How Do We Actually Know We Landed on the Moon?
On July 20, 1969, the world looked on in awe as 39-year-old astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped off a ladder of the Lunar Module Eagle and onto the surface of the moon, becoming the first human to set foot on a natural celestial object. This moment, watched on television by over 650 million people worldwide, has gone down in history as one of mankind’s greatest triumphs, redefining what humanity is capable of achieving. Over the next three years a total of six Apollo missions and twelve astronauts would visit the moon, leaving behind scientific instruments and returning mineral samples that helped expand our understanding of the moon, the earth, and the solar system.
…or so most of us have been led to believe. Despite the Apollo program being one of the largest, most expensive, and most public undertakings in human history, for nearly 60 years a once small but ever growing dedicated group of conspiracy theorists have maintained that the whole endeavour was in fact an elaborate hoax, a piece of Hollywood flimflammery aimed at pumping up America’s self-image and winning a propaganda victory against the Soviet Union. According to this theory, no humans have ever set foot on the moon, and the famous images beamed into millions of households were instead filmed on a soundstage on earth. While anyone with a passing knowledge of history and conspiracies should be able to recognize these claims as total nonsense, they have gained a surprising amount of traction, with a 2005 poll revealing that nearly 25% of Americans aged 18-25 doubt that humans had ever walked on the moon, Yes, 1 in 4, despite living in an era when humans have access to more information than ever showing we did, in fact, land on the moon…
But how did this conspiracy theory come about in the first place, and what hard, observable evidence is there that the Apollo moon landings actually took place?
While there were doubtless plenty of people in the 1960s who doubted that humans were capable of reaching the moon, the moon landing conspiracy theory as it exists today was started by one man named William Kaysing. Born in 1922 in Chicago, Kaysing served in the U.S. Navy during WWII and in 1949 obtained a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Redlands in California. He then worked a variety of jobs including as a salesman, insurance claims examiner, and cabinetmaker until landing a position as a technical writer for California-based aerospace company Rocketdyne. Deciding he’d had enough of the “rat race,” in 1963 Kaysing quit Rocketdyne and travelled the country in a trailer with his family, earning a living writing books on a wide variety of topics including cooking, farming, taxes, motorcycle, and travel. However, he maintained an active interest in the ongoing manned space program, and as the years passed he became more and more convinced that the United States Government was being less than honest about the nation’s spaceflight accomplishments. In 1976, four years after the Apollo program ended, Kaysing, propping himself up as an expert thanks to his very brief time as a technical writer at Rocketdyne, laid out his ideas in a self-published book titled We Never Landed on the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle.
According to Kaysing, sometime in the late 1950s he managed to get his hands on a top-secret NASA study examining the feasibility of landing on the moon. The report concluded, in his words, that:
“.. the chance of success was something like .0017 percent. In other words, it was hopeless.”
Thus, when NASA announced in 1969 that Apollo 11 had successfully landed on the moon, Kaysing was immediately skeptical. Central to his doubts was the Apollo 1 disaster of February 21, 1967, in which a fire on the launch pad resulted in the deaths of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed While, and Roger Chaffee and set the Apollo program back by months. As Kaysing later explained:
“As late as 1967 three astronauts died in a horrendous fire on the launch pad. But as of ’69, we could suddenly perform manned flight upon manned flight? With complete success? It’s just against all statistical odds.”
According to Kaysing, sometime in the mid-1960s NASA realized that it would not be able to meet former President John F. Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. But rather than admit defeat, NASA decided instead to fake the whole thing. To accomplish this, the astronauts were secretly removed from the Saturn V rocket just prior to launch and the empty rocket fired into space. The astronauts were then flown to a secret soundstage on Groom Lake Air Force Base in Nevada – better known as Area 51 – where the landing and spacewalk were faked for the cameras. And when it came time for the astronauts to return to earth, they were packed into a capsule, flown over the Pacific Ocean in a military transport plane, and parachuted into the water for the U.S. Navy to recover.
Kaysing never revealed which secret report he read contained the infamous .0017 percent probability of success, nor how NASA came up with such an incredibly precise figure. Indeed, there is no evidence that NASA conducted any sort of moon landing feasibility study in the 1950s, the agency having only been established in its modern form in July 1958. But as we shall see, this is far from the largest gap – or the most ridiculous claim – in Kaysing’s theories. For example, when asked why NASA would bother with such an elaborate charade, Kaysing claimed – without any concrete evidence to support – that the agency was working with the Defence Intelligence Agency to deceive the Soviet Union and claim a major propaganda victory. He also accused NASA and major aerospace companies of going along with the scheme in order to secure lucrative government contracts, stating:
“They – both NASA and Rocketdyne – wanted the money to keep pouring in…I’ve worked in aerospace long enough to know that’s their goal.”
As for how NASA managed to dupe the Soviets when the latter were closely monitoring all American spacecraft launches, Kaysing had an equally simple answer: NASA simply broadcast fake signals to fool ground stations into thinking a spacecraft was on its way to the moon. How exactly this was accomplished, Kaysing never specified.
Moving on from here, in his book, Kaysing claims that the faked moon landings were taped live, with only a seven-second delay between recording and broadcast. This meant that if a fly were to buzz across the soundstage, the recording technicians would have had only seconds to react and avoid giving away the whole charade. And just how did Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins spend their free time in-between filming sessions? Well, according to Kaysing, they flew to Las Vegas, rented a room at the Sands Hotel, and hung out at casinos and strip clubs. Kaysing even claims that the astronauts had such a good time in Vegas that one of them – allegedly Buzz Aldrin – got into a fistfight over a stripper, and the three could only be lured back to Area 51 for filming by providing them with buxom showgirls and – we are not making this up – cheese sandwiches.
No matter what objections were levelled at his theories, Kaysing always had ready answers – albeit ones devoid of any supporting evidence. For example, when asked where the moon rocks the astronauts collected came from, Kaysing claimed they were either meteorites recovered from Antarctica or fakes created in a NASA geology lab.
But what neither Kaysing nor subsequent conspiracy theorists have been able to explain away is how NASA and the U.S. government were able to keep such a massive conspiracy under wraps. As anyone who has ever tried to keep a secret knows, the greater the number of people involved, the harder it is to stop the truth from leaking out. For your reference, at its peak the Apollo program employed nearly half a million people nationwide, but in the five decades since the project ended not a single one of them has come forward with credible evidence that the endeavour was an elaborate sham. Always one with a ready answer, Kaysing claimed that NASA only let those who needed to know that the project was a hoax, while letting everyone else believe that their work- you know, the work that if complete to the satisfaction of the countless scientists and engineers involved ignorant of the conspiracy would in fact allow a man to walk on the moon- was genuine. Anyone who did know of the hoax that threatened to spill the beans was either paid off, promoted, threatened, or, in certain cases, murdered.
Despite the sheer absurdity of his claims and the fact that his book was hardly a bestseller, Kaysing’s writings soon gained a small but dedicated following and laid the groundwork for a thriving Moon Landing Hoax community.
Had Kaysing been any other man at any other time, his ideas would likely have been ignored and disappeared into history, but his experience working at Rocketdyne – brief as it was – lent his theories an air of credibility as a supposed expert, despite that he wasn’t even a little bit. And people ran with it.
His ideas also fit perfectly into a cultural shift then taking place in America. While the 1950s and 1960s had been full of optimism about a bright technological future and celebrations of American exceptionalism, by the mid-1970s the American people had become thoroughly disillusioned with their country. The disastrous quagmire of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, and revelations about top secret programs like the MKULTRA mind control experiments caused people to lose trust in their government. With this eroded trust in those in authority, conspiracy theories of all kinds popped up like mushrooms, which has only gotten worse and worse in the modern era, with the root cause being more or less the same on some levels.
Kaysing’s ideas were also given an unexpected boost by the 1978 film Capricorn One, written and directed by Peter Hyams. In the film, NASA, realizing that its upcoming manned mission to Mars is doomed to fail, decides to fake the whole thing instead. Just as in Kaysing’s hypothetical Apollo scenario, the three astronauts are removed from the capsule just prior to launch and the empty rocket fired into space. The astronauts are then flown to a soundstage on a remote military base where the Mars landing is staged for the cameras. However, when the empty spacecraft burns up on reentry due to a faulty heat shield, the U.S. Government decides the astronauts must die to avoid revealing the hoax, resulting in a fraught chase across the desert. The idea for Capricorn One came from the same feeling of distrust for the U.S. Government that drove Kaysing to develop his own theories, with writer-director Hyams later musing:
“There was one event [Apollo 11] of really enormous importance that had almost no witnesses. And the only verification we have . . . came from a TV camera…”
Hyams went on to explain:
“Whenever there was something on the news about a Space Shuttle, they would cut to a studio in St. Louis where there was a simulation of what was going on. I grew up in the generation where my parents basically believed if it was in the newspaper it was true. That turned out to be bullshit. My generation was brought up to believe television was true, and that was bullshit too. So I was watching these simulations and I wondered what would happen if someone faked a whole story.”
In the wake of Kaysing’s book and Hyams’s film, the Moon Landing Hoax theory took on a life of its own, with others adding their own sensational details to the conspiracy. At one point theorists determined that the moon landing sequences had been directed by none other than legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, for no other reason than that his 2001: a Space Odyssey, released a year before Apollo 11, was one of the most realistic science fiction films ever made, featuring groundbreaking special effects. Why Kubrick would agree to help the U.S. Government perpetuate such a hoax has never been adequately explained, though most conspiracy theorists simply turn to the tried and tested excuse that he was bullied or blackmailed into it. Later theorists have speculated that Kubrick secretly confessed his involvement in the hoax via subliminal messages hidden in his 1980 horror film The Shining. These supposed clues include the infamous Room 237, allegedly meant to represent the 237,000 kilometre average distance between the earth and the moon; and the fact that, in certain scenes, the character of Danny Torrance wears an Apollo 11 sweater. Perhaps more than any other part of the moon landing conspiracy, this claim in particular strains credulity; after all, how could Kubrick, infamous perfectionist that he was, ever have allowed Neil Armstrong to flub his iconic line “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”?
The fact that all of these theories crumple so easily under the slightest scrutiny helps explain why, in 2001, Kaysing released an updated edition of his book titled Conspiracy Theory: Did we Land on the Moon? in which he revised many of his claims. For example, in the first edition, Kaysing claimed that the giant Rocketdyne F-1 engines used in the first stage of the Saturn V were discovered to be too unreliable, so NASA instead hid several H-1 rocket engines from the earlier Saturn 1-B rocket inside the F-1 engine bells. This is one of the easiest of Kaysing’s claims to debunk, as even a cursory look at the H-1’s dimensions and performance reveals that not only could these engines not have fit inside the F-1 as Kaysing described, but they would not have had enough thrust to lift the Saturn V into orbit – even with the propellant tanks partially drained. Furthermore, close-up footage taken by NASA of Saturn Vs lifting off clearly show the F-1 engines working just as advertised, with no smaller engine clusters in sight. Faced with such rebuttals, Kaysing revised his story such that the F-1 engines did actually work as intended, but that the rocket was ditched in the ocean as soon as it was out of sight.
Interestingly, this particular theory does contain a small grain of truth, of the type that allows successful conspiracy theories to gain traction and take off. Early in the F-1 engine’s development, Rocketdyne did indeed encounter serious issues with combustion instability that threatened to kill the entire Apollo program. However, through diligent trial and error, engineers, as they are wont to do being engineers, managed to solve the problem in time, and not a single one of the 13 Saturn Vs launched suffered any sort of serious failure.
Other changes in the 2001 edition of Kaysing’s book regard the role of the astronauts in perpetuating the hoax. While in the 1976 edition Kaysing claims that the astronauts never left the earth and spent the entire mission hanging around in Area 51 and Las Vegas, in his revised version they actually did fly into space, but remained in earth orbit while pre-recorded footage of the landing was broadcast around the world. No word on whether they still had cheese sandwiches and strippers with them while circling the globe… Throughout his life, Kaysing continued to level various outlandish accusations at NASA, including that the Apollo 1 fire was deliberately set in order to stop astronauts Grissom, White, and Chaffee from spilling the beans on the upcoming hoax conspiracy. For those following along with Kaysing’s narative, this would mean that he is saying the fire was both a) a deliberate action inflicted by NASA upon itself, and b) an example of NASA’s incompetence that forced the agency to fake the moon landings…
Incredibly, Kaysing went even further, claiming that NASA deliberately blew up the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986 in order to silence “teacher in space” Christa McAuliffe. Why would NASA do this when McAuliffe’s mission was a publicity stunt meant to rekindle public interest in space travel? Well, according to Kaysing:
“Christa McAuliffe, the only civilian and only woman aboard, refused to go along with the lie that you couldn’t see stars in space. So they blew her up, along with six other people, to keep that lie under wraps…”
Adding to the long list of Kaysing’s claims that are ridiculous easy to debunk, it is worth pointing out that
Christa McAuliffe was not the only woman on board; NASA astronaut Judith Resnik was also killed in that tragedy.
Given these outrageous accusations, it is no surprise that Kaysing and his followers have run afoul of several astronauts and other NASA personnel. For example, in 1996 Apollo 8 and 13 astronaut Jim Lovell publicly stated:
“The guy is wacky. His position makes me feel angry. We spent a lot of time getting ready to go to the moon. We spent a lot of money, we took great risks, and it’s something everybody in this country should be proud of.”
Lovell also wrote to Kaysing asking him to:
“Tear up your manuscript and pursue a project that has some meaning. Leave a legacy you can be proud of, not some trash whose readers will doubt your sanity.”
In response, Kaysing proceeded to sue Lovell for slander and defamation. However, the case was ultimately thrown out of court and nothing came of the affair. Understandably, Kaysing’s death in 2005 at the age of 83 was met with mixed feelings by those who had participated in the Apollo program, with few managing to muster much sympathy for a man who accused NASA of multiple murders.
More recently, on September 9, 2002, 37-year old cab driver, conspiracy theorist, and documentary filmmaker Bart Sibrel invited Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin to the Beverly Hills Hotel under the pretence of filming a children’s TV show on space. When Aldrin arrived at the hotel, Sibrel and his camera crew ambushed him, with Sibrel attempting to make Aldrin swear on a bible that he had walked on the moon. Sibrel then proceeded to call Aldrin a “liar” and a “coward” – at which point, in a moment that doubtless elicited cheers throughout the space exploration community, the 72-year-old astronaut proceeded to punch Sibrel right in the face.
But while these outlandish alternate histories of the Apollo program are largely unsupported by evidence and ridiculously easy to debunk, many conspiracy theorists point to supposedly incontrovertible physical evidence hidden in photographs and footage of the Apollo missions which allegedly proves that the landings were faked. So, how do these claims stand up?
Here are some of the most common “mistakes” allegedly made by NASA which, according to conspiracy theorists, prove the moon landings were faked on a soundstage:
- No stars appear in the sky in any of the astronauts’ photographs, despite the moon having no atmosphere to obscure them.
- The American flags planted by the astronauts fly straight and appear to flap in the breeze, despite being allegedly deployed in a vacuum.
- The shadows cast by rocks, the astronauts, and their equipment appear to fall in wildly different directions despite the only light source being the sun. This proves the photos were taken on a soundstage lit by multiple studio lights.
- In one photograph taken during the Apollo 16 mission, a rock bears an obvious letter “C” – proving that it is, in fact, a studio prop and not a natural object.
- In films and photographs, the Lunar Module’s rocket engine produces no visible flames, leaves no crater on the lunar surface, and does not kick up a massive dust cloud, revealing it to be nothing but a studio miniature.
- The aiming crosshairs on the Apollo photographs sometimes appear to lie behind objects, indicating that the photos are actually composites faked in a darkroom.
- The crispness of the astronauts’ footprints indicates the presence of water in the soil, which is impossible if they were taken on the moon.
- The astronauts would never have survived the journey through the Van Allen Belts, large zones of lethal radiation surrounding the earth.
You might want to be sitting down for this next part because it’s going to come as a major shock, but these arguments demonstrate total ignorance of Apollo equipment and procedures as well as the laws of physics, and are all easily debunked. For example, no stars appear in the astronauts’ photographs simply because their cameras were not set up to capture them. All the astronauts’ spacewalks took place during the lunar day, when sunlight reflecting off the lunar surface would have been extremely bright. In order to take clear pictures, the apertures on their cameras had to be cranked down, making the stars too faint to show up on the film. Photographic procedures also neatly solve the mystery of the disappearing crosshairs. The crosshairs themselves were etched directly into the glass optics of the cameras, meaning that light reflecting at certain angles could make some parts of the crosshairs appear lighter than others. When the negatives were subsequently developed, enlarged, and copied, these differences were magnified, causing the pale sections to disappear entirely and the crosshairs appear to sit behind rather than over certain objects.
As for the mysterious “C” on the rock in the Apollo 16 photograph, this is also merely a photographic aberration. The letter does not appear in the original negative, and is likely a stray piece of hair or dust that was accidentally captured during the enlargement and copying process. Furthermore, as many veteran film crews and props masters are quick to point out, nowhere is it common practice to label props and scenery with large, easily visible letters or numbers.
Other purported “evidence” of the moon landings being fake is easily dismissed by closely examining the Apollo hardware. For instance, NASA planners knew full well that an American flag hanging limply in a vacuum would hardly be the most majestic or patriotic sight, which is why the lunar flag assemblies included a thin horizontal rod to keep the flag flying proudly. As for the flags appearing to flap in the breeze, in still photographs this is merely an illusion caused by the flags being wrinkled. In footage of the flags being planted, the flags only move while the astronauts are handling them, and for a few seconds afterwards as the flags swing like pendulums in the vacuum before finally falling still.
A close examination of the Lunar Module propulsion system also reveals why it produced no visible flame and left no visible crater on the lunar surface. Both the descent and ascent engines on the Lunar Module were fueled by a combination of Aerozine 50 and Nitrogen Tetroxide, the reaction of which produces a pale, nearly colourless flame. Barely visible in high-definition footage of earth-based rockets like the Titan II ballistic missile, this exhaust would have been invisible to the primitive television cameras used to record lunar liftoffs, giving the Lunar Module ascent stage the appearance of a studio model being lifted by a string.
But what about the lack of a crater? Well, lunar gravity is only 1/6 as strong as on earth, meaning that far less powerful – and destructive – engines were required to get the Lunar Module onto and off of the lunar surface. Indeed, the Lunar Module descent engine had a maximum thrust of around 4,500 kilograms – about the same as the smallest rocket to achieve earth orbit, the Japanese SS-520. This engine was also significantly throttled down during final approach, further limiting its destructive potential. Furthermore, much of the lunar surface consists of hard bedrock covered by a thin layer of lunar soil or regolith, rarely more than a couple of centimetres deep. Thus, on landing, the Lunar Module would not have blasted a deep crater but merely displaced a small amount of dust.
But what about the lack of a gigantic billowing dust cloud? Well, on earth dust clouds are caused by fine dust particles becoming suspended in the air; in the absence of an atmosphere, dust does not billow, simply falls to the ground at the rate of gravitational acceleration – but more on that later.
Speaking of dust, according to conspiracy theorists, the remarkable crispness of the footprints the Apollo astronauts left in the lunar soil is only possible if said soil contains water, proving that the photographs were taken on earth and not on the dry, airless lunar surface. But this argument ignores the unique properties of the lunar environment. The lunar regolith is produced over millions of years by the continual bombardment of the lunar surface by meteorites. Once settled on the lunar surface, the regolith is acted upon by the solar wind and other high-energy subatomic particles, further breaking it down into fine, and extremely sharp and jagged particles. This bombardment also imparts the dust particles with a strong electrostatic charge, allowing them to clump together much like damp soil does on earth. Indeed, this property proved a major problem for the Apollo astronauts, as the charged, highly-abrasive dust stuck to everything – including the astronauts’ spacesuits – and wore down and damaged a great deal of sensitive equipment. This electrostatic cling, along with the lack of flowing water, wind, and other erosive forces on the lunar surface, also means that the astronauts’ footprints will likely remain crisp and perfectly preserved for millions of years, until they are finally covered over by slowly-accumulating layers of falling dust.
While the previous examples are relatively straightforward to debunk, there still remains the curious phenomenon of the cockeyed shadows in the astronaut photographs. At first glance, this argument appears to indicate that the conspiracy theorists might actually be onto something. After all, if the only light source was the sun, wouldn’t all the shadows be parallel? But once again, the solution to this supposed “mystery” is relatively straightforward, and was famously demonstrated in a 2008 episode of the TV show Mythbusters. In that episode, host Adam Savage constructed a scale model of the Apollo 11 landing site complete with miniature lunar lander, and lit the entire scene with a single spotlight to simulate the sun. Savage discovered that the uneven terrain caused the shadows to veer off in different directions, giving the illusion of multiple light sources.
But what about the most persistent and seemingly scientific argument against humans travelling to the moon – that the astronauts would have been fried by the intense radiation of the Van Allen Belts? To the conspiracy theorists’ credit, the Van Allen Radiation Belts are a very real phenomenon and do pose a serious risk to astronauts venturing beyond low earth orbit. The twin donut-shaped regions, which lie at an altitude of 600-13,000 kilometres for the inner belt and 13,500-40,000 kilometres for the outer belt, are the result of the earth’s magnetic field capturing and accelerating high-energy subatomic particles from the solar wind and other cosmic sources. In certain places the belts are populated by large number of protons with energies exceeding 100 Mega-Electron-Volts – which would kill a human within minutes.
So, how did NASA get around this seemingly impenetrable barrier? Well, by doing just that: going around it. While certain parts are extremely dangerous, the Van Allen Belts are not uniform in density, with outlying zones containing significantly fewer high-energy particles. The belts are also relatively narrow, occupying only a fraction of the path between the earth and the moon. NASA planners were thus able to design the Apollo spacecraft’s Trans-Lunar Injection or TLI course to skirt around the edges of the Van Allen Belts and avoid the more dangerous zones. The time spent within the belts themselves was also extremely brief – around 60 minutes total for both the outbound and return flights – meaning the astronauts were exposed to only minimal amounts of radiation. The spacecraft itself also incorporated a great deal of radiation shielding in the form of aluminium plates, instrument panels, and propellant and oxygen tanks, further reducing the crew’s exposure. Indeed, the astronaut’s total exposure upon returning from the moon was found to be 0.46 rads – equivalent to around 46 chest x-rays.Thus, while the Van Allen Belts were indeed a known and serious hazard, with a little planning this obstacle was easily overcome – almost as if NASA has a lot of people working there who are experts in this stuff and know exactly what they were doing…
But while debunking these common arguments clearly reveals the flimsy evidence on which most moon landing conspiracy theories are built, ultimately all this proves is that if the moon landing was faked, NASA did not make any obvious mistakes. It does not definitively prove that the Apollo landings actually took place. So, how can we physically confirm, in the present day, that humans actually walked on the moon?
One method is to shine a laser at the moon. All six Apollo missions deployed a piece of equipment called the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package or ALSEP, an automated laboratory for studying the lunar environment. Powered by a radioisotope thermal generator or RTG, the ALSEPs were designed to remain on the lunar surface and transmit data on seismic activity, subatomic particles, and other phenomena back to earth.
In addition to the main ALSEP package, Apollos 11, 14, and 15 also deployed a device known as the Lunar Laser Ranging experiment or LLR, a small array of corner retroreflectors that reflect light back in the direction it arrives. These were designed to allow scientists to accurately measure the distance between the earth and the moon. To accomplish this, a powerful laser, such as the Apache Point Observatory Lunar Laser-ranging Operation or APOLLO in New Mexico, is fired at the LRRs on the lunar surface and the time for the beam to bounce back measured. Given the extreme distances involved and the small size of the target, actually hitting the reflectors is something of a challenge, which scientists liken to using a rifle to hit a moving dime 3 kilometres away. Furthermore, only a very small proportion – about one in one sextillion – of the photons fired at the moon make it back to the earth, and require specialized sensors to detect. Yet despite these challenges, using the LRRs scientists are able to measure the distance to the moon with an accuracy of a few millimetres, the equivalent of measuring the distance between Los Angeles and New York within the width of a human hair. This extraordinary accuracy has allowed scientists to determine, among other things, that the moon has a liquid core, wobbles about its axis, and is gradually moving away from the earth at a rate of about 3.8 centimetres per year. The LRRs continue to be used for research to the present day, the only part of the Apollo ALSEPs still in working order.
While the existence of the LRRs should theoretically confirm the reality of the Apollo missions, unfortunately in this case history does give the conspiracy theorists a plausible out, for the Apollo LRRs are not the only retroreflectors on the moon. In 1970 and 1973, the Soviet Union landed two robotic Lunokhod rovers on the lunar surface. In addition to television cameras, spectrometers, soil probes, and radiation detectors, the Lunokhods also carried laser retroreflector arrays, which continue to be used for experiments alongside the Apollo LRRs. Thus the presence of retroreflectors on the moon does not definitely prove that humans set foot there. Simply that humans definitely managed to get things on the moon.
But if seeing truly is believing, then why not send a spacecraft to photograph the lunar surface and bring back direct photographic evidence of the Apollo landings? This is exactly what NASA did in 2009 when it launched the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter or LRO into lunar orbit. While LRO’s primary mission is to map the lunar surface and help find suitable sites for future manned and unmanned missions, in the course of this mission the spacecraft passed over and photographed the landing sites of all 6 Apollo missions. These photographs, taken from altitudes between 20 and 165 kilometres above the surface, clearly show the hardware left behind by the astronauts – including the Lunar Module descent stages, the ALSEP instrument packages, and the Lunar Roving Vehicles or LRVs – as well as the extensive patterns of tracks left by the LRVs and the astronauts’ feet. Of course, conspiracy theorists will inevitably claim that these photos were also faked, but spacecraft from China, India, and Japan have also independently photographed the Apollo landing sites. Why any of these nations would play along with a 60-year-old American hoax isn’t clear.
But if even that doesn’t convince you, then allow us to reveal our trump card, the ultimate evidence that humans actually did walk on the moon and that the entire Apollo program was not, in fact, faked on a soundstage: the dust.
For the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 missions in 1971 and 1972, the astronauts were equipped with the Lunar Roving Vehicle or LRV, a folding, electrically-powered “moon buggy” that allowed them to explore a greater area of the lunar surface. Footage of this vehicle driving around on the lunar surface reveals a curious phenomenon: the dust kicked up by the wheels simply falls back in a straight line rather than billowing as it would on earth, and also falls far more slowly. This makes sense, as the moon has no atmosphere and air is required for dust to billow. Lunar gravity is also only 1/6 as powerful as that on earth, meaning that objects accelerate towards the lunar surface at only 1.6 metres per second squared.
Well, so what? you might be asking. How does this prove that humans walked on the moon? To understand why, consider what it would have taken to fake this footage on a soundstage. Simulating the motion of particulates like smoke, fog, and dust is one of the most difficult challenges in movie visual effects – so much so that even today’s most powerful CGI rendering software struggles to achieve realistic-looking results. Faking the dust would thus have been far beyond the capabilities of analog 1970s visual effects. Indeed, even 2001: a Space Odyssey – whose special effects are often cited by conspiracy theorists as evidence that director Stanley Kubrick helped fake the moon landings – doesn’t bother to accurately depict the behaviour of dust in a vacuum. In an early scene where a spacecraft touches down on the moon, the dust billows just as it does on earth.
Thus, to achieve a realistic dust effect on earth, NASA would have had no choice but to film a full-sized Lunar Rover – or, at the very least, a remote-controlled model – in an enormous vacuum chamber – a truly monumental undertaking. To be fair, NASA does operate a number of large vacuum chambers for testing spacecraft prior to launch, and the cost of building a vacuum soundstage would have been significantly lower than actually going to the moon. But even if NASA had gone to such extraordinary lengths to get the behaviour of the lunar dust just right, there would still be the problem of gravity. While the reduced weight of larger objects like the astronauts themselves could theoretically have been simulated using cables and counterweights, the slow fall of the lunar dust would have been all but impossible to fake. In order to replicate both the effects of vacuum and reduced gravity simultaneously, our hypothetical vacuum sound stage would have had to have been mounted in an aircraft such as NASA’s infamous KC-135 “Vomit Comet” and run through a parabolic arcs while the cameras rolled – all to achieve a physical effect that most of the general public would not even have noticed.
That’s not to mention in all of this, once again, the Soviets would have liked nothing better than to embarrass the U.S. by revealing the landings were a hoax. Yet, like the rest of us, but with far more sophisticated equipment than a TV, they closely monitored the spacecraft and every other facet of the manned missions to the moon.
As you might imagine from all this, given the incredible scope such a deceit would have had to entail, spanning hundreds of thousands of individuals virtually of of whom would have had to be ignorant of the hoax, and, thus, actually doing the real work that would put a man on the moon, when all things considered, it actually becomes easier to just go to the moon than to fake it.
But all the material and historical evidence aside, the real question when it comes to moon landing conspiracy theories is this: if Apollo 11 was fake and only intended to win a propaganda victory, why, then, were there follow-up missions? If the Apollo program was meant to showcase America’s technological superiority, why did two missions, Apollo 1 and Apollo 13, end in near or total disaster?
And if all the landings were faked, why did NASA stop at only 6? Viewed objectively, with all its triumphs, tragedies, and random twists of fate, the history of the Apollo Program – and the U.S. Space Program as a whole – reads far more like actual messy reality than some carefully-orchestrated propaganda hoax.
But regardless of logic or evidence, some people simply believe what they want to believe and don’t bother to ever look deeper into the actual hard data on an issue. And so it is that the moon landing conspiracy theory, among countless others that are also relatively easily debunked with even a cursory dive into the issue, doesn’t seem likely to disappear any time soon. Given the surprising longevity of William Kaysing’s harebrained ideas (and the growing popularity of some of them in an era when more information than ever is available for people to look up and disprove the hoax theory), it truly is a case of one small step for a man, one giant leap for willfully-ignorant-kind.
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