment of Native Peoples, so please do not send me letters complaining about the politically insensitive portrayal of North America’s old west.  It is apparent that Rammstein is taking a good natured, tongue in cheek poke at the United States with an undercurrent about more serious issues.  If Ramstein gets it, I wonder why all those ‘anti-Mooners’ don’t.


Top Piece Video:  The video for ‘Amerika’ mentioned above: