Friday, 20 September 2013

Project Apollo and the lamentable Hoax Theory

Project Apollo is probably the single greatest achievement of human civilization, especially from a scientific or engineering perspective.  The astronauts who took part were enormously courageous in their endeavour in pushing back the boundaries of exploration. It showed a modern democratic and technological society at its best as an act of cooperation and coordination over many years and involving a large number of people.

The theory that the Apollo moon landings were faked is fatuous, absurd nonsense. It’s a boring, paranoid conspiracy theory that shows a lack of understanding of science, common sense or history.

I really didn’t want to write this article but am doing so for those times when someone raises this theory’s ugly and asinine head, so I can just point to this as my response.

Please watch the wonderful documentary, Stranger than Fiction : The Truth Behind the Moon Landings, for a good understanding of why the hoax theory is such palpable balderdash.  You can view this here:


For a detailed examination of the various points made about the Apollo Moon landings please have a look at the Bad Astronomy website by Phil Plait : http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/tv/foxapollo.html

Mr Plait is an astronomer. That is, he is a scientist who actually deals in science for a living rather than simply watching things on youtube and then making stuff up.

My friend Jerry Stone from the British Interplanetary Society has a presentation that is all about the hoax theory and what hogwash it is.  For details of how to hire him for this please look at this : http://spaceflight-uk.com/would_you_believe.html

Wikipedia has a great page which provides more detail : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moon_landing_conspiracy_theories and there is also a very detailed examination of the points made by the hoax theorists here: http://absoluteverdict.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/debunking-moon-conspiracy-theories.html

Professional astronomers and physicists are in a much stronger position than I am to comment in detail about the finer points put forward within the hoax theory.  The following is a more personal view about the topic as a whole.

The Moon Race

The Apollo space programme started during one of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War – the sixties.  The USA and the Soviet Union were enemies poised to unleash nuclear doomsday at the touch of a button. The space race and in particular the Moon Race can be seen historically as symptomatic of that enmity. The Soviet launch of Sputnik and their success in sending the first human into space were deeply threatening to the USA.  President Kennedy’s initiative to land a man on the Moon by the end of the sixties and return him safely to the Earth was in large part a response to this Soviet dominance.  The Moon Race, that is the struggle between the superpowers to land a human on the Moon first, was part of a long battle between the two for dominance, technically and in terms of international prestige and influence. 

After the end of the Cold War, more details have come to light about the nature of the Soviet lunar programme.  The Soviets had the capability to track NASA’s flights to the Moon and if the landings had not taken place they would have been the first to tell the world.  They would have been delighted to have uncovered any evidence of trickery.  Yet in reality after the landing of Apollo 11 they graciously congratulated America on its achievement.  The hoax theory cannot realistically include the Soviets within their conspiracy. If there was any evidence of faking the landings, the Soviets would have discovered it and released it to the world.

Similarly, the British Jodrell Bank Observatory tracked the Apollo missions along, interestingly, with the Soviet unmanned lunar lander at the same time.  More broadly, the Apollo landings were broadcast over an international network of television stations. Many other non-NASA and even non-American organisations and individuals tracked the missions. None suggested the landings were faked.  It simply is not realistic to suggest that all of these organisations, individuals, television and receiving stations would have been involved in a conspiracy to mislead the public. 

Buzz Aldrin sets up an experiment on the lunar surface during Apollo 11

The Lack of Evidence of the Hoax

The hoax theory, as a whole, simply tries to pick holes in small parts of the whole range of evidence of the lunar missions.  It unconvincingly talks about flags waving, alleged problems with photographs and so forth. It does not set out a positive case of its own and as a lawyer this always strikes me as a major failing.  To suggest that the Apollo moon landings were faked is a proposition so wildly divergent from accepted history, the hoax theorists need to provide reliable evidence that positively supports their case.  There is none. 

The hoax theory fails to provide any direct or primary evidence to supports its allegation that the lunar landings were faked.  No witnesses are produced who saw the studio and the set on which they were alleged to have been filmed.  No models, props or sets in which the lunar landings were filmed are given up for examination.  No documentation showing evidence of the faking, such as scripts, camera directions, billing or invoices for sound crews and so forth are ever released. No evidence is provided as to what happened to the Apollo space hardware, such as the lunar modules, if they were not left in space or on the Moon as part of the missions.

There are no confessions by either NASA employees or the numerous contractors, academics, universities and other staff.  No newspaper stories providing details of how the lunar landings were staged have ever been written.  Actual confessions of this sort would be amazingly valuable to newspapers as it would be a great story for them to publish and reveal to the world. But it’s never happened.

It's difficult for hoax theorists to suggest the Apollo launches did not take place as hundreds if not thousands of people watched them.  There were six unmanned launches in the Apollo missions followed by the manned missions of Apollo 7 to 17.  From Apollo 7 onwards the launches were broadcast on television.  So, the hoax theorists cannot plausibly suggest the launches didn't happen as there were so many witnesses. If the landings did not take place, where did the rockets go? The hoax theorists have not provided any direct evidence for this.  There are no tracking stations that indicated the missions did not go exactly where they were supposed to.  No one has come forward to say they tracked an Apollo lunar mission and it did not go to the Moon. Again, the hoax theorists would have to supply primary evidence of this sort for their theory to start to have any credibility.

The hoax theorists might then suggest that whilst the missions went to the Moon they were unmanned in reality and so no humans stepped out onto the Moon. We are then back to the previous missing evidence concerning the film studios in which the Apollo missions were allegedly filmed. It has to be remembered that Apollo 15, 16 and 17 used the Lunar Rover, the remarkable "car" which lead to the astronauts range over the Moon being greatly extended.  If these missions were filmed here on Earth it would have required a very expansive studio in which to have created this footage.  No evidence has ever been provided of the location of this studio or its size.

Conspiracy theorists would suggest this is because the cover up involved is so complete, so overwhelming that this primary evidence cannot and will not come to light. Yet that suggestion is simply not convincing given the nature of all the secrets that have come to light.  As discussed below, Apollo involved a huge amount of people over a long time – at some point some form of witness testimony or physical evidence showing the nature of the faking would come to light. Consider scandals such as Watergate.  Governments and organisations are simply not that effective at keeping such a mass of evidence so tightly concealed.

On balance then, the hoax theory’s complete lack of primary evidence to support it coupled with its unconvincing attempt to rubbish Apollo’s evidence leads to the only reasonable conclusion – that the Moon landings were not faked.  The hoax theorists even fail to provide a reasonable theory as to how the landings were allegedly faked and how it was then covered up and by whom.

In a similar theme, I've never been clear as to why in particular the Moon landings are deemed to be fakes but no attention is given to other space missions.  The Apollo lunar missions are only a small subset of all the human journeys into space. We start of course with Yuri Gagarin in Vostok 1 in 1961, through the long, glorious history of the Soviet and then the Russian space programs and their extended stays in space on board their various space stations.  Did the Russians fake all or some of all of this? If so how and why?

With NASA of course we have Mercury, then Gemini, then Apollo, followed by Apollo/Soyuz and then onto the three decade long space shuttle programme.  If Apollo was faked, what about all these other missions?  What happened with them? Are the hoax theorists suggesting the International Space Station is a hoax too? What about other aspects of space exploration such as the unmanned missions to the Moon, Mars, Jupiter and so forth? Is Voyager 1 really heading out beyond the planets or is that fake too? The inconsistent application of hoaxing to the Moon landings just doesn't seem reasonable.  Apollo wasn't sealed off from other aspects of NASA's activities and was by and large very open to the press.  Faking it seems entirely implausible.

The Evidence for the Apollo Moon Landings

There is a wealth of evidence to support the reality of the lunar landings.  There is the large amount of photographs and television transmissions.  The later Apollo missions featured colour television broadcasts including the journeys across the lunar surface on the Lunar Rover. 

The Apollo missions included experiments on the lunar surface including distance measuring by laser. Called retroreflectors, measurements have been taken from these ever since the Apollo missions and continue to date.  In addition, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission of 2009, forty years after the Apollo 11 landing, has taken photographs of all six landing sites and provided photographic evidence of them.

There are also the moon rocks brought back by the Apollo missions.  No one has ever credibly suggested these are anything but genuine.

Project Apollo was HUGE

Project Apollo is sometimes referred to as the Moon Landing. Singular. In fact, six missions landed on the Moon within Project Apollo: Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17.  So for the moon landings (plural) to be faked required the plan to operate throughout this entire period.  Actually, Apollo lunar missions commenced with Apollo 8, which I always think of as the really historical one, in December 1968 when for this first time astronauts travelled beyond Earth orbit and orbited round the Moon.  Apollo 10 was also a lunar mission, a rehearsal as it were for the first lunar landing of Apollo 11.  As the missions progressed they became increasingly lengthy and on Apollo 17 the astronauts spent roughly three days on the lunar surface.

As a result, the hoax theory implies that the faking carried on at least from December 1968 to December 1972.  The build up to the lunar missions included Apollo 7 in 1967 and Project Apollo itself commenced in 1961.  As a result the lunar programme lasted slightly more than ten years.  The amount of people involved at its peak has been estimated at 400,000 including all the contractors and academics involved.  The hoax theory seeks to suggest that some or all of this enormous outpouring of effort over such a long time was a fake.  Does it seem likely that such a huge undertaking could conceivably be a fabrication?

What’s striking about a lot of the people supporting the hoax theory is how little they actually know about Project Apollo and its size and complexity and yet at the same time they are so expert they are in a position to judge the moon missions as a whole. 

The Science of Apollo

One point that intrigues me about Apollo is the way non-scientists seem to think that after watching a programme or short film on the subject, they are therefore far more knowledgeable than the myriad of scientists who either worked in Apollo or commentated on it for the benefit of the public at the time.

Take for example the sadly missed Sir Patrick Moore.  Many of us will think of him as a wonderful television personality who brought the delights of astronomy to us all.  He was also a lunar expert whose work in mapping the surface of the Moon was of assistance to lunar exploration.  Yet those who support the hoax theory imply that they are more knowledgeable and expert on conditions on the lunar surface and science in general than someone like Sir Patrick.  As can be seen from the documentary posted above, Sir Patrick was a fierce enemy of the hoax theory. Why would he, for example, be part of any conspiracy?

Whilst it must be right that anyone can make an argument, we also need to look at the scientific education of those making these suggestions.  Most if not all the people who seem to support the hoax theory have little or no scientific training and yet seem to insist they are experts on physics, optics, rocket engineering, astronomy and orbital mechanics simply from watching a few short films on youtube.  This is not to even mention selenology, which for those who don’t know (which will be most hoax theorists) is the science of lunar geology or, more broadly, lunar science generally.

Science is often far more complex and fascinating than articles in popular magazines or short films on the internet might suggest.  Conditions on the Moon can involve parameters that are very different if not to say alien than those we encounter on Earth. What is common sense here on Earth might not apply on the Moon. Yet the typical hoax theorist seems to have so little scientific knowledge that they cannot even conceive that it might be otherwise.

The Lunar Rover from Apollo 15
The Apollo Legacy

As noted above, Project Apollo was arguably the single greatest achievement of the human race to date.  So big, perhaps people living now want to deny that it ever happened.  Perhaps people don’t like the idea that the most exciting thing that we as a civilization have ever done is not taking place now in our contemporary era but finished over forty years ago.

All the Apollo astronauts, from the tragedy of Apollo 1 to the final steps in the Taurus-Littrow Valley of Apollo 17 and the historic Apollo/Soyuz mission, are eternal heroes of our species in extending human consciousness out into the universe.  Yet aside from Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong, most people could not name any of the others to have walked on the Moon.  The hoax theory seeks to urinate and defecate all over the extraordinary heritage of Apollo, that Herculean effort by so many people in seeking to make humanity more than a one world people.

One has to question why some people seem to be so keen to suggest that the moon landings were faked.  We can put aside the question of why would NASA and the USA’s government want to fake such a thing or how they might do it -  no one has ever suggested a convincing rationalisation for such a plan. The hoax theorists seem to take an almost gleeful zest in their cause. Why? Why is it so important to advance such a squalid proposition?

What is perhaps the humbling lesson from the hoax theory is the seeming instant gullibility of some to believe anything they are told.  This is a frightening lesson to us all.    


Thursday, 19 September 2013

From Imagination to Reality #2 with the British Interplanetary Society

On Saturday I spent the day enjoying a series of talks about space exploration at the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) headquarters in London.  Our hosts were none other than model making master craftsman Mat Irvine and space advocate and presenter Jerry Stone.  The themes throughout the day were the celebrated author and BIS member Arthur C. Clarke and the interplay between the imagination and the realities of space travel and exploration.

The first speaker was the President of the BIS, Alistair Scott, who talked informatively and entertainingly about the history of communication satellites, one of the commercial practicalities running through the decades of space missions.  Starting with the early work by BIS as well as the breakthrough concepts created by Arthur C. Clarke, Alistair took us through their development including such historic satellites as Telstar and Intelsat 1.  He also described how the three axis design took over from the earlier spinning mode for satellites.

The original periodical in which Arthur C. Clarke sets out the concept of geosynchronous orbit 

Alistair gave a very polished, professional presentation and noted in particular the role of champagne in celebrating a successful deployment of a satellite after what must always be a nervous build up to launch. 

The next speaker was Gerry Webb, CEO of Commercial Space Technologies.  Gerry gave a very personal, heartfelt account of how as a boy he had been thrilled by the adventures of Dan Dare and other space comics and how they fired him with ambition to pursue a space career.  He talked about how becoming a member of BIS (including meeting Arthur C. Clarke and Patrick Moore) had changed his life and helped him achieve his dreams.  In particular, Gerry described how he became involved with the Soviet space programme and how his company worked with them during the 1980s.

A good speaker engages the emotions of the audience and it was not difficult to feel some of Gerry’s enthusiasm and passion for his subject.  He concluded by talking about the concept of World Ships – that is enormous space colonies that wander far from our solar system spreading life from Earth with them.

The speaker before lunch was Per Wimmer of WimmerSpace.  Per is an extraordinary man, an adventurer and space tourist in training.  He described one of his adventures in becoming part of the first tandem skydive over Mount Everest.  Per was one of the first to sign up with Virgin Galactic and described their activities in some detail. He mentioned that unexpectedly he had met a number of celebrities as a result including of course Richard Branson and also Buzz Aldrin and had even gone bowling with Kylie Minogue!  He was an excellent advocate for Virgin Galactic.

Per Wimmer of WimmerSpace - adventurer and space tourist in training
Per has also bought tickets with XCOR Lynx and Space Adventures. He is living the dream for many of us who long to do what he is doing and I was glad that someone in his position was such a good ambassador for the exploration of space. He is keen to push the educational value of his activities.  The fun of training for such flights also came through in his presentation as he described zero gravity flights on aircraft and training in a centrifuge.  It was an exciting presentation and got everyone talking before lunch.

BIS provide excellent catering at their events and I had a delicious vegetarian lasagne and glass of wine, followed by a huge helping of chocolate cake.  At lunch the speakers generously made themselves available to chat with the attendees.  Some of us had a good look at the beautiful models that Mat had brought along and this lead to Mat chatting to us about Space 1999 and the career of Gerry Anderson.

Per Wimmer, Mat Irvine and Jerry Stone at BIS
Many speakers will be only too aware that the first post-lunch talk can be tricky after the audience has had a fine repast, as we had, so we were lucky to have an animated and fascinating presentation from astronomer Greg Smye-Rumsby.

Rather controversially perhaps to some in the audience, Greg started by saying he thought any attempt to colonise Mars by settlements on the surface, as with Mars One, was doomed as the radiation was too high.  If Mars was to be colonised at all, he believed, it would have to use underground settlements. 

Greg’s talk was on Pluto with an eye to the forthcoming encounter of that far off world by NASA’s New Horizons mission. He discussed the discovery of Pluto, the debate about whether Pluto was a planet or not and the ongoing revelations about the outer parts of the solar system and how new worlds of a similar size have been discovered.  His presentation was liberally sprinkled with all sorts of fascinating points, such as that Earth is in essence the rocky core of a former gas giant planet that formed in the very earliest part of the solar system’s history. The Sun’s energy then tore away the gaseous layers leaving only the rocky core underneath which we now stand (or sit!) on.

Jerry Stone, who had along with Mat been running the event, now spoke about space colonies – the subject of a new BIS project that he is leading.  His theme was looking at whether we could in effect live in an “inside out” world in the environment of a space colony.  Looking at the work from the 1970s of Dr Gerard O’Neill, Jerry discussed the construction and benefits of large space colonies whose populations would be counted in the thousands and possibly even one day the millions. 

Space advocate Jerry Stone discusses the work of Dr Gerard O'Neill
Dr O’Neill’s work depicts an optimistic and expansive future for humanity, pitting it diametrically opposite works of the time such as The Limits to Growth which suggested that ultimately human growth has to be a zero sum as it would be limited by the Earth’s resources.  The High Frontier and other similar texts on space colonies pointed to, as Issac Asimov phrased it, the planetary chauvinism inherent in the idea that human civilization can only exist on planetary surfaces.  Jerry also looked at the work of scientists in generating solar energy from satellites constructed by the inhabitants of such space colonies.

The best position for space colonies, Jerry suggested, was in L5 – an orbit around the Earth at the same distance as the Moon but 60 sixty degrees to one side.  They would be constructed from lunar materials and the new Skylon spaceplane being developed could be used in the building process.  Jerry also discussed the long term possibilities of space colonization and in this regard mentioned one of the novels of Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama.  A similar concept to the World Ships that Gerry had mentioned earlier in the day, the use of the larger Island Three colonies could lead to a twenty thousand increase in the human population of the solar system even if only confined to the space around L5.

Mat explained that he had created a model of the Island One space colony for a programme called “Spaceships of the Mind” which he later gave to Dr O’Neill. He saw the model later in a shot of Dr O’Neill in a magazine with the model on his desk!

The last speaker of the day, Piers Bizony, gave a presentation on 2001: A Space Odyssey, perhaps the most revered science fiction film of all time.  Piers contrasted the different approaches of the optimism of Arthur C. Clarke’s outlook of the future with that of the more sceptical, if not to say cynical, Stanely Kubrick in the film’s production.  He looked at, for instance, the contrast between the awe and excitement of a journey to the Moon with the reality as depicted in the film of Heywood Floyd falling asleep whilst the in flight entertainment shows a film of almost criminal banality.

Piers took us through the model work used in 2001 and the audience was surprised to learn that the model for Space Station V was some eight feet in diameter.  It had been a superb day of talks and Piers’ presentation ensured we ended on a high note.

It had been an informative and entertaining day that encapsulated the BIS’ motto which is “From Imagination to Reality” and like many others in the audience I had certainly learned a great deal.