Michael Shermer´s brilliant "Moon Hoax"-debunk


By Michael Shermer

For those of you who saw the abysmal Fox program Thursday night, February 15, 2001 - "Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?," I hope you did not lose faith in the network that brings us the finest television show of the last several years--The Simpsons. I would love to tell you that it the show was a joke, like the one Fox did a few years ago about machines that take revenge on their owners--my favorite was the angry car that drove over a cliff; yeah, that's showing those bad humans who's boss! (Woody Allen has a funny routine similar to this, where his toaster, the building elevator, and other machines start making anti-Semitic remarks). Alas, this was a vintage Fox show that begins with the usual disingenuous disclaimer

"The following program deals with a controversial subject. The theories expressed are not the only possible explanation. Viewers are invited to make a judgment based on all available information."

That information, of course, is not provided. To cover themselves morally (legally, anyone can say anything in America, no matter how vacuous it may be) they had a "spokesperson" from NASA who was allegedly there to answer the claims of the no-moon conspiracy "theorists." (To call this a "theory" or these tofuheads "theorists" is to so butcher the language of science that I cannot stomach it. Let's just call them the "no-moonies.") Unfortunately, this NASA guy had obviously never read any of the conspiracy claims, or the answers to them, for this is the biggest no-brainer debunking in skeptical history that anyone who actually knew something about the Apollo space program could have handled.

What particularly angers me about it is that Fox Family already did a special on the moon conspiracy--I did it for Exploring the Unknown! And, irony on irony, our token actor voice was the same Mitch Pileggi from X-Files who narrated this special. (The docutainment formula by the way, followed by every one of these type shows on every network designed the same way by every production company is that you must have a "celebrity" voice for, get this, "credibility." Yeah, okay, this is America so I guess I understand . . . .) Of course, we should not shoot the messenger, for Mitch is an intelligent guy who happens to read scripts for a living. And for all he knew when he did his voice over, the slated NASA guy really was going to answer all the conspiracy claims.

So, let's go through this point by painful point, just in case the statistic at the top of the show--that 10 percent of the American public believes we never went to the moon--is accurate. DISCLAIMER (hey, I can have one too) The Skeptics Society motto from Spinoza--"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them"--does not apply here. Sorry, this conspiracy theory is so dumb that I think it best we adopt H.L. Mencken's observation that "one good horse laugh is worth a thousand syllogisms."

1. CLAIM The moon landing was faked on a movie set. Proof there are clearly two sources of light in the movies and stills taken on the moon. Since there is only one source of light in the sky (the sun) how can we explain the fact that even in shadows there is obvious "fill" light that illuminates various objects that, back lit from the sun, should be in near total darkness. Much of the show was spent on this point as they showed photo after photo, film after film, of "filled in" photos. Fill light is exactly what you would see on a studio set.

ANSWER Even granting that NASA's rocket scientists were too dumb to have thought of this and thus tipped their conspiracy hand to the no-moonies who, apparently, are smarter than rocket scientists, there were actually three sources of light on the moon the sun, the earth that reflects the sun's light, and the moon itself, also reflecting light. The albedo (reflectivity) of the earth is quite high because of the amount of clouds, so the sun acted as the light filler via the earth. And the moon was, to say the least, rather close, and also reflected light.

2. CLAIM The American flag was "waving" in the allegedly airless environment of the moon. How can this be? Proof film footage showing the astronauts planting the flag, with the flag clearly waving.

ANSWER Of course the flag was "waving" while the astronaut was fiddling with it back and forth as he jammed it into the hole. But the moment he let go of the flag, it mysteriously stopped waving. Umm, coincidence? I don't think so.

3. CLAIM There was no blast crater beneath the LEM lander. Proof photographs of the LEM with no blast crater and a NASA painting made before the first landing, showing what a NASA artist thought might happen when the LEM landed (big blast crater).

ANSWER (1) The LEM engine was variable--the astronauts could control the thrust and, of course, as they eased their way down to the surface they throttled back on the engine. (2) There was only a couple of inches of moon dust on the surface, beneath which was a solid surface that would not be effected by the blast of the LEM engine. Before Apollo 11 landed, there was much debate among scientists about the amount of moon dust that would have accumulated over billions of years. Some speculated that there could be several feet of dust, into which the LEM and the astronauts would sink. Others said just a few inches. The latter were right.

4. After the blast crator from the LEM engine was created, all the lunar dust around the LEM should have been displaced, yet there's Armstrong's footprint clearly imprinted into the lunar dust just a foot away from the LEM's landing pad. What gives?

ANSWER Again, the moon is airless, so the LEM engine blast did indeed send dust flying, after which it came back down because there is no wind to scatter it. The blast of dust happened mainly directly underneath the LEM engine.

5. If there was so much moon dust all over the place, being kicked up by the LEM engine, by the rover, by the astronauts, why is everything so clean?

ANSWER It wasn't. Moon dust was a problem because, in fact, it got all over everything and the astronauts spends hours after their moon walks cleaning their suits so as not to get the dust all over the interior of the LEM.

6. CLAIM When the top half of the LEM took off to return the astronauts to the command module, leaving the lower half sitting there on the moon's surface, there was no "blast" flame like we see on earth. The LEM just seems to leap off the base like it was yanked up by cables.

ANSWER First of all, you can clearly see in the film footage of the launch, that there IS quite a blast as dust and other particles go flying, even one piece right toward the camera. Second, there is no air on the moon, so there can be no blast "flame" like there is on earth. This is why rocket engines in space have to carry their own oxygen (in liquid form). Unlike jet engines that suck in air, rockets carry all the chemicals they need and mix them at the time the "burn" is required. And "burn" is not quite the right term, since it implies a "flame" should be present. In space there can be no flame because there is no oxygen to fuel a flame tail coming out of the rocket nozzle. All that is happening is that chemicals being stored in separate containers are being released together to cause a reaction, the energy from which flows out rapidly through a nozzle, after which Newton's law of "equal and opposite reaction" takes over.1

7. On earth, the LEM lander simulator used by the astronauts for practice was obviously unstable. In fact, shortly before the Apollo 11 flight Neil Armstrong barely escaped with his life as his simulator crashed and he ejected just seconds before impact. Imagine how tricky it would have been to land the actual LEM, with two astronauts shifting around inside and all that additional weight. Fox even managed to find a physicist named Ralph Rene who proclaimed that it would have been impossible to land the LEM because of its inherent instability.

ANSWER Armstrong did indeed barely escape with his life in the simulator. But practice makes perfect, and these guys practiced, and practiced, and practiced until they got it down. A bicycle is also inherently unstable. The damn thing just falls over standing still, and even moving it topples over after a few meters of pedaling, UNTIL YOU LEARN HOW TO RIDE IT! Plus, and these no-moonies never seem to get this, what happens on earth is not the same as what happens on the moon. Air on earth, no air on the moon. Lots of gravity on the earth, a lot less gravity on the moon. Things big and heavy on earth will be big and light on the moon. And we can even calculate exactly how much different! These NASA scientists were so good they even calculated the effects of the gravitational pull from large and irregular moon masses as the LEM flew closely over them.

8. There are no stars in the moon sky, yet when you look up at night from earth you see lots of stars.

ANSWER How many stars do you see in photographs taken at night, on earth, of terrestrial objects? That's right. None. Well, okay, MAYBE you'll see Venus, but that's not a star. If you want to shoot stars in the night sky you have to aim your camera and leave the shutter open for at least several seconds. The astronauts were not there to take pictures of the sky. Also, since it is very bright on the moon (no air to scatter the sunlight) and the astronauts were wearing white space suits, the camera F-stop would have been set way down, and the shutter speed quite fast. Stars are too faint to appear on the film emulsion.

9. If you run the moon film footage at double speed it looks like it was filmed on earth, ergo it WAS filmed on earth.

ANSWER Balderdash! Double speed doesn't look at all like it was filmed on earth. I might have missed their explanation for this because I was laughing so hard, but that's what they said.

10. Why are the photographs so nicely framed and in focus, etc.

ANSWER Because these are the few photographs that we get to see from the thousands of photographs taken. There is a beautiful book released last year with some of the very best moon photographs. It is magnificent. One glance through it makes it clear that these photographs were indeed taken on the moon which was aptly described by Buzz Aldrin as "magnificent desolation."

11. The Van Allen radiation belts surrounding the Earth would have fried the astronauts with a lethal dose of radiation.

ANSWER Wrong. If you blast right through the Van Allen belts it is no problem, which is what the Apollo astronauts did. X-rays would be lethal too, if you sat there soaking in them long enough. A very real problem, however, are cosmic rays. They are not a problem on a short flight like to the moon, but in long flights that might last years, like to Mars, they could be a serious problem.

12. NASA murdered Gus Grissom and the other Apollo 1 astronauts, along with a bunch of other astronauts in assorted other "accidents," because they were about to go public with the hoax.

ANSWER The show began by saying that the moon conspiracy was hatched late in the game when NASA realized they would never make it, yet we are to believe that years before they had been planning the hoax, Grissom caught on to it and decided to go public, and then they killed him. But that's not the real answer here. The real answer is that, like most conspiracy theories, there is no positive evidence in support, only negative evidence in the form of "they covered it up." Like the curse of the mummy, anyone who died within 20 years of the discovery of Tut's tomb, died because of the curse, not because people die. Let's face it, being a test pilot and an astronaut is not the safest job in the world. People died because it is an inherently dangerous job.

13. NASA managed to keep all this a secret for all these years with tens of thousands of people keeping their mouths shut. This from the same NASA folks who were too stupid to remember to set up the movie set properly so as to account for the proper light, blast crator, etc.

ANSWER I once asked G. Gordon Liddy (who should know) about conspiracy theories. He said three people can keep a secret as long as two of them are dead. To think that thousands of people would keep their mouths shut is too ridiculous to consider.

14. NASA STUPIDITY Going to the moon is very, very hard. Look at all those rockets that blew up in the 1950s and early 1960s, and all those other problems to solve. Space travel is an insoluble problem. Ergo, NASA could not have solved it.

ANSWER There is no question that NASA, as a gigantic bureaucracy, is capable of mistakes and flubs, and perhaps even a few cover-ups. But this argument reminds me of the pyramidiots who think that the Egyptians were too inept to have built the pyramids. Their reasoning goes like this "if I can't think of how they did it then they couldn't have thought of it either, ergo they didn't do it." It is really an indictment of the claimants own limited thinking skills.

15. ART IMITATES FICTION I cannot let this end without one trivial observation the Fox show began with footage from a conspiracy movie from 1978 in which the astronauts are asked to fake a landing on the moon because NASA realized they could never pull it off and if they didn't their budget would be cut, etc., The film was entitled Capricorn One, and the astronauts refused to cooperate so NASA tried to have them killed. But I noticed that Fox was most discrete in not showing the actors playing the astronauts one of them was O.J. Simpson who, in the film just like on the football field and in Brentwood, showed his amazing ability to cut and run . . . .

RATING OF FOX Two thumbs down to Fox for not providing the above explanations, for setting up a lame duck as a NASA expert who didn't know the explanations, and for pretending that this was a balanced show about a real theory that people allegedly take seriously.

RATING OF NASA Two thumbs up for solving an insoluble problem. Now, quit wasting our money growing tomatoes 200 miles up when we should be making blast craters, leaving footprints, and taking photographs on Mars by now. Ad astra!!

1 More serious was a statement I made in the June issue about a Fox
   television program claiming that the moon landing was faked. I said
   that the lunar lander rocket showed no exhaust because there is no
   oxygen-rich atmosphere on the moon. I was partially wrong. The lack
   of an atmosphere plays a minor role; the main reason is that the
   lander's engine used hypergolic propellants that burn very cleanly. In
   both instances, readers were kind enough to provide constructive
   criticism. Excerpted from Michael Shermer's column appearing in
   the October 2001 edition of Scientific American.

Copyright 2001 Michael Shermer, Skeptics Society, Skeptic magazine, e-Skeptic magazine (www.skeptic.com and skepticmag@aol.com). Permission to print, distribute, and post with proper citation and acknowledgment. Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, the Director of the Skeptics Society, the host of the Skeptics Science Lecture Series at Caltech, and a monthly columnist for Scientific American.


E-Skeptic February 19 Follow up and Corrections

Capricorn One movie was about a faked landing on Mars, not the moon, but for some reason my brain sent out signals to my fingers to type out moon, I suppose because moon was on my mind. Sorry. Finally, G. Gordon Liddy's comment to me that "Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead" comes from Poor Richard's Almanac, not from the G-man himself!

Patt Morrison from the Los Angeles Times and PBS's KCET writes: Now we know why there's only one letter difference between ''moon'' and ''moron.''


POLL DATA ON AMERICAN'S WHO BELIEVE THIS NONSENSE. From a reader: Amazingly enough, they claimed not just 10 percent, but *20* percent. According to this poll http://www.gallup.com/poll/releases/pr990720.asp the number is actually about 6 percent. And they note that about that percentage of people will end up saying yes to almost any poll question asked.

FILL-IN LIGHT. From a reader: In the close-up and medium shots (like those taken of of Aldrin on Apollo XI), I think a lot of the fill-in was reflection from the photographer's own white suit. Consider that when pros are shooting swimsuit models on the beach, they often just use big white sheets as reflectors for fill-in illumination. The reflected sunlight on the moon will be even brighter, of course, since it is not filtered by atmosphere.

WAVING FLAG: I forgot to point out that, of course, the reason the flag on the moon sticks out at all is that there is a rod sewn into the top of the flag and attached to the pole.

MOON ROCKS: James Carroll adds: One subject not raised at all in the program was the more than 800 pounds of lunar rocks that astronauts brought back to Earth. Geologists worldwide have been examining these samples for 30 years, and the conclusion is inescapable. The rocks, clearly formed in the absence of oxygen and water, could not have been collected or manufactured on Earth.

An in-depth discussion of the analysis of Apollo lunar samples is available from the Lunar and Planetary Institute Web site.

LACK OF A BURN FLAME. Dr. Ed Uthman writes: Actually, I think this depends on the propellant. For instance, if solid rocket boosters burning aluminum and aluminum perchlorate had been used, there would have been a huge bright plume, just like we see on a Shuttle launch. The kerosene/liquid oxygen combination, as used on Atlas first stages, also is very bright. Other propellants, like liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen (Space Shuttle main engines and Saturn V second and third stages) or hydrazine-UDMH/nitrogen tetroxide (Gemini's Titan II booster), produce a near-invisible flame, even when burning in the earth's atmosphere. The ascent and descent engines of the Lunar Module use propellants similar to those of the Titan II, so the flame would be nearly invisible.

And this from Marc Tyler, a special effects expert: What effects guy worth his salt isn't going to have a huge plume of flame coming out the business end of a rocket motor!? I worked on the Sta-Puft Marshmallow-Man scene in Ghostbusters, and many others with pyrotechnics involved, and as any movie patron can attest, flame and fire is usually overdone, not underdone. The image of the LEM leaping into space is one of the most thrilling of my life.

CROSS HAIRS IN THE NASA PHOTOGRAPHS. I did not address this issue (that some of them appear to be blocked out by objects in the photographs, which should be impossible) because I did not have a good explanation. Two have been provided since. 1. Randy Cassingham of "This is True" fame points out that many NASA photographs from the moon are compositions of several photographs, which could explain why some of the cross-hairs seem to be partially cut off. 2. Perhaps some of the photographs were "washed out" by too much light, thus cutting off part of a cross hair. These may not be totally satisfactory so if someone actually knows please let me know and I'll post it.


An interesting debate on this question can be found by reading Robert

Zubrin's THE CASE FOR MARS and then Robert Park's VOODOO SCIENCE. This from David Ecklein and Marcosa Santiago on that subject:

We liked your mashing of the No-Moonies, but quibble with the last line (in RATING OF NASA). Sending manned spaceflight to Mars does not appear to be a reasonable project, from what we now know. It would not be a good "skeptic" who would encourage popular illusions along these lines; much better to promote unmanned flights (which have already returned many times the information provided by manned flights). Projecting a manned flight to Mars at this juncture is romanticism or demagoguery which ignores the real problems. If we want public support for a real space program, the skeptic's job should be to reveal the naked truth about manned spaceflights (including manned space stations and shuttles). The proposition that they are proposed and carried out for primarily scientific reasons is actually a bigger and more widespread hoax than anything the "No-Moonies" have come up with. Read the "Virtual Astronaut" section in "Voodoo Science" (Bob Park) for a full understanding of why we demur.

COMMENTS BY APOLLO ASTRONAUT BRIAN O'LEARY. On the Fox show Brian O'Leary made comments that indicated he thought it possible we never went to the moon, yet they also sounded like they had been edited so as to be taken out of context, along the lines of "yes, okay, so you think the Titanic sunk, but do you think it is POSSIBLE, no matter how remotely, that someone faked the whole thing, hypothetically speaking?" The space historian and commentator and UFO skeptic James Oberg posted this interesting reply from O'Leary:

In a February 17, 2001 email to former NASA astronaut Brian O'Leary ('67-'68 astronaut training program), I
included the following question. (He was informed his
answer would be distributed to the skeptical ommunity.)

       Dear Dr. O'Leary:

       Question: Regarding your comments on the Fox-TV special
       "Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?," do you
       feel the producers selectively took quotes from your
       interview in order to make it appear that you agree with
       the claim that the Apollo moon landings were hoaxed, or
       do you actually believe that a hoax took place?


       James A. Conrad
       Member, Tampa Bay (Florida) Skeptics
       (reply follows)
       ------Original Message------
       From: "Brian O'Leary" <oleary1998@yahoo.com>
       To: "James A. Conrad" <askjc@usa.com>
       Sent: February 18, 2001 2:30:49 PM GMT
       Subject: Re: Fox special - selectively quoted?

       Dear Mr. Conrad,

       I didn't see the show (I never know about these things
       until after they happen), but I believe Apollo did
       happen in its entirety (I was there), but have a small
       residual doubt about the landings themselves, because
       I didn't go, so who am I to know for sure, besides the
       official word and comments from my friends and
       colleagues who did go? Answers to my questions about
       activity on the lunar surface were answered strangely
       at times--hence a bit of doubt. These things are
       tricky to phrase right, and of course shows such as
       these do quote out of context.

       In this sense I guess you could call me a skeptic.

       Brian O'Leary, Ph.D.

       Does Fox exist? Here's a funny bit from the astronomer John
       Mosley from the Griffith Observatory:

       It was bound to get out out sooner or later that the Apollo
       program was a hoax, and one day I'll sell the story about my
       own modest role in the cover-up. It was pretty good, if you think
       about it a minute, that 600,000 government employees were able
       to keep a secret for 30 years -- until FOX found out. I guess we
       can all talk now.

       But that's nothing!

       World War I didn't happen! Most people believe the story they've
       been fed that millions and millions of men fought and died in Europe.
       Nope. Powerful forces want us to believe that, but actually it was
       faked. Only some horses were hurt in filming it (that was before
       animal rights groups were so strong). They're still paying pensions
       to alleged survivors and their descendants to keep the cover on it.

       But there's more!

       France doesn't exist! This story will break real big when FOX
       gets hold of it, and I can't talk about it until then. Most people
       have never been to France and they won't find it hard to believe
       that it  is a cover-up. It'll be tougher to convince all the tourists
       whoTHINK they went to France that it is part of an elaborate hoax.
       (NASA solved the same problem with the guys who think they went
       to the moon; its the same principle but just a different scale.) I'll
       reveal my own modest role in the hoax only after FOX has gone public.

       The REAL question is -- does FOX exist? I have evidence that
       aliens have taken over part of the electromagnetic spectrum, but
       that's all I can say . . . .