HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Last week my phone rang. It was my mother … and she was upset.
“Tony!” she exclaimed, “I just came from the coffee shop and there’s a man down there who says NASA never landed on the Moon. Everyone was talking about it … I just didn’t know what to say!”
That last bit was hard to swallow, I thought. Mom’s never at a loss for words.
But even more incredible was the controversy that swirled through her small-town diner and places like it across the country. After a long absence, the “Moon Hoax” was back.
All the buzz about the Moon began Feb. 15 when Fox television aired a program called Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?
Guests on the show argued that NASA technology in the 1960s wasn’t up to the task of a real Moon landing. Instead, anxious to win the space race any way it could, NASA acted out the Apollo program in movie studios.
Neil Armstrong’s historic first steps on another world, the rollicking Moon Buggy rides, even Al Shepard’s arcing golf shot over Fra Mauro – it was all a fake!
Shows like Conspiracy Theory ought to be as tongue-in-cheek as they sound. Unfortunately, there was an earnest feel to the Fox broadcast, enough to make you wonder if the program’s makers might have fallen under their own spell.
According to the show, NASA was a blundering movie producer 30 years ago. For example, Conspiracy Theory pundits pointed out a seeming discrepancy in Apollo imagery: Pictures of astronauts transmitted from the Moon don’t include stars in the dark lunar sky – an obvious production error. What happened? Did NASA film makers forget to turn on the constellations?
Most photographers already know the answer: It’s difficult to capture something very bright and something else very dim on the same piece of film – typical emulsions don’t have enough “dynamic range.”
Astronauts striding across the bright lunar soil in their sunlit spacesuits were literally dazzling. Setting a camera with the proper exposure for a glaring spacesuit would naturally render background stars too faint to see.
About that flag…
Here’s another one: Pictures of Apollo astronauts erecting a U.S. flag on the Moon show the flag bending and rippling. How can that be? After all, there’s no breeze on the Moon.
Not every waving flag needs a breeze – at least not in space. When astronauts were planting the flagpole they rotated it back and forth to better penetrate the lunar soil (anyone who’s set a blunt tent post will know how this works). So, of course, the flag waved!
Unfurling a piece of rolled-up cloth with stored angular momentum will naturally result in waves and ripples – no breeze required!
Call on common sense.
The Fox documentary went on with more specious points. You can find detailed rebuttals to each of them at BadAstronomy.com and the Moon Hoax Web page. (These are independent sites, not sponsored by NASA.)
The best rebuttal to allegations of a “Moon Hoax,” however, is common sense.
Evidence that the Apollo program really happened is compelling: A dozen astronauts (laden with cameras) walked on the Moon between 1969 and 1973. Nine of them are still alive and can testify to their experience.
Explain the moon rocks.
They didn’t return from the Moon empty-handed, either. Just as Columbus carried a few hundred natives back to Spain as evidence of his trip to the New World, Apollo astronauts brought 841 pounds of Moon rock home to Earth.
“Moon rocks are absolutely unique,” said David McKay, chief scientist for planetary science and exploration at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
McKay is a member of the group that oversees the Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility at JSC where most of the Moon rocks are stored.
Lunar geologist Marc Norman at the University of Tasmania explains. “Lunar samples have almost no water trapped in their crystal structure, and common substances such as clay minerals that are ubiquitous on Earth are totally absent in Moon rocks.”
“We’ve found particles of fresh glass in Moon rocks that were produced by explosive volcanic activity and by meteorite impacts over 3 billion years ago,” added Norman. “The presence of water on Earth rapidly breaks down such volcanic glass in only a few million years.”
Fortunately not all of the evidence needs a degree in chemistry or geology to appreciate. An average person holding a Moon rock in his hand can plainly see that the specimen came from another world.
“Apollo moon rocks are peppered with tiny craters from meteoroid impacts,” explains McKay. This could only happen to rocks from a planet with little or no atmosphere… like the Moon.
Meteoroids are nearly-microscopic specks of comet dust that fly through space at speeds often exceeding 50,000 mph – 10 times faster than a speeding bullet. They pack a considerable punch, but they’re also extremely fragile.
Meteoroids that strike Earth’s atmosphere disintegrate in the rarefied air above our stratosphere. (Every now and then on a dark night you can see one – they’re called meteors.)
But the Moon doesn’t have an atmosphere to protect it. The tiny space bullets can plow directly into Moon rocks, forming miniature and unmistakable craters.
“There are plenty of museums, including the Smithsonian and others, where members of the public can touch and examine rocks from the Moon,” says McKay. “You can see the little meteoroid craters for yourself.”
Just as meteoroids constantly bombard the Moon so do cosmic rays, and they leave their fingerprints on Moon rocks, too.
“There are isotopes in Moon rocks, isotopes we don’t normally find on Earth, that were created by nuclear reactions with the highest energy cosmic rays,” said McKay. Earth is spared from such radiation by our protective atmosphere and magnetosphere.
Even if scientists wanted to make something like a Moon rock by, say, bombarding an Earth rock with high energy atomic nuclei, they couldn’t. Earth’s most powerful particle accelerators can’t energize particles to match the most potent cosmic rays, which are themselves accelerated in supernova blastwaves and in the violent cores of galaxies.
Stick to cartoons.
Indeed, says McKay, faking a Moon rock well enough to hoodwink an international army of scientists might be more difficult than the Manhattan Project. “It would be easier to just go to the Moon and get one,” he quipped.
Even Robert Park, director of the Washington office of the American Physical Society and a noted critic of NASA’s human space flight program, agrees with the space agency on this issue. “The body of physical evidence that humans did walk on the Moon is simply overwhelming.”
“Fox should stick to making cartoons,” agreed Marc Norman. “I’m a big fan of The Simpsons!”